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Development Edges Rent Control as the No. 1 Political Issue : Santa Monica: A new age is dawning, pitting vocal pro-development and slow-growth factions against each other.

SANTA MONICA ELECTION ISSUES. Development: One in a series.

October 11, 1990|JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Santa Monica, as City Council candidate Sharon Gilpin sees it, has lost its way.

While pursuing the admirable goal of finding money to pay for an ambitious array of social services, she says, the progressive politicians who have been running the city have struck a "Faustian bargain" with developers. The city may get the money it needs, but the price is a steep one: Hotels, office and commercial developments are transforming the beach community into a congested urban center.

Nonsense, says City Councilwoman Christine Reed. Responsible development, aside from providing urgently needed revenue, keeps the city vibrant, she says.

Count on it: The election next month will usher in a new age in Santa Monica politics. A city long preoccupied with tenants' rights is moving on to other issues. And development has emerged as one of the big ones.

Even Assemblyman Tom Hayden, who spent a good portion of the 1970s helping to organize the coalition of tenants that came to be known as Santa Monicans for Renters Rights and who dominated city politics through the 1980s, thinks it is time to move on.

"I just believe that as rent control and SMRR dominated the '80s, the slow-growthers and the critics of development will dominate the '90s," Hayden, a Democrat who has represented Santa Monica in the Legislature since 1982, said in a recent interview.

On Nov. 6, voters will be given the chance to approve or reject two ballot measures that would impose wide-ranging curbs on development. Development issues also figure heavily in the City Council elections, where nine candidates are running for three seats.

Then there is the most contentious issue of all: a third ballot measure in which voters will approve or reject a single project that in some respects has come to embody the entire citywide debate over development.

The project is restaurateur Michael McCarty's proposed Santa Monica Beach Hotel and Community Center. McCarty wants to build a 160-room, $300-a-night luxury hotel on five acres of state-owned beach, where the private Sand and Sea Club operated until two weeks ago.

To make the project more attractive to the city, McCarty proposes to include an $11-million community center, which would include facilities for art and environmental education; a public beach club and cafe; meeting rooms; a playground, and an underground parking facility. The project would generate an estimated $3 million a year for the city.

The battle over McCarty's project is said to have resulted in the costliest election campaign in the city's history. McCarty's side alone had poured more than $135,000 into it as of Sept. 30 and will probably spend considerably more.

Hayden, who in recent years has generally stayed aloof from contentious local issues, created a stir during the summer and early fall when he entered the fray. Hayden said he chose to take a stand against the McCarty hotel because it would be built right on the beach, and on state land that he says should be used in a more public way. Also, he said, he was frustrated. "After a time," he said, "enough is enough."

The dispute has split the city's large liberal community. McCarty is a popular local figure who has been active in many philanthropic activities, and his supporters criticize Hayden for drawing the line on this particular project after having stayed out of earlier development squabbles. Where was Hayden, they ask, when four earlier hotels were being approved, or the huge commercial developments at the Water Garden and Colorado Place?

Hayden acknowledges being a latecomer on the issue.

"I also believe that while it is a fight worth fighting, that it is too late--that it is a battle to salvage some beauty rather than enhance it," he said. "It requires very strong measures because you are dealing with a quality of life that is almost in eclipse. People are leaving for Seattle every day."

McCarty, meanwhile, insists that the hotel and community center will have no serious adverse environmental impacts and notes that the project has been approved by all the necessary city agencies. But beyond that, he depicts it as a facility that will enhance the vitality of the city in much the way that the city's thriving Third Street Promenade has.

On the ballot itself, the development issue is anything but simple. There are the three confusing and somewhat contradictory ballot measures--Propositions S, T and Z, dealing with development in the city and on the beach. And there is also the City Council campaign, in which the candidates' attitudes toward development can be gauged in part by their positions on the ballot measures.

The candidate most on the spot is Christine Reed. As the only incumbent on the ballot, she is in the position of having to defend the decisions by a council majority to approve not only the McCarty project in August but other projects as well, including a massive and highly controversial commercial office development on city-owned land at Santa Monica Municipal Airport.

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