Movie Stars Think Small is Beautiful, Too
Voters in Malibu, California are deciding in tomorrow’s election whether to wrest control over the quality of their community from a system that has been failing them. While this kind of battle is near and dear to my heart as a GrowthBuster, I might not have learned about it were it not for the star power involved in the struggle. The photo below is from this New York Times story.
The star power is not the main story here, but it does have some relevance I’ll get into. In one corner we have Rob Reiner, a talented and very well known film director (The Bucket List, A Few Good Men, When Harry Met Sally, and This is Spinal Tap are but a few of his gems), who also has a long string of acting and producing credits. In the battle his support team includes Dick Van Dyke, Cher, Barbra Streisand, Steven Spielberg, James L. Brooks and Jeffrey Katzenberg. In the other corner we have…a real estate developer, and the Malibu “establishment.”
I’m sharing the story primarily because it provides a perfect demonstration of how real estate development and city land planning processes routinely collude to subjugate quality of life, and even sustainability, to the power of the almighty dollar. Observing and participating in land use conflicts in my own community, I had independently reached the same conclusions as John Mirisch, a former Beverly Hills mayor who wrote about this in his column, NIMBYs vs. Devstos and Denzos in Malibu, published in City Watch.
The debate is over Malibu Measure R, which would require any commercial project over 20,000 square feet in the city of Malibu be sent to voters for approval. It also includes a provision that would restrict the number of chain stores.
This TV news report offers a glimpse of the passions that typically fuel debates like this.
When you live a long time in a place you love, it can be frustrating to watch development destroy the very qualities that attracted you. Rob Reiner:
“I’ve had a house out here for 22 years and I’ve seen all this stuff develop, and I’m like, oh my God, it’s becoming unlivable out here.”
Only one of Malibu’s five city councilors supports the initiative. Skylar Peak, who also currently serves as the mayor:
“People have the right to make decisions about what happens in their small town.”
The developer, Steve Soboroff, argues that the current process, in which a development is scrutinized by city staff, planning commission and, ultimately, city council, adequately safeguards against overdevelopment. Soboroff suggested that if Rob Reiner wanted to effect change, he should “run for public office….”
Beverly Hills’ John Mirisch did just that. He wrote in City Watch:
“I was alarmed to see the bad decisions and overdevelopment that was causing the very special charm of my town to be eroded in a very distressing fashion. I saw that the System was indeed working — if you were a developer. But the System was failing the residents, for whom community character still meant something.”
Reiner’s ballot initiative is a natural reaction to a failing land use planning system. According to Mirisch:
“Measure R in Malibu attempts to change the equation and the narrative of how projects get approved. Instead of just convincing a group of sometimes jaded insiders about the merits of an application, developers of massive projects would need to make their case directly to the people whose neighborhoods would be impacted. This principle is a good one, because currently developers, with skilled lobbying and great connections at City Hall, often can completely bypass and ignore community members whose quality of life would be affected.”
In my early days opposing growth subsidies and imprudent public policies that pursued a growth-based prosperity strategy, I found it difficult to get large numbers of local, rank-and-file citizens to show up. When they did show up, they didn’t have the staying power of the developers. Mirisch:
“Normal residents, who are involved in their own lives and businesses, can almost never compete with the moneyed interests who work within and sometimes use the System so touted by Soboroff as working.”
“Developers can afford to spend time lobbying city staff, planning commissioners and city council members. In our city, developers often hire ex-mayors cum lobbyists/land use attorneys who have a record of success and all the right connections at City Hall. Developers can afford to have their own lobbyists at each planning commission and council meeting. Developers can wine and dine staff and sometimes commissioners and council members. For developers, the massive lobbying of staff, commissioners and council is simply part of the cost of doing business.”
In my hometown of Colorado Springs, the real estate developers have such a lock on the system that city planning and our municipal utility daren’t make a move without the approval of the local Housing and Building Association. The HBA has professional, full-time staff who are routinely notified of all pending matters that pertain to development. As a normal citizen I’ve never been able to successfully stay on the list of stakeholders notified of such matters.
Encinitas land use attorney Everett DeLano, quoted in one Malibu story:
“I’ve done land use and environmental litigation for years and one thing I hear is, ‘Boy, the City Council is not responsive to our concerns.”
Beverly Hills’ Mirisch reports:
“With this kind of full court press, it is all too easy for well-meaning council members to be co-opted or simply to give in….in practice it is difficult if not impossible to ensure that the residents’ rights are being protected. You shouldn’t have to, of course, but very often in practice you really can’t fight City Hall. It’s a bit like the House in Vegas.”
I’m sure some, especially those focused on social justice, will have a negative reaction to multimillionaires trying to “keep the riff-raff out of their gated communities.” I’m going to defend the Hollywood moguls in this case, because their struggle is really no different than struggles I’ve witnessed of people from all economic strata. The incessant, unrelenting march of growth inevitably threatens the quality of life, and even the health, of every citizen - from the homeless to the mega-rich.
Some will argue that they can’t slam the gate after they get their piece of nirvana. Some will say world – or California – population is growing; you have to put those people somewhere, even if that means putting them in a high-rise that blocks someone’s view. Let me ask why it’s okay to ask us to give up our views, give up our peace and quiet, give up eating meat, give up that spacious house on a suburban half-acre, put up with a drilling rig at the end of our cul de sac, give up a reasonable commute,… and ultimately even give up driving our cars; but it’s not okay to ask couples to choose a small family size on an overpopulated planet? Yes, we’ve now arrived at a situation in which the responsible thing to do is to give up all these things. But how did we get here? We’ve tap-danced around the overpopulation issue for so long that now we really do have no choice.
Moderators reportedly asked Rob Reiner whether the measure could be construed as “NIMBYism” (Not In My Back Yard). Reiner answered:
“This is NIMBYism, you bet. Everyone that lives here is concerned about their way of life. That’s NIMBYism, writ large, baby.”
In his column, Mirisch gave a refreshing defense:
“…developers often try to write off these residents by decrying them as NIMBYs, so Rob Reiner’s embracing of the term in the debate – taking it back from negativity, as it were – was refreshing. And for all the negativity with which the term is used by Denzos [DENSITY ZOMBIES] and Devstos [DEVELOPER STOOGES], think about it for a minute….”
“What’s wrong with not wanting certain things in one’s own backyard? Maybe there are certain things which shouldn’t be in anyone’s backyard. At any rate, when it’s your own backyard, shouldn’t you have something to say about it? That seems to be the thrust of Measure R. It’s our community. It’s our neighborhood. It’s our backyard. It’s our home. We should decide…. It’s not about classes vs. masses. It really is about developer profits vs. quality of life. Measure R would give quality of life a fighting chance against the moneyed interests.”
Soboroff, the developer, has threatened to sue the city of Malibu if Measure R passes and is implemented. The sad reality is that could be a very real possibility. The line between the property rights of developers and those of neighbors is constantly challenged. For me, it is very hard to imagine how neighborhoods, cities, and states – which do ultimately make up the world – will ever be able to behave sustainably, if the public health and the integrity of our life-supporting ecosystems doesn’t trump the right to pave over a piece of nature with a deed attached.
It may well be Reiner and his neighbors in this case are not fighting for the rights of nature. They may just want to have a backyard barbecue in peace. If so, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. We do have a tendency to step up and protect what’s close to us, what we can see – our own neighborhood. We should harness that as a force for good.
Here is the Measure R website: The Your Malibu, Your Decision Act
Here’s a news story about a few other places that have tackled this: How Similar Cities Function with Voters’ Say in Growth
In his closing statement, Reiner summarized:
“This is pretty simple. Developers care about money and profit. Homeowners here know that there’s a bottom line beneath the bottom line: quality of life.”
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