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NEWS ANALYSIS : The Only Thing That Developed Was Chaos : City Council: It was prearranged harmony--a public display of SMRR's restored unity. But the scripted agreement on development standards had a surprise ending. Now the city is faced with little time to do much about its zoning dilemma.

June 06, 1993|NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA MONICA — Did you catch "The Ken and Judy Show" Tuesday night?

That's Santa Monica Mayor Judy Abdo and Councilman Ken Genser, who performed a marathon duet at the City Council meeting.

The two were clearly singing harmony as they unveiled an obviously prearranged compromise they had struck over the citywide commercial development standards.

It went like this: Abdo called on Genser each time a new subject arose. He offered an amendment. She said, "That's friendly."

And so on for hours.

Until it blew up in their faces, leaving the staff stunned and the city stranded without new development standards and very little wiggle room to enact them before a looming deadline.

Here's what happened.

The city has been operating for five years under an "emergency" moratorium on commercial development, which expires at the end of the month. That means property owners have been unable to develop their land for all that time.

(Any new commercial construction seen in the past few years in Santa Monica was approved before the development blackout.)

Five years is unusually long for such a moratorium; officials say they know of no other city that has had one of such duration. And the city's top lawyer finds it worrisome.

City officials say a five-year "emergency" is apparently hard to sell in court if developers sue. The word emergency "implies a certain temporariness," explained acting City Atty. Joe Lawrence, who has repeatedly warned the council that extending the ban further could put the city in an untenable legal position.

But that was all supposed to be resolved at Tuesday's meeting. No one expected fireworks, because the standards were thought to be a "done deal": The council had voted for the amount of development they wanted in various zones of the city a month ago, and Tuesday's proceedings were expected to be little more than a formality.

Several days before the meeting, however, an unexpected sequence of events upset the apple cart, and a bid for unity spawned chaos.

Rifts have existed in the city's powerful renters' rights movement for several years, traced to battles over two ill-fated developments--a beach hotel project and a large office complex at Santa Monica Municipal Airport.

Although the disagreements were patched up enough to allow the renters' coalition to remain in power in last November's council election, the cracks have been showing again in a most public way. Responding to published reports of open warfare among the council members they helped elect, the steering committee of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) called a meeting late last month. According to several sources, council members were rebuked about their antics and overall lack of accord.

SMRR-aligned council members Abdo, Genser and Paul Rosenstein were told by the leaders of their political alliance that further public squabbling would harm the group's election prospects. They now are part of a 5-2 majority on the council, which often doesn't help if the five can barely agree on what day it is.

As it happened, the development standards were on the agenda of the first council meeting after the SMRR unity session. The standards thus became a convenient issue on which the warring council members could display their supposedly repaired relationship.

Predictably, the proposed standards have been the target of criticism. Some business people said the standards, significantly tougher than the last citywide zoning standards set in 1988, were too strict. The stringent slow-growthers thought they were too lenient.

By most accounts, Abdo agreed after the SMRR committee meeting to make some concessions to Genser on the zoning standards, even though her more moderate views had carried the day a month earlier.

Abdo said that by reopening the deal, she also got more of what she wanted--incentives for housing. But most observers think Genser got by far the better bargain. He refused comment.

The details of the compromise were hammered out in a second private meeting a few days after the SMRR unity meeting. The city's surprised professional planning staff said they didn't see the wholesale changes until the morning of the council meeting.

The staffers hastily hand-drew a chart that depicted top-to-bottom changes in the zoning ordinance. It was passed out to council members after the meeting had already started, allowing no time for anyone to review it.

And of course, no one in the public could study it either.

But that wasn't supposed to matter, because the five SMRR council members were all lined up to approve the compromise after the "Ken and Judy Show" was over.

The show bombed, however, because the players misjudged their audience.

"Unity fell apart in two or three minutes," one observer said. But no one realized it at first; in fact, it took nearly five hours for the extent of the problem to reveal itself.

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