WHO’S DRIVING THIS BUS?
The Chamber of Commerce’s formal entrance into
local politics has revived the perennial Santa
Monica question – who’s running the city?
Some Chamber members, as well as some residents,
believe that City Hall rules, and rules badly.
Other Chamber people resent what they see as the
domination of the town by its residents, while
some residents object to the Chamber’s efforts to
dictate city policy.
To put it more simply, almost everyone thinks
that someone else has the power and that the peo-
ple with the power are doing a poor job.
In fact, City Hall rules, but its power is un-
equally divided between the staff and the City
Council, with the staff generally having the fi-
nal say, because the Council strives to please
both the staff and the residents, and seldom
Anyone who watches City Council meetings, as we
are obliged to do, has witnessed these awkward-
rituals, in which members of Council listen ear-
nestly, first to staff members and, then, to res-
idents, after which they speak at length of their
wish to serve residents. But, almost always,when
the staff and residents disagree, the Council
sides with the staff.
Contrary to the myth that the business community
built this boomtown on the beach and City Hall
is intent on tearing it down, City Hall designed
it, set it in motion, built it and has nourished
it. Since they took power in 1982, those alleged
radicals, the Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights’
(SMRR) members of the City Council and City staff,
have been the best friends the business community
has ever had.
Curiously, just as the business community refuses
to credit City Hall with its success, City Hall
refuses to take credit for it – because it not on-
ly contradicts its carefully cultivated image as
progressive and innovative, it would undoubtedly
alienate a great many residents.
In setting the stage for the boom, City Hall didn’t
do anything original, it simply did the things its
predecessors neglected to do, and, for all its much-
vaunted devotion to “the process,” it did it without
consulting residents. There were no workshops, no
discussions, no initiatives asking residents to sup-
port or reject the transformation of the old beach
town into a glossy pleasure dome.
Chances are, if they had been asked, residents would
have said no. At the time, according to a City sur-
vey, 69% of the residents who worked did not work in
Santa Monica. They did not need nor would they bene-
fit from a burgeoning tourist-oriented economy. Iron-
ically, many local businesses — hit by skyrocket-
ing rents, competition from chain stores for space,
attention and customers and rising chic — were dri-
ven out of business. The boom’s principal benefic-
iaries were the big absentee corporations that owned
the hotels and chain stores and City Hall—which had
more and more revenue and more and more things to do
The population of Santa Monica has held at about
85,000 for two decades, and the city still measures
only eight square miles, but the daytime population
is now estimated at 135,000 with the weekend popula-
tion rising to 250,000.
Having designed and orchestrated the boom, City Hall
remained restless and, since the city had long since
been built out, and couldn’t expand, it set about
to replace or tart up what was here. The Santa Mon-
ica Pier, Third Street, the parks, the boulevards,
the beach front, all got multi-million-dollar face–
lifts. A $60 million public safety building is under construction, and on the drawing boards are a new
main library, a “new” Civic Center, a “new” City
Hall, new bus yards, new City Yards, a new down-
town “parking strategy” – with price tags ranging
from $35 million to $120 million.
As City Hall has conjured more and more elaborate
and expensive plans, it has harvested a bushel
of problems that cannot be eradicated, but can on-
ly be “mitigated,” in City staff lingo, by the
expenditure of many more millions
The boom, which lost some steam in the wake of 9/11,
is the basis for the city’s problems as well as its
prosperity, and the primary cause of the conflicts
between residents and the business community.
Naturally, the business community wants crowds of
people – more visitors spending more money,and, as
naturally, residents want fewer people, fewer cars,
In one sense, the recent budget crunch may be the
the proverbial blessing in disguise – because it
has forced the City to slow down. Perhaps it will
also force it to finally think about what it has
done and is doing and what it needs to do — to
revive the idiosyncratic beach town that drew eve-
ryone here in the first place and has somehow been
lost in the bigtime, high stakes shuffle.
–Editorial, MY Santa Monica Mirror, 1/1/2003
Ten years earlier, in 1993, City Hall began to
refer to itself in documents as “The City,” and
to residents as “the city.” We’ve been engaged
in a struggle for the soul of this gloriously
idiosyncratic beach town for 20 years, and, in
2013, the long-running struggle escalated into
Four of the seven current City Council members
take campaign contributions from developers.
Traffic has grown to nightmare proportions.
The City’s new area plan for Bergamot, as resi-
dents have repeatedly said, is too big, too com-
mercial, too cluttered and too intrusive in what
has been a serene residential neighborhood.
There are 30-plus major new projects in the pipe-
On its own authority, City staff designated
seven “opportunity sites,” on which the usual
limits – height, mass, and so on – will not
Despite residents’ previous wholesale rejection
of towers on Ocean Avenue, three towers have
been proposed: the 370-foot Miramar tower, the
200-foot-plus Frank Gehry tower at Santa Monica
Boulevard, and the 175-foot Wyndham tower at Col-
orado and Ocean.
The City treated developers to a bus tour of Santa
Monica to point out likely sites for new projects.
When the LUCE was okayed by the Council in 2010,
it was six years behind schedule, and, in the
three years since its approval, the downtown spe-
cific plan, the revised zoning code and other app-
lications of LUCE principles haven’t been comp-
leted, much less approved.
City officials have said repeatedly that the 96
percent of the town that is comprised of resident-
ial neighborhoods would not be sullied by new
zoning and land use regulations. but, as with the
Bergamot area plan and the surprise rezoning of
residential land to commercial land in the north-
east section of the city, residential neighbor-
hoods are in the planners’ lines of fire.
The City’s callous and possibly illegal treatment
of the residents of the Village Trailer Park, most
of whom are home owners, has outraged many resi-
Three new hotel projects have been approved, though
all three are architecturally mediocre.
Brad Cox, head of L.A. operations for Texas-based
Trammell Crowe, a major developer, is the current
chair of the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce and
one of four members of the Alliance, a City-Chamber
partnership that quietly oversees and promotes the
City’s economic development. His firm, with the
full approval of the Council, evicted the resid-
ents of an apartment complex at 301 Ocean three
years ago, but did not proceed with its project –
a condominium complex – and recently sold the site
and its plans to another developer.
On several occasions, over 100 people have turn-
ed up at Council meetings and so-called “workshops”
to protest City actions and decisions.
The neighborhood organizations and the Neighbor-
hood Council have been galvanized. Mid-City Nei-
ghbors, which had been dormant, reorganized. Wil-
mont cleaned house. After a period of inactivity,
NOMA re-entered the arena.
Friends of Sunset Park, the Pico Neighborhood
and the Northeast Neighbors have documented and
eloquently expressed their opposition to all
manner of cockeyed and ill-conceived City ini-
tiatives, while taking strong positions on a
variety of questions. The Ocean Park Association
is working on its own plans for the preservation
of Main Street and its unique residential neigh-
At the behest of Santa Monica hotels, the Coun-
cil voted to declare all of Santa Monica “a mar-
keting and promotion district,” and City funds
were combined with hotel funds in a record $5
million annual promotion budget.
The transient daily population rose to 300,000,
and more on weekends.
The City declared war on Paul Conrad’s brill-
iant “Chain Reaction” sculpture for reasons
known only to itself.
Surveys show that Santa Monica has much less
open space per capita than other Southern Calif-
This avalanche of bad calls by the City staff
and City Council has led to an impressive disp-
lay of community opposition, rivaled only by the
residents’ successful 1973 campaign to prevent
the City from demolishing the Santa Monica Pier
and replacing it with an artificial island and
a convention center.
Regularly now, 20 or 30 or 40 people appear at
meetings to protest ill-conceived proposals.
Santa Monica residents are very bright and know-
ledgable, and they invariably speak in comp-
lete sentences, but they are limited to two
minutes each. No such limits have been imposed
on City staff and Council members.
The City launched a very elaborate “civility” cam-
paign, though, in the last ten years, we can re-
member only two instances of uncivil behavior at
the podium, but dozens from the dias. Indeed, the
“civility” campaign is itself uncivil, imposing
far too many rules on residents who should have
at least as much opportunity to speak as their
elected representatives do.
Looking forward to the 2014 election, residents
talk now about referendums on a variety of City
proposals, and of likely candidates for the open
seats on the Council.
The City is Santa Monica’s largest employer – with
2,528 employees. They don’t all live and vote here
but they all campaign here. There are about 56,000
voters in Santa Monica, and they all live, vote
and campaign here.