Ballot Box Rebellion

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Posted October 26, 2016 by The Argonaut in News
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Armen Melkonians asks Santa Monica voters to put the brakes on new development

By Gary Walker

Armen Melkonians speaks during a recent Santa Monica election debate. Photo by Ted Soqui. Design

Armen Melkonians speaks during a recent
Santa Monica election debate. Photo by Ted Soqui. Design

Whoever said you can’t fight city hall hadn’t met residocracy.org founder Armen Melkonians.

Through his staunchly anti-development online civic engagement platform, Melkonians — a relative newcomer to Santa Monica — pulled off an unprecedented political upset in 2014: killing the Hines Project.

At 765,000 square feet, the planned mixed-use development near Bergamot Station had been narrowly vetted by city council members after years of debate. In just a few months, Melkonians and his Residocracy allies collected more than 13,000 signatures to qualify a ballot referendum against the project, and council members quickly rescinded their approval to avoid what one described as “bloodletting” at the ballot box.

Melkonians is back at it with Measure LV, an initiative on the Nov. 8 ballot that would require a majority of Santa Monica voters to approve nearly all multi-family residential or commercial development projects that would exceed a height of 32 feet.

“Measure LV draws a line in the sand. It asks who’s on the side of the residents and who’s on the side of the special interests,” Melkonians said. “I see this as a movement of residents rebelling against the establishment and an attempt to get them to listen to the people.”

Others see Measure LV as an extreme and reckless plan that would stifle economic growth and cement housing scarcity for years to come.

“I disagree with the idea of ballot box planning — especially in Santa Monica, given the tough choices that people on all sides have had to make regarding development and slow growth for the last 20 years,” said Frank Gruber, a former city housing and planning commissioner who’s lived in Santa Monica for 33 years.

Measure LV would exempt projects that are 100% affordable housing or 100% senior housing, but critics counter that gutting opportunities for market-rate housing would eliminate the feasibility of most affordable housing, and that LV fails to ensure that senior housing would be affordable.

Two local political action committees — the Santa Monica Forward Issues Committee and HOME (Housing Opportunity for a Modern Economy) Santa Monica — had already spent nearly $1 million to oppose Measure LV as of Oct. 18.

By comparison, Measure LV proponents had raised less than $60,000 for the cause, forcing a scrappy campaign of DIY phone-banking and public tabling.

The hands-on approach has led to some angry confrontations between Measure LV backers and opponents, including an Oct. 8 clash wbetween supporters and a council incumbent at Clover Park.

Residocracy’s hardline outsider approach has prompted comparisons to the establishment-bashing supporters of the Tea Party and Republican Donald Trump, which Melkonians resents.

“That’s been their tactic during the campaign,” he said. “The furthest that you can get from Donald Trump is Santa Monica. They’re just trying to vilify the movement,” he said.

LONG ODDS

Melkonians and his supporters face a goliath coalition of elected officials, community activists, environmental organizations, developers and real estate investors working to defeat Measure LV.

The city’s public safety unions, the Santa Monica Police Officers Association and the Santa Monica Firefighters Local 1109, are also actively opposing Measure LV.

“Measure LV is too extreme for the city and sets arbitrarily low height limits citywide, which would result in the need for elections for even sorely needed, reasonable developments,” the unions said in a joint statement.

Between 1,300 and 1,700 properties have residential uses that Measure LV would not exempt from voter approval, according to the unions, which also site public safety concerns in the event of a major earthquake.

“Delaying reconstruction of buildings after any large-scale disaster not only negatively affects the residents who live in the buildings but hinders public safety for all of Santa Monica, as uninhabited structures are magnets for squatters and other criminal behavior,” the statement reads.

Melkonians says he’s tracked visits to residocracy.org from as far away as Texas and China.

“It tells me that the financial interests here and overseas are interested. And it tells me that we’re on to something,” he said. “I feel very confident that Measure LV will pass, even though we have over a $1 million being spent against us.”

In addition to writing and backing Measure LV, Melkonians is also one of 10 candidates running for four Santa Monica City Council seats up for grabs on Nov. 8. He describes the measure and his council candidacy as inexorably linked, which could either work for or against him.

“I think it’s impossible to separate the two. Some of Measure LV’s opponents think there is some kind of conflict, but I disagree,” Melkonians said. However, “My biggest success would be the passage of Measure LV. A secondary success would be if I were elected to the City Council.”

Melkonians traces his rise from political observer to organizer back to some of Santa Monica’s most controversial land-use votes in recent memory.

BIRTH OF A MOVEMENT

Melkonians said he did not consider himself a “political” person when he moved from West Los Angeles to Santa Monica in 2010, but after attending a few city council meetings, he began to feel that city leaders’ rhetoric on development did not square with their collective actions.

“They didn’t seem genuine. Their discussions didn’t match their votes. They would say one thing and then vote another way,” Melkonians said during a lunchtime interview last week at Fast Taco restaurant on Ocean Park Boulevard.

Then he started reading environmental impact reports and development agreements, and he did not like what he saw.

The last straws for Melkonians were the council’s approval of the Hines Project — “just too big and dense,” he said — and decision to relocate residents of the Village Trailer Park on Colorado Avenue for construction of high-end housing.

“Village Trailer Park was a big turning point. The only thing that I regret was that we didn’t have the concept of Residocracy yet so we could have stopped that project,” Melkonians said.

“That democratic bug in me began to get angrier and angrier, wanting them to do the right thing. Policy of the council should reflect the will of the residents, not the special interests,” he said. “So that’s when I created Residocracy.”

Soon after, he said, “I sensed there were people who saw things the way I did, and that was encouraging.”

THE CASE FOR LV

Measure LV’s highest-profile supporter is AIDS Healthcare Foundation President Michael Weinstein. Weinstein is funding the Neighborhood Integrity Act, a Los Angeles city initiative on the March 2017 ballot that would place a two-year moratorium on major developments and revamp city planning policies to favor lower-density development and slow growth.

“We took a look at the incredible impact on fairly unrestrained development In Santa Monica. It’s unfortunate that it had to go all the way to the ballot,” Neighborhood Integrity Act campaign director Jill Stewart said. “It seems like the developers are still prevailing in many areas.”

Santa Monica resident Thomas Epley has witnessed the changes in traffic and congestion over the last 15 years, and like many others he’s grown weary of it.

“There are times that it takes almost an hour just to go down Ocean Avenue during afternoon rush hour,” he said.

Epley is supporting Measure LV because city officials “have refused to consider engineering methods that can help mitigate traffic. And the city council has continued to promote development that is incompatible with our city,” he said. “There’s only one way to stop it and that’s [Measure LV].”

Sunset Park resident Zina Josephs said the time has come to put the brakes on runaway development.

“When Measure LV passes, after large development projects go through the regular approval process, they will also require voter approval. Similar measures adopted in other cities have slowed down the development feeding frenzy. That’s what we want: to preserve the character of our beautiful beach city,” Josephs said.

The slow-growth Santa Monica Coalition for a Liveable City recently endorsed Melkonians and Measure LV.

The coalition “predicted this out-of-control development would happen. And what we’re seeing now is sort of like an ‘Arab Spring.’ Now we’re actually seeing it happen,” Melkonians said.

THE CASE AGAINST LV

Measure LV is too extreme and full of unintended consequences, said Santa Monica City Councilman Kevin McKeown — himself a longtime slow-growth advocate.

McKeown takes issue with a project height limit of just 32 feet triggering a vote — especially downtown, where city leaders have planned for a denser but automobile-free landscape in coming years — and also warns that developers would be able to exploit loose language in Measure LV.

“Ironically, one loophole would have let the Hines project that helped start this mess go forward by right, without a vote of residents,” McKeown said.

Santa Monica Forward Issues Committee NO on LV campaign spokesman Jason Islas argues that the ballot measure is just too risky.

“It trumps the city’s ‘right to rebuild’ clause. It’s a completely absurd risk. Why run the risk of voters not approving these kinds of projects? … I think it’s irresponsible to subject the city’s public safety to these kinds of risks,” Islas said.

Both he and McKeown point to the city’s approval of a new fire station that will be at least 40 feet tall.

“If Measure LV  passes, it could require waiting up to two years for an election [to approve] the critically needed new fire station downtown, just because it’s over 32 feet,” McKeown said.

Melkonians countered that the fire station is already approved, and thus would be grandfathered in if Measure LV passes.

Islas takes issue with Measure LV supporters’ contention that it will improve traffic rather than simply lock in the status quo.

“It’s disingenuous and dishonest to claim that stopping development would make a dent in the traffic situation. It claims to do things that it really doesn’t,” he said.

McKeown said there are smarter alternatives to Measure LV that won’t throw decades of planning and public engagement out the window.

“Putting development agreements to a popular vote, in contrast, would restrain overdevelopment while honoring the decade-plus of community participation in shaping our zoning code — allowing reasonable housing, and avoiding obstacles to post-disaster reconstruction,” he said.

ALL-OR-NOTHING POLITICS

Melkonians dismisses his critics as being part of the city’s political class, noting how much money is being spent to defeat his measure.

“Look at where the money is coming from and from whom,” he said.

Gruber counters that spending by real estate interests is simply logical self-preservation, and that spending shouldn’t cast a shadow over the motivations of city leaders opposed to Measure LV for other reasons.

“LV would put these [development] companies out of business,” Gruber said.

“And we saw with the airport measure that spending money on elections in Santa Monica does not always buy you a win,” Gruber added, referring to a losing 2014 ballot initiative to keep Santa Monica Airport open that received more than $500,000 in backing.

Less than two weeks from Election Day, Melkonians said he doesn’t think there will be many projects that will need approval by residents if his initiative is successful.

“Developers are going to go to another city where they can buy other city councils,” he said with a laugh.

Melkonians acknowledged that there have been contentious confrontations between supporters and opponents of Measure LV, but given its potential to reshape city planning he isn’t surprised.

Islas said he sees the Measure LV campaign as less of a rebellion against Santa Monica City Hall than a local symptom of the kind of political vitriol breeding nationally.

“I see this as a real threat to our city. This has hit new levels of contention, and I think it is reflective of the national [political] debate,” he said. “It’s very poisonous, this all-or-nothing kind of politics. Measure LV proponents are being harassed, and if we can’t disagree civilly there will be lasting consequences.”

Win or lose, Melkonians said the campaign has been worth every long day and night spent in meetings, planning campaign strategy and keeping his supporters engaged.

“There’ve been a lot of sleepless nights,” he said. “I’m looking forward to Nov. 9, when I can get a good night’s sleep.”

gary@argonautnews.com

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8 Comments


  1.  
    Jessica

    The ironic thing is, Measure D’s language wasn’t about keeping the Airport open, it was about having the residents of Santa Monica vote on any large scale development projects – very similar to LV, which Residocracy did not support… Ironic, don’t you think?




  2.  
    florrie

    Bravo! I will definitely vote Yes for LV……….hope all city council members get dumped………been selling Santa Monica out for a very long time!!




  3.  
    Douglas Fay

    Thank you Argonaut for covering Armen’s perspective. He has the fire and vision similar to the legendary Tom Hayden. We are fighting blatant political corruption and greed. I’ve suggested we need Residocracy in every city throughout Los Angeles County. Power to the people! As a former candidate for LA County 3rd District Supervisor and Santa Monica resident, I’m voting Yes on LV and for Armen Melkonians for City Council. Current elected officials don’t give a damn about smart growth, sustainability, and quality of life for existing and future residents.




  4.  
    Ruta

    Good job covering this issue, Argonaut. As a 40 year resident of Santa Monica I am all in for what Armen Melkonians is seeking to accomplish. One often hears that local politics is what we should be paying more attention to and Measure LV certainly has me engaged. While we weren’t paying attention our beautiful city has morphed into a place we don’t recognize. Slow it down!




  5.  

    Florrie & Douglas,
    Thank you for your comments. Please contact me if you would like to get more involved.




  6.  

    Hi Everyone:
    Greetings from the California Central Coast, the latest stop in the 5,000 miles my husband Peter Naughton and I have covered in the almost two years since the Council and Rent Control Board helped developers steal the home I bought in 1986 at Village Trailer Park, along with those 108 other families owned there. They also approved cutting down and mulching 200 mature trees and destroying the iconic passive solar mid-Century community room. The consultant the CITY hired said the project built in 1950 was a historical landmark on two–not just one as the law requires–bases of the City’s law. However, Dep. City Atty. Rosenbaum told the Landmarks Commission we were trying to get a “use” approved as a landmark–like Busy Bee Hardware–while landmarking required a property to be landmarked. The consultant then told them the property without any of the homes would still be landmarkable under the City’s law–how could that be a use?–but the City’s mind was made up.

    It also was made up in 2006, a year before there was ever a public meeting, as we found out later by a Public Records Act request. The City, advised by City Atty. Marsha Moutrie and Dep. City Atty Alan Seltzer, signed a “confidential” agreement to help the developers get the property out of rent control and demolish the homes, owned by separate families and covered separately by rent control. By the time it got to the RCB, they said their hands were tied and approved the then 9 years old deal.

    Planner Jing Yao wrote in the Environmental Impact Report that there was enough water in the City’s supply to support the fourfold increase in use in the new development, as was proved by an email–not even attached–from a colleague of hers in the Planning Department. She did not mention that the property has the highest liquefaction danger the state maps and has major earthquake faults in two directions within a mile.. Now Jason Islas and the others are worried about earthquakes?

    The City required developers to pay us $20,000 maximum to replace our homes, when the Rent Control law requires on-site replacement with the same amenities and rights to get the removal permit they got. On the day they did that, there was no comparable home in SM, much less on-site. The closest comparable in the same school district was $450,000.

    People had to go from Hemet to Upstate New York–or to Mountain View on the former City landfill on Stewart, where methane gas is coming up and causing houses to tilt, where the City Recycling Yard and maintenance yards and the 10 Freeway are all next door, with fumes, noise, dust, smells, and where nothing approaches comparability to VTP. That is why developers wanted the VTP land instead and the City now wants to sell Mountain View, but they pretended it was comparable for us to move to.

    Armen and Residocracy are the ONLY solution to this corrupt Council, and that this is so is indicated by the fact the Council only NOW claims there is some less extreme solution they never implemented in the last 30 years. Residocracy was there for us to help us as much as they could as soon as they could be, which was almost none considering their late start. They always listened, but it was too late, since the City made the deal with developers in 2006, four years before Armen moved to SM.

    If LV doesn’t pass, Kevin McKeown and all the others who are claiming whatever they are claiming about it now will have one excuse after another for the 100 other such travesties they approve. It is far past time to stop them before thousands of Santa Monicans far less able to take it than Peter and I are become homeless because these politicians and their rich friends care about themselves rather than Santa Monica.




  7.  
    Roger Swanson

    Follow the money supporting “No on LV”
    As a former management consultant with clients that ranged from small companies to large Fortune 500 companies, and the largest company in Canada, one principle stood out when trying to understand a business: Follow the money!

    So, let’s unwrap the “No on LV” package:

    First some basics: Increased height, plus density, equal higher land values; this often translates into what is called economic rents, that is, profits beyond what is needed to justify a project. Another basic is that most low-density projects create less traffic than higher density ones.

    Investment in “No on LV” has a Return on Investment, otherwise why spend the money? The financial statements of the “No on LV” supporters show companies headquartered in Nevada, Georgia, Rhode Island, state of Washington, and Beverly Hills, to name a few, spending money to influence a vote in Santa Monica. The total “No” contributions exceed $1.2 million. Trust me, companies don’t spend that amount of money unless they expect to receive a substantial return.

    Pro-growth City Council members over the years relied on “pay to play”, using developer money to finance their campaigns. The Transparency Project studied this and reached the same conclusion. Why did many of these candidates receive a majority/significant share of their contributions from outside interests? Who were their constituents? The residents, or developers living outside of Santa Monica?

    Finally, why did the pro-growth Council members support the explosion of office construction that left the City with traffic gridlock and little additional affordable housing? Pay to play? It should be noted that office buildings are high yielding investments without the headaches of residential housing. Another developer win?

    Look no further than the voter cancelled Hines project and the shenanigans of the Village Trailer Park (VTP). These developers made money on both projects: VTP tossed out seniors from their homes in order to enrich the developer, and Hines sold the property, which is currently being renovated under “by-right” zoning that limits height. Both the original Hines and the VTP were “sold” on the basis of providing more “affordable housing”. But, at what cost to the community? And, who profited? The VTP developers made a reported $50 million on their $5 million investment.

    A brief side note: If you are receiving your mail delivery much later than normal, think about all the “No on LV” mailers. I get about half a dozen a day. Multiply that times other residents on your postal workers route and you get the picture. Do the people sending these mailers think you are so stupid as to need a half dozen reminders a day in order for you to vote “No”? They are mocking your intelligence!

    What’s worse, the “No on LV” folks are spreading unwarranted, false fears about the future. If, as the “No” folks claim, there were any impediments to rebuilding after a major earthquake, it would take about three nanoseconds for the residents to fix that. But, there is no fix for an overbuilt City that is straining its infrastructure, shaped by traffic gridlock. Enough of this nonsense!

    Bottom Line:
    Vote “YES” on LV if you believe that Santa Monica residents should control the destiny of our future growth, not outside entities seeking economic “rents”!

    Roger Swanson
    Ocean Park Resident





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