Clara Sturak, Associate editor
Mike Feinstein is tired. He’s spent the day performing his mayoral duties, attending the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day event at Santa Monica College, then lunching with SMC President Piedad Robertson. At least, he says he’s tired, but I learn soon enough that he’s more energizer bunny than I am — during a two-hour telephone conversation he’ll talk me into writer’s cramp and a virtual stupor — and still be feeding me the questions that I’ve forgotten to ask him.
Santa Monica’s newly elected Mayor (a mainly ceremonial post, tacked on to his duties as a City Council member, but one that allows him a even more of a public presence) tells me that he’s never been cookie-cuttered into a 9 to 5 workday, and that he’s “pretty much on a 24/7” schedule. The upside, he says, is that he has the flexibility he needs to fulfill his obligations as Santa Monica’s Mayor and City Council member, as a high-profile member of the Green Party, and as the editor of the Greens’ national newsletter. The downside, says Feinstein, “is I haven’t had a lot of days off mentally since 1989.”
Feinstein credits “the synchronicity of the universe,” with keeping him on track, and making sure the work gets done, but clearly other forces are at work as well. Feinstein is driven. He is ambitious. And he is an insomniac. “I will drive myself close to exhaustion, because I don’t like to accept limits. And the fact that I don’t go to sleep until 5 a.m. sometimes helps.”
Although he acknowledges that perhaps it would be “the smart thing” to “make smart choices” instead of trying to do everything for everyone, he’s not willing to concede that the two branches of his political career might get in each others’ way. “I really haven’t failed to get work done when I’m responsible to others,” he says. The universe has its work cut out for it.
Early in our conversation, Feinstein tells me that he “very much understand(s) how important spin is.” He tells me this in reference to his position as a Green Party leader, saying that much of his work there has been about, “making us look like a legitimate party, instead of just a bunch of stoners in Birkenstocks, which is what people used to think of us.”
But this spin remark starts me thinking: when I ask Feinstein about other things, issues important to Santa Monica and its citizens, will I get spun? I decide to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Feinstein opposed the Civic Center plan proposed by the Rand Corporation to the City Council in 1993. His activism during that time is what spurred him to run for office. He lost the Civic Center battle, but is still proud of his work, noting that the group he was part of “gathered 8,500 (signatures) on two different ballots in just 22 days, during a cold and rainy period.” (They got the initiative on the ballot, but it was defeated at the polls 60-40%).
He is also proud of the fact that after he was elected to the City Council (“with the second-largest number of votes in Santa Monica history”), he was a driving force behind the City’s decision to buy the Rand buildings in order to make room for public and open space. “I realized the limits of trying to convince office holders of my beliefs, or fighting the system, with the system against me. To be a citizen-activist who gets into office on a slow-growth platform, which is losing, and then to succeed [by buying the land from Rand and averting the original Civic Center Plan which would have included office buildings along Ocean Avenue] was very gratifying.”
When asked what he thinks about the City’s approval of Rand’s new building — which will rise right next to the new Civic Center — Feinstein replies, “When I got into this, I wanted to take my philosophy and apply it to real-life situations,” which he got to do with Rand. “Was there a scenario in which Rand stayed, and in a smaller building? No. Was there a scenario in which Rand would leave the community entirely? I don’t think so. Rand is one of the top three employers in Santa Monica, and there really wasn’t a large community outcry for Rand to leave the City.”
“Dealing with that reality, we took away the traffic that would have come with the office park on Ocean Avenue, and instead opened up land for more parks and open space.” Speaking of traffic…
I ask Feinstein about the now notorious downtown traffic and parking problems in Santa Monica, more particularly what he and other members of the newly formed Parking Task Force plan to accomplish. “Add to parking and traffic the issue of earthquake retrofitting of the [parking] structures,” he tells me. The Task Force has many options as far as looking at downtown parking (including whether to rehabilitate existing buildings, or tear them down and begin anew; whether to add more spaces to those structures, or leave the same number, and whether to consider building structures on new sites in order to change traffic circulation problems).
But as a Green, and an advocate of public transportation, Feinstein has his own questions to consider: Does more parking encourage more traffic? Will that simply bring more cars downtown and make the problem worse? Acknowledging that a recent survey of Santa Monica residents showed downtown parking issues as among their biggest concerns, Feinstein says, “we may have to take that risk.”
Feinstein gets a bit defensive when I bring up the Council’s decision to limit the Parking Task Force to six members, thus taking away a space previously set aside for a member of the public. After explaining “two schools of thought” on working groups, and informing me that there “really isn’t one person out there who can represent all Santa Monicans,” he reminds me that the public will have the opportunity to be heard at all Parking Task Force meetings, and that he takes what people say very seriously. But wasn’t he just saying something about the benefits of working from the inside?
That aside, Feinstein lists a number of ways that he feels parking and traffic problems can be addressed. These include adding public parking and shuttle service to the new civic center; adding (Santa Monica Place and Promenade) employee parking to the new lot going up at the Main Library, and encouraging “at least a portion” of the community to use public transportation. He emphasizes that he feels the number one problem facing Santa Monica is “the job/housing imbalance,” and says that it’s that imbalance more than anything, which contributes to traffic and parking problems.
Which brings us to housing. When Feinstein first ran for City Council in 1996, he ran as part of the Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) slate. He did so again in 2000. Thanks to changes at the state level that essentially did away with rent control, SMRR and its Council members find themselves running as fast as they can, doing their best to keep some — any — affordable housing in Santa Monica. Says Feinstein; “It’s ironic that in ’94 the Republicans [at the state level] ran on local control, then they voted to take away local control (by passing the Costa-Hawkins Act).” But Feinstein doesn’t end there. He wants it on record that “vacancy de-control only happened with the support of the Democrats. The Green Party is the only Party that calls for the repeal of Costa-Hawkins.”
Feinstein supports City efforts to build affordable housing in Santa Monica (and to rehabilitate and remodel existing buildings into affordable housing). He agrees that Santa Monica historically has made senior housing a priority “in part because it’s cheaper to build singles,” and also because, “Federal funds have been available to subsidize” senior housing.
The City, Feinstein says, has “reprioritized to both make family housing a specific priority, and to try to provide housing for Santa Monica residents who have lost their housing [due to de-control of rents]. Although, in many cases, Federal regulations limit the City’s ability to ‘play favorites’ when it comes to doling out Federal monies.
Feinstein sounds truly frustrated when he talks about the lack of affordable housing, especially for families, “not only will families with children be [pushed out] of Santa Monica, but the children of the remaining families will have little ability to afford to stay here. We’ll become a monocultural community. That is very unfortunate.” He does speak hopefully about the family-size affordable housing units that are going up at the old Boulangerie site, but admits, “whatever we can do pales in comparison to what we have lost.”
After I respond skeptically to the idea behind his remark that “the developers’ attorneys who constantly assert property rights need to think deeply about what they’re doing to our community,” Feinstein laughs, and admits “politician speak” has crept into his language in the last four years.
I’m beginning to fade. Dinnertime has come and gone, and I’m in need of protein. But Feinstein wants to make sure I understand why he’s against any talk of a cut in the utility tax. “Right now, Santa Monica has more goals than we can afford. For instance the schools are asking for several million dollars a year — does that reconcile with cutting a major income source? I couldn’t imagine anything more foolhardy right now.” He continues, discussing his goal of “Land Banking;” requiring the City to put aside funds in order to have the ability to purchase land for open space, parks, buildings and other properties.
According to Feinstein, Santa Monica’s over-development woes are due in part to a lack of foresight on the part of previous Councils. “If we had had the money, we would have been able to buy the Arboretum [property], and even the Water Garden [property]. But the money was never put aside.” He’s looking to create a ballot measure for 2002 that would allow the public to vote on the issue.
As we wrap up, Feinstein reminds me that I haven’t asked “anything personal.” I ask him to fill in the blanks. Born in Athens, Greece in 1958, he tells me, adopted and brought to the U.S. in 1959. Grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis, and attended Carleton College (“an Ivy League-like Liberal Arts school”) as a philosophy major. Backpacked in his 20s through 29 countries, an experience that “broadened his horizons,” and became the first California sales rep for Roller Blades. After blading all over the state, chose Santa Monica because, “in terms of its natural beauty and culturally, it fit me very well.” He’s single, likes basketball and sunning on Mexican beaches. I could go on, but somehow this information devalues Feinstein, reducing him to something akin to an ad in the personals.
Instead I’ll leave you with a thank you. Feinstein tells me that when he went into local politics he went “determined that I was going to be me. That I would campaign on what I was about and not what would get me elected. To test one’s beliefs and have it work out is incredibly humbling and gratifying. I want to thank the community for being a community that is willing to support that kind of politician.” Is it spin? I can’t say, but I don’t think so. Mike Feinstein, Mayor of Santa Monica, is very happy to be here.
Mayor of Santa Monica
• Downtown parking plan
The city has established a task force to look at downtown parking, including renovation/redesign of our downtown parking structures, something that is required in light of the Northridge earthquake. A seismic analysis has been done of the structures, and cost estimates have been calculated for retrofitting and adding spaces in the downtown area.
Alternatives include adding more parking levels to the existing structures, demolishing existing structures and rebuilding larger structures (including possibly going a floor or two underground), and/or adding new parking facilities on publicly owned sites near downtown.
Any renovations of the structures will also have the objectives of easier entry and exit and of increasing cleanliness and safety. Of course all of this discussion will happen within the context of ‘how much parking is enough?’ a critical discussion for our community to have. Please consider attending meetings of this task force to give your opinions. The task force will conduct a number of community meetings in the next four to five months and then make a recommendation to the city council.
A significant portion of the city’s earthquake redevelopment money will go towards this project, with estimates between $24 million to $84 million depending upon the level and extent of renovation and rebuilding.
• Resolve parking issues along our east/west commercial corridors, particularly Pico, Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevards.
Unlike the downtown areas, where there is a high concentration of destinations within a few square block area, the east/west corridors are longer and far less dense, and present different parking challenges. Yet they are just important to resolve. Here tension along the corridors has made life very stressful for residents and businesses. Both suffer from a shortage of parking, as many buildings were built years ago when far less parking was required.
I envision a solution combining well thought out preferential parking zones, together with restriping to gain more spaces (including angled parking on some streets), and off-site employee parking (perhaps in small, mostly underground structures) to free up commercial spaces for customers. Preferential parking zones should ensure enough spaces for residents, and then allocate some of the excess capacity (if any) to employees of nearby small businesses. Together these strategies should make our collective parking experience less Darwinian and more conducive to community.
• Pico Neighborhood
If there were easy answers for the problems in the Pico neighborhood, then they would have been solved a long time ago. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make a real difference in peoples’ lives if we increase our focus on the neighborhood. In recent years, the city has begun to increase its attention to the Pico neighborhood. We have to continue to work to improve the quality of life there, on a variety of levels.
• Energy and Environment
Santa Monica has taken many forward-thinking steps for city facilities and vehicles in terms of energy conservation and efficiency, and the use of renewable sources of energy.
With the energy price crisis, now is the time for the city to truly involve its residents and businesses and assist them in significantly improving their energy efficiency.
At the same time, the city will be lobbying in Sacramento for a change in the laws to give the city a better ability to act on behalf of its residents, in terms of price, reliability and environmental quality of the fuel source.
Ed. note: Mayor Feinstein is now working with other City officials and our State representatives on a definitive energy policy for the City. It will appear in a future issue of the Mirror.