Déjà vu All Over Again

In April, 2007, we posted the first round of articles in the Santa Monica Dispatch, a blog.

One of the first articles was “We’re BAAACK,” which called for changes we believed were vital, if we were to preserve this iconic beach town.

Sadly, the article remains wholly relevant, as there has been lots of commotion in the year just passed, but none of the changes we called for has been made.

Herewith, the article, as it appeared in April, 2007. Read it, and rage.



Since we went silent a year ago, a lot has happened, but, unfortunately, nothing’s changed.

Time for a Change

Santa Monica is a legendary beach town.

It was founded in 1875 as a simple real estate development. Five generations of bright, talented, devoted, diverse residents have made it a gorgeous, complex, idiosyncratic, grandly volatile and deeply satisfying place to live and work — perfectly located on the ocean, small in scale, low key, prosperous – in the midst of the myriad pleasures and excitements of Los Angeles.

It’s unique, unconventional, an original, not a copy.

The primary fact of Santa Monica, its shaping element, is the ocean, and, aside from its sublime location, its greatest asset has always been its residents. They are smart, savvy and independent, and they are fiercely devoted to Santa Monica.

But, here and now, Santa Monica’s residents have lost control of their town.

Some time ago, without the advice or consent of residents, City Hall made its top priorities increasing its own revenues, and, in the noxious vernacular, “growing” the town. To that end, it reversed the order of things, making itself the star of the show, while consigning residents to non-speaking roles.

As the star, City Hall has given itself license to ignore residents’ wishes when they run counter to its own plans, make unilateral decisions at the expense of residents, and exploit both the residents and their town.

It’s as if we gave City Hall a Steinway and it played nothing but “Chop-sticks” on it. Badly.

*City Hall’s retrograde economic and land use policies are sabotaging its “sustainable city program” and its worthy social and environmental policies and diminishing the town.

*City Hall either doesn’t understand or has chosen to ignore the laws of cause and effect, and, as a result, residents suffer a surfeit of unintended consequences.

*It has spearheaded an unprecedented building boom.

*It has attempted to change both the focus and character of the town.

*Great beach towns are rare and extraordinary, and Santa Monica is one of the best, but City Hall has overseen its dumbing down and tarting up in order to turn it into
what it calls “a regional commercial hub” as well as a tourist mecca.

*These drastic alterations have generated more money for City Hall. They have also tripled the daily population of the City to 250,000, which has caused chronic traffic congestion, and triggered a variety of other problems,

*In 1982, City Hall founded and funded the Convention & Visitors’ Bureau without the knowledge or approval of residents, and, last year, again without the knowledge or approval of residents, the Bureau, which now costs taxpayers $2 million
a year, unveiled a new “brand” marketing campaign in order, in its words, to “create a new identity” for this legendary beach town and market it as a product.

The “Brand Promise” chosen by the group is “Santa Monica, the best way to discover L.A, an unforgettable beach city experience, filled with eye-catching people cutting edge culture and bold innovations. It is the essence of the California lifestyle.”

*Aligning themselves with City staff, our elected representatives have failed to listen to, much less faithfully represent residents and their interests.

* In the last several years, though it makes a great show of wanting “community input,” the City has dramatically reduced the role of residents in the project review process, in spite of continuing protests. The most recent reduction took place in mid-January, when the Council voted 5 to 2 (with Bob Holbrook and Bobby Shriver dissenting) to end public review of affordable housing projects of 50 units or less.

Santa Monica is at a crucial verge. Decisions made in the coming months will determine whether it remains the legendary beach town we cherish, or becomes one more blip on the marketeers’ map.

A Call for Action

In order to regain control of our town, repair the damage that has been done and restore the way of life we cherish, residents must make some basic

1. Government of, by and for the people must be restored.

The City staff has taken control of City Hall because our elected representatives have virtually abdicated.

Adopted in 1946, the City Charter gives the staff considerable power, but the Council’s willingness to let staff take the lead is a far more serious problem, and the unfortunate consequences of its capitulation are all around us.

City Hall’s long-running twin obsessions with money and growth are the bases for virtually all the problems residents now suffer — traffic congestion and spreading gridlock, the loss of open space, the sullying of once-serene residential neighborhoods, the transformation of downtown Santa Monica into a frenzied playpen for visitors and shoppers, the extraordinary inflation of commercial rents and the consequent loss of valued and vital local independent businesses and services coupled with the proliferation of high end big box chain stores, and the grotesque effort to reduce Santa Monica to a product in order to “sell” it to the travel industry.

The City has consistently failed to measure or analyze the long-term social, economic and environmental impacts of its “growth is good and big is better” land use and economic development policies.

We can perhaps excuse bureaucrats for acting bureaucratically, but we can’t excuse our Council members for acting again and again to diminish this extraordinary place.

Council members must revive the “of, by and for the people” principle, faithfully represent residents, take back control of City Hall and act to fix the problems they’ve created.

2. SMRR must reform itself, or get out of the way.

Compounding the problem is Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights’ pivotal role. It has held a majority of seats on the Council since 1988. Four of the current seven Council members are SMRRs. Collectively, they’ve spent 45 years overseeing Santa Monica. Two of the four – Kevin McKeown and Pam O’Connor — won re-election last fall. No question – SMRR knows how to run elections, but, in spite of its decades at the dais, it has shown little talent recently for running the City, much less faithfully representing the residents.

SMMR’s early accomplishments were Significant, and the SMRR rank and file, the dues-paying members, are among Santa Monica’s most concerned, conscientious and valuable citizens, but its leaders – anointed and elected – seem far more interested in preserving SMRR’s clout than in the democratic process, as when they supported the elimination of public review of affordable housing
projects of 50 units or less.

3. The revision of the land use and circulation elements of the General Plan must be a full and faithful reflection of residents’ aspirations, not City Hall’s ambitions.

At the moment, residents and City Hall are on a collision course on the General Plan revision, and it may well be the ultimate test of residents’ will versus City Hall’s power.

The revision of the General Plan, aka our Constitution, has been underway for more than two years. City staff acknowledged in its initial report on the revision, “Emerging Themes,” in April, 2005, that residents want to preserve and refine their beloved small scale, low rise beach town, but it persists in its effort to extend and expand the economic and land use policies that have been the bases for virtually all the problems that now beset us.

As Santa Monica is small, the second most densely populated city in Southern California, and is virtually built out, the revision must establish clear limits, including a substantial reduction in the daily tripling of the town’s population, as well as reductions in the number, size, scale and mass of new buildings.

The influx of an estimated 170,000 people to Santa Monica every day has not only tied Santa Monica in knots, but has wreaked traffic havoc all over the Westside. Not all that long ago, one could get from Santa Monica to almost anyplace in Los Angeles in 20 or 30 minutes, Today, it takes a miracle just to get out of Santa Monica in 20 or 30 minutes.

We owe it to our neighbors as well as ourselves and our children to include the means in the General Plan revision to stem the galloping gridlock, scale back development, tighten design and development standards, turn the heat down, and solve the problems that currently beset us, as well as charting a future course that will ensure the preservation and well-being of this legendary beach town.

In addition, as part of the revision, mistakes made by City Hall must be eliminated, including but not limited to the so-called “traffic calming” devices – such as medians, islands and extended curbs – and the conversion of free-flowing four-lane thoroughfares to two-lane traffic jams that have exacerbated traffic problems.

At her first appearance before the City Council in mid-November, the new Planning Director Eileen Fogerty spoke of the need to develop a “community vision” on which the revision would be based, overlooking the fact that the community’s ultra-clear ”vision” was expressed nearly two years ago, but City planners and consultants have ignored it, perhaps because it doesn’t fit into their own MORE and BIGGER scenario.

Santa Monica is a great beach town. It needs to be that, and nothing else, as that is more than sufficient.

4. As City Hall’s habit of engaging in piecemeal planning has contributed significantly to the City’s problems, it must stop.

All of the major projects that are now in the works should be put on hold until the General Plan revision is complete.

They include the City’s 324-unit Village in the Civic Center, the misbegot revised Civic Center Specific Plan, the $80 million bus yards expansion, the downtown parking project, and the disposition of the $34 million Sears parcel and the $14 million Fisher Lumber parcel,

Together and separately, they could radically change portions of Santa Monica, and permanently alter its character, and, given their size, number and potential impacts, they could render the General Plan revision obsolete before it’s completed.

This isn’t planning, it’s anti-planning, and all of the projects must be put on hold until the General Plan revision is complete.

If the City planners had accepted the community’s vision, and revised the General Plan accordingly, it would be complete by now, but they didn’t, and now they, and we, must suffer the consequences.

5. City Hall’s current housing policies are inadequate and must be revised and augmented.

The state drastically weakened rent control and then mandated that municipalities increase their affordable housing stock. Santa Monica, once at the forefront of
rent control, has seen much of its reasonably priced housing demolished to make room for so-called luxury condos.

The City is building affordable housing for “special needs” tenants, such as low income and elderly people, and offers developers incentives to include a portion of affordable housing in otherwise expensive apartment developments.

But many of the 70 percent of Santa Monicans who are renters are longtime middle income residents, and while the number of low end and high end rental units may be increasing, the number of reasonably priced apartments is shrinking rapidly, and their occupants are on their way to becoming the most endangered group in the city.

The City must develop some means now to preserve existing reasonably priced rental apartment buildings and garden and courtyard apartments, in order to save the homes of many residents from the bulldozers, prevent the small scale townscape from being swamped by the sort of oversized bullies of buildings that are rising all over town, and maintain the socio-economic diversity that has long been a vital part of Santa Monica.

Recently. the City named a task force members to explore the possibility of building housing for the town’s “core work force,” 80 percent of whom do not now live here. But, here and now, the City’s first housing priority must be securing the apartment buildings all over Santa Monica that are home to thousands of longtime middle income residents.

6. Historic preservation must play a primary role in planning policy.

The City must actively support and augment the efforts of the Landmarks Commission and its chief community ally, the Santa Monica Conservancy, to preserve and protect the portions of the town and individual structures that are architecturally, historically and culturally significant. They are as integral and vital to the town as sand is to the beach and their originality, simplicity, elegance and grace are example, standard and context for everything we do now and in the future. As novelist William Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

7. The City must begin to hire the best consultants, not the friendliest.

It has long been City Hall’s habit to hire the most cooperative consultants, meaning those firms that will tell the City staff what it wants to hear rather than what it needs to hear, and confirm its judgments, rather than questioning them. It’s a very bad habit.

Consultants are extraordinarily expensive and, over the years, City Hall has rung in legions of them, presumably because they have knowledge or skills the staff lacks. Given all that, the City should hire the best, brightest and most independent consultants, not the friendliest or most cooperative.

Anyone who has had the misfortune to venture into downtown Santa Monica on any weekend knows that the City has lost the traffic wars – in part because it has relied on the methodology of the same friendly traffic consultant for years.

Thanks to the efforts of a number of residents, specifically Laurel Roennau, a traffic expert, the City has been shown more modern, comprehensive and effective methods of measuring and managing traffic, but, though we’re suffering a full-blown traffic crisis, the City persists in using the same old methods.

The City must adopt the most stringent criteria for consultants and methodologies.

8. Truth must become the official language in City Hall.

Like CityTV programming and the City’s monthly mailer, Seascape, City staff reports and documents are regularly used by City Hall as PR devices to promote programs and policies that the staff favors. In this context, obfuscation can be at least as diverting as fulsome and self-serving praise, and the reports are frequently too long, repetitive and clumsily organized, as if to deliberately discourage readers and make a careful and close reading virtually impossible.

The City never makes changes. Rather, it describes whatever it wants to do as either an “enhancement” or an “improvement,” though often such changes neither enhance nor improve.

Staff reports and documents should be lucid, factual and honest.

Further, residents must have free and immediate access to public documents. Not long ago, the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City was forced to take the City to court after it refused to turn over some requested documents. The court ordered the documents in question to be turned over to the SMCLC and the City was ordered to pay $36,000 in court costs, but, of course, since City revenue derives from residents, it cost us $36,000 to see what we had every right to see – promptly and at no cost.

9. City Council meetings must be reformed and restructured.

By law, all of the City’s official business must take place at City Council meetings. Proposals, policies, ordinances, rules, and issues are all discussed, debated, and approved or rejected, and the public must be allowed to speak on all the items on the meetings’ agendas.

But the meetings seem deliberately designed to discourage public attendance and participation. They begin at 5:45 p.m., at which time the Council approves the Consent Calendar – generally with no discussion. though its items often involve the expenditure of millions of dollars and/or contain significant policy changes. The Council then goes into executive session to discuss pending litigation for an hour or two. Generally, the public session doesn’t resume until 7:30 or 8, by which time people who arrived at 5:45 p.m. have had nothing to do but stare at the City Council chamber ceiling for upwards of two hours.

The agenda is generally overloaded. And demented. Items are not heard in order of their importance or their interest to residents, but by category, and in a baffling, pre-ordained numerical order.

The pre-ordained order outranks residents, obliterates sense, discourages public participation and keeps the Council off-balance and knee-deep in minutia.

Major changes are long overdue. First, executive sessions, which involve a relatively small number of people, should be held after the public session, not in the middle of it, or scheduled on another day, with the results, if any, announced at the next Council meeting. Second, the public meeting should begin at 7 p.m. with the Consent Calendar, which would give it more much-needed public exposure, Third, the calendar should be followed by the rest of the evening’s agenda – arranged in order of the items’ significance and/or the public’s interest in them, with such housekeeping items as the second reading and approval of ordinances coming at the end of the meeting. Fourth, the meeting agendas should be trimmed to workable proportions. Fifth, the time limit on public comments should be eliminated, as
the people’s opinions are more important than the opinions of either the staff or the Council members and so they should not be limited to two or three minutes – especially since the Council members and staff can and do speak at great length.
As it is, the people are treated as supplicants, begging for favors, rather than the leading players in the civic drama. Fifth, priorities must be set. When the Council spends more hours at more meetings (as it did last year) discussing the retail and restaurant “mix” on Third Street than the revision of the General Plan, things are definitely out of whack.

Residents have complained about this chaotic, counter-productive and punishing arrangement for years. The minor changes the Council has made recently are utterly insufficient. It must make act now to reorder the meetings along more workable and democratic lines.

We Must Act Now

Residents can restore democracy in Santa Monica, by acting decisively to reverse the current order of things, put City Hall back in its place – as servant not boss, and get on with the preservation and refinement of this extraordinary beach town we live in.

One thought on “Déjà vu All Over Again”

  1. Thank you for a most important, insightful and accurate portrayal of our city. It is, indeed, tragic that every single point made in the original publication remains current two years after the article was published.

    Part of the problem, in my view, resides in the weak-mayor system of government we have in Santa Monica (this is a term of art, Wikipedia has a good description). Instead of holding an elected mayor accountable for the city’s condition (accountable if only through the election/recall process) we have a City Council that get bogged down in inaccurate minutia produced by staff, and a City Manager and staff that are largely unaccountable to the voters of this city.

    Citizens and residents of our community are getting truly fed up with the current system and the poor governance decisions that result from it. Folks on the City Council majority (Kevin McKeown excluded) seem to be asleep at the switch, and may well wake up on election day to a new reality that may not be pleasing to them. Likewise, City Hall staff, from the manager on down, should think carefully about the effects of their activities on our next elections; they may not like the results either.

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