The Consequences of Doing Nothing

Rendering of proposed development at 1433-1437 Fourteenth St.

With the local campaign heating up in Santa Monica, so too is the rhetoric of competing visions for the future of the city.

While Santa Monica is in the midst of some significant changes, there is one loose affiliation of local voices with a vision largely based on not building anything and trying to preserve in amber the way life was in Santa Monica 20 years ago. These voices often shout above others, literally and figuratively, at local meetings, in letters to the editors, in local papers and media, and in internet comments. And, a few of the new council candidates are running on that message.

Our Santa Monica weekly column is supported by Bike Center in Santa Monica.

From projects as big as the proposed California high-speed rail system to things as small as allowing a grocery store to open in a vacant commercial space in Santa Monica, there are calls to halt — to not do anything — development in protest of potential impacts.

Sometimes grievances with new developments of various kinds are legitimate concerns. Sometimes they are loaded with hyperbole or half-truths (not that developers are saints in that regard, often touting more benefits than the reality).

The sheer volume of these voices gives them an illusion of being more representative of local sentiment than is necessarily the reality.

Moreover, projects are nearly always framed as though impacts, positive or negative, only come from developing a new project. Rarely are such arguments called out or framed by the trade-offs inherent in building, not building, or deciding how much to build. And, there is little discussion of the impacts of doing nothing.

There is a very real cost to doing nothing, and often the people who lose out the most by the preservation of the status quo are vastly underrepresented in the public process and discourse.

Take for instance the property at 1433-1437 14th Street, near where I live and which is proposed to become redeveloped into a 3-story condo building. The project just had a public hearing at the planning commission this past week.

There was no big pitchforks-style gathering as I had encountered at the first meeting for a proposed Fresh & Easy renovation of an existing vacant property, but a few of the usual complaints came up in public comments. No one particularly wanted the property on 14th to stay exactly as is, per say, but some suggestions from the public were made that building any more housing there, especially at three stories high, would have too great an impact on traffic.

If some of the new occupants that move in are people already working here but not living here, which I consider likely, traffic impacts on top of what the present baseline is may not even be an issue. The location is well-positioned for bike commuting, east/west Rapid bus lines, and is a walkable distance to a grocery store and the downtown. And, given the long-term trends, I think we may just be done with the growth of driving miles in the United States.

The property on 14th as it exists today, is a run-down former assisted living center that has been abandoned for years. It is a blight in the community that drains value and offers nothing in return.

Untitled
Glass paint graffiti at 1433 14th property before the doors and windows were fully boarded up.

Trash gets thrown around it; drunks walking by from the bar literally piss on it. The building has, at various times, had rats coming out of it, people squatting in it, and it has been flooded, causing mold. Before it was finally boarded up (after numerous reports of issues at the property), you could walk by and see abandoned wheelchairs inside. It wasn’t that uncommon to hear rumors in the neighborhood that the building was haunted — really.

This particular example is a little more extreme than most, but it illustrates clearly and directly that doing nothing has a cost and an impact.

Continuing to do nothing, as done in this case for years, means we would keep a plot of privately-owned city land that contributes no activity to the local economy (an opportunity loss cost), causes diminished value and quality of life to neighboring residences, and creates a dark, overgrown corridor that feels uncomfortable to walk along at night.

Not redeveloping this residential lot would also represent a lost opportunity to create housing and address the work/housing imbalance in Santa Monica. The market pressure of a workforce that has grown faster than new places to live contributes to a lopsided imbalance of people commuting into Santa Monica and pushes the cost of living up further. All of these factors and more should be considered when ever we talk about the trade-offs of development.

No (Yes) Trespassing
Glass paint graffiti at 1433 14th

Assuming this project moves forward, when new neighbors start moving in, my wife and I will give them a warm welcome. I look forward to more people walking 14th St. who have a stake in keeping the neighborhood pleasant, and an end to people taking advantage of an eyesore to dump trash and participate in who-knows-what illicit activities there.

There are cases of development truly running amok or creating unmitigated impacts (the Water Garden and Yahoo Center come to mind), and I do sympathize with many concerns some locals raise regularly against development issues. There are also serious life-altering dilemmas when redevelopment involves displacement of former residents. I don’t want to “Manhattanize” Santa Monica with big towers any more than anyone else, nor do I think hyper-density is necessary to have good, walkable urbanism. I’ve spent some time in lovely walkable/bikeable cities with good transit service where very few buildings topped 3 stories in height.

I regularly oppose or call to change projects myself, from the enormously costly public works projects like the 405 widening that will offer questionable benefit, to overbuilding on local parking garages, private and public, which I view as the real fertility drug of car traffic, not more housing for people (to borrow a line from Donald Shoup). We shouldn’t build just for the sake of doing so, and not all projects are worth doing. But change is necessary. The auto-centric and sprawled way we’ve arranged our society for the past half a century is model that won’t last — it is inherently unsustainable. Any new development should have that in mind.

However, if we are going to have an honest conversation about development, we need to drop the hyperbole of calling a pedestrian-oriented grocery store occupying an existing building “a traffic nightmare,” or a hotel expansion an asteroid coming to destroy life on planet Santa Monica.

We have to acknowledge that doing nothing, or wrapping projects in red tape for so long a developer might as well have proposed nothing, is not without its own direct and indirect impacts as well. In most cases, the downsides of doing nothing are not so stark as the visible decay of the property on 14th over the years, but there are consequences for every action and inaction.

Doing nothing affects some people’s lives in negative ways, by limiting housing or jobs, sometimes for people who may or may not have even heard of a project to develop or redevelop a site. Doing nothing affects the economic competitiveness of the city in various ways that are difficult to fully quantify. We may be booming and sitting on a AAA credit rating now, but Santa Monica has had its low moments in the past, and had to completely reinvent itself following the decline of the local aerospace industry.

With many California municipalities going bankrupt recently, the state cutting funding sources our city had assumed into budget, and our own credit rating under review, we cannot afford the arrogance of assuming good times roll forever. We have to be responding to changes in the macroeconomic landscape, and the clear indicators that demand for walkable urbanism are spiking, driven by social, economic, and demographic shifts. When I come back from towns in the U.S. that are dying from the inside out from lack of investment, out-migrating populations, and boarded-up Main Streets, I count myself fortunate we still hear hammers around Santa Monica.

I believe we can ensure new development is smarter, adding more to the city than the sum of its parts, without lowering quality of life for residents or stifling new opportunities to live here and do business. Getting closer toward that balanced outcome, however, requires a nuanced discussion of trade-offs, streamlining what we can mostly agree on, and not attempting to bludgeon every single project that pops up like a whack-a-mole.

(For more information about the city council race in Santa Monica, who the candidates are and their stances on various issues, check out the Santa Monica official election page, SMVote.org, with candidate videos and statements, the Daily Press coverage and questionnaires, Meet the Candidates posts on The Look Out News and a questionnaire published in the Mirror.)

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for this good summary and comparison of legitimate concern about development versus NIMBYism. I had good laugh about the Fresh & Easy… a merchant being able to open a business without Gregg Heacock getting to decide how many cashiers they should employ, the horror!

    The lack of new housing development in SM, and on the Westside in general, has very severe consequences, as anyone can see from the traffic going west on the 10 and south on the 405 from the valley in the morning. Thousands of people in retail/service jobs simply can’t afford to live in the area.

    We should also note that even if the NIMBYs get their wish and nothing new is ever built in Santa Monica, traffic might still get worse, because housing will keep getting more expensive, forcing people to commute from further and further away, and because commercial space will keep getting more and more expensive, forcing some businesses to locate further and further away.

    To me, this issue reveals the “sustainable Santa Monica” theme to a farce. How can we claim to be a sustainable city when we force a large portion of the working population to commute such long distances?

  • Davistrain

    Sounds like Santa Monica has not just NIMBYs, but also BANANAs: Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody.  I call it the Lake Wobegon mindset: Some people want their towns to be like the village in Minnesota that Garrison Keillor used to spin tales about on “A Prairie Home Companion”.  We had some South Pasadena citizens who were aghast at the idea of Gold Line light rail trains traveling through their town at speeds faster than a horse-drawn buggy.  Fortunately they’ve been ignored and, for the most part, forgotten.

  • Anonymous

    The voter pamphlet has almost nothing but city council candidates who think all this town needs is more parking. Bunch of decrepit minds stuck in the 70’s it would seem.

  • PC

    “There are cases of development truly running amok or creating unmitigated impacts (the Water Garden and Yahoo Center come to mind), and I do sympathize with many concerns some locals raise regularly against development issues.”

    OK, but the thing is…it’s really really important to understand that it goes a lot deeper than just “there are cases of…” Development usually runs amok. Development usually creates unmitigated impacts. Development is usually fuck-ugly, placeless, environmentally unsound, and out of tune with its surroundings. To react to news of proposed development with dread and fear, then, is *not an irrational reaction*.

    When people react this way, it’s not because they “fear change” or are mired in the past; it’s because they know what to expect. They’ve seen this kind of change before. It’s the same every time. It’s always for the worst. Why should they believe you when you say that it’s going to be different this time?

    Maybe it’s not fair to you as a proponent of “sustainable”/new urbanist infill that sixty years of soul-crushingly awful development have soured people on any change at all, but there it is. The burden of proof is on you. Sell it harder, I guess.

  • PC

    BTW, the rendering of the proposed project on 14th doesn’t show much distinction from the typical tacky “cash-in condos” that developers were puking out on every other urban block at the peak of the housing bubble. That’s probably not helping it win friends in the neighborhood.

  •  What do you mean by “development”?  I understand “development” to mean any construction of buildings of any sort.  But maybe you use the word in a different way?  If you think that there are some buildings that are not “fuck-ugly, placeless, environmentally unsound, and out of tune with its surroundings”, then we should figure out how those buildings were built, and figure out if we can get the 14th St project to be built in that way.  I don’t care if we call it “development” or not – I’d like vacant properties to turn into something that helps the neighborhood.

  • PC

    Yes–the construction of new buildings (and associated infrastructure) of any sort. Development. And my salient point is that the overwhelming majority of it in the United States for many decades has been repellent for some combination of the reasons I mentioned.

    That means that there are millions and millions of adult Americans who have literally never witnessed in their neighborhood the construction of a building that wasn’t some mix of cheap, tacky, jarring, outsized, pedestrian-hostile, etc. etc. With that in mind, I think it’s fairly obvious that suspicion and dread are rational, not irrational, reactions for a layperson hearing news of potential development in her neighborhood.

    Oh, but you’re different? You’re “green”? You’re a “placemaker”? A “new urbanist”? It’ll Be Different This Time©? Fine. Prove it. Not to me–to them! But don’t get upset with them for thinking that you’re just interested in shitting out another garish stucco box, taking the cash, and moving on. After all, that’s what literally every other developer they’re ever dealt with planned to do…

  • Bhines

    “per se”.

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