SANTA MONICA: CAPITAL OF IRONY

Ironies abound.

The City of Santa Monica has just been awarded $1 million
by the inaugural Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge
to help finance its proposed project to develop means of
improving and sustaining the “well-being” of residents.

The timing is perfect. Never, in its 138 years, have as many
residents been as angry at City Hall as are angry now. The
primary cause of the residents’ rising rage is the City’s
anything goes development policy, which has led to an epidemic
of mediocre architecture, a serious diminution of available
open space, ever-spreading traffic congestion, gridlocked
streets, and serious fractures in our built out, once low-key,
relaxed beach town.

In recent months, crowds of residents, ranging up to over 100
people, have attended City Council and Planning Commission
meetings to inveigh against specific mega-projects and what
has been described as a tsunami of proposed new commercial
projects.

Some of the most vociferous protests have been inspired by
a unilateral City Hall decision to end an extended moratorium
on too-tall buildings and virtually invite the construction
of towering edifices on Ocean Avenue on what City planners
have dubbed “opportunity sites.”

At the moment, the Miramar Hotel, on Ocean at Wilshire, is
proposing a new half-million square foot, 241 feet tall faux
Art Deco tower, renowned architect and longtime Santa Monica
resident Frank Gehry aims to build a new tall hotel on Ocean
at Santa Monica, and the new owners of the new Wyndham Hotel
(the former Holiday Inn) across Ocean from the Santa Monica
Pier, want to add three towers to its existing building.

Large numbers of residents oppose the proposed towers –
because, as they have said myriad times before, they’re
more suitable for Miami or Las Vegas than a beautiful,
small beach town.

The divide between the City and its residents grew even wider
when residents learned that Jeff Tumlin, the City’s leading
traffic consultant, had characterized Santa Monica residents
as “NIMBYs” (NotInMyBackYard) on his website.

He added fuel to the proverbial fire by claiming that reducing
the number of parking spaces would reduce traffic, or, as he
ever so jauntily put it: people won’t drive if they can’t park.
In a flash, over 600 residents signed a letter asking for
Tumlin’s dismissal (see below).City Manager Rod Gould promptly
dismissed him, but added that the City would continue its
association with Tumlin’s firm.

Not incidentally, Tumlin had worked for the City for seven
years and made more than a million dollars for his firm, but
traffic got measurably worse on his watch.

So it is that even as the City’s Community and Cultural
Services and the Office of Sustainability and The Environment
staffs are developing ways and means of increasing residents’
well-being, City Planning and Community Development people
are simultaneously shepherding commercial mega-projects
that have enraged residents and shattered any remaining
sense of well-being in the community through the process.

The staff planners and consultants could take a giant step
toward restoring Santa Monica residents’ sense of well-being
by simply listening to and heeding the residents they are
pledged to serve, but they stopped doing that some years ago.

According to a story in the Los Angeles Times, City staff and
RAND researchers initially proposed tracking residents’
“physical health, social connectedness and community resilience,
in the belief that the resulting index “could be a first step
toward changing the way city governments serve their residents…

“The coastal city is often associated with the progressive
vanguard. But the idea of tracking well-being is catching on
elsewhere.

“The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health has
launched the Community Disaster Resilience project, which
will test resilience strategies across Los Angeles in the
coming months.

Gallup-Healthways introduced its Well-Being Index in 2008
and now doles out a national score that varies daily based
on polling.

“Advocates say well-being measures can capture intangible
factors important to civic life. For example, the more
connected people feel to their community, the more likely
they are to bounce back after a natural disaster, city
officials told The Times in previous interviews. And people
with better mental health tend to pay less for healthcare,
they said.”

Deep. Very deep.

Several months ago, Santa Monica released a “Youth Wellbeing
Report Card” as part of its Cradle to Career Initiative,
which tracks young people to the age 24. Among its findings were
that 81% of students were physically healthy, 67% felt safe at
school and 25% said they experienced “significant periods of
extreme sadness” during the prior year.

The Times reported that Santa Monica Mayor Pam O’Connor
called the City’s award “‘a game changer…It’s about building
a resilient community. And that resilience will help people
thrive.”

Given that the City has consistently favored developers’ needs
over residents’ needs and wishes, residents have been remarkably
resilient, repeating their objections over and over again.
We neither need nor want City Hall to “build a resilient
community.” We want it to approve far fewer projects — smaller,
genuinely useful and architecturally distinguished buildings,
and value this gloriously idiosyncratic beach town as much we do.

The Times story went on to say, “Santa Monica’s project will
be carried out over the next two years, and its creators hope
to develop a model that can be used nationwide, said Office of Sustainability and the Environment Director Dean Kabani.
“Work with RAND Corp. and other experts will continue as the
index develops, Kabani said. The city will need to gather
data on factors that drive well-being, such as economics,
education, health and social connectedness, and ultimately
that data will be funneled into an overall well-being score.
In the second year of the project, officials said they will
use the index to frame decisions by city government, neigh-
borhood groups and nonprofits.”

In America, residents’ well-being derives primarily from the
democratic process, and the of, by and for the people principle
that is, or should be. the basis for everything else. That
principle has been dormant here for some years.

Kabani told the Times, “Much of the prize money (i.e., a million
dollars) will be paid to consultants who help develop the index,
adding that the city is contributing about $750,000 in contribu-
tions of staff time, but no additional dollars.”

“Factors that drive well-being,” in Kabani’s phrase, surely
must include a trustworthy City government – a government that
listens to its residents, recognizes and understands their
priorities and responds to their wishes and needs. Santa Monica,
sadly, does not have that sort of government. It has government
of, by and for the staff, its acolytes on the Council and its
consultants.

We are here, all 87,000 residents, on the ground, present,
aware, articulate. Unlike our previous mayor and certain
Council members, we speak in complete sentences. But, on its
quest for the bases of our well-being, the staff prefers to
rely on a visiting team, the million-dollar consultants.
They’re professionals, experienced.They charge a lot for
their services, so they must be good.

Last week, the City Council approved a Bill of Sustainable
Rights. Perhaps it should pledge its allegiance to the Bill
of Rights this week.

Better late than ever.

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