The divide between the City, meaning City Hall, and the city, meaning Santa Monica residents, was vividly demonstrated at two meetings last week.
One meeting was held in the cafeteria at John Adams Middle School on Saturday, January 22, and was the first in a series of events the City Planning department is holding to enable residents to participate in the revision of the city’s 1984 General Plan’s land use and circulation elements. The other meeting was a regular City Council meeting. It was held on Tuesday, January 25, and the bulk of the evening was devoted to a discussion of the redevelopment of Santa Monica Place.
About 175 residents took part in the workshop. Planning Director Suzanne Frick has said the General Plan is Santa Monica’s “Constitution,” as it will, in the City’s phrase, “shape the future of Santa Monica.” The land use element dictates the distribution and placement of different types of buildings and activities (housing, business, industry, open space, etc.), while the circulation element sets out the location of existing and proposed roads, highways and other modes of transportation. The zoning ordinance translates the land use element’s goals and objectives into standards and procedures. The Plan hasn’t been updated since 1984, and the planners estimate that it will take two years to complete the revision, because, as Frick put it, “these things don’t happen overnight.” She also said that the finished document “really needs to reflect what the community thinks, not what the staff or the decision-makers for the most part think. That is why the key component is public participation.”
To that end, the City will “pursu(e) many avenues for public outreach” in the next six months, including phone and internet surveys. The staff will then “sift through the key concepts,” and solicit further public comments “to help formulate the particular vision.”
As anyone knows who has ever attended City workshops, they have more than a passing resemblance to an elementary school exercise. At one such session, we were given boxes of Crayolas, toy scissors, and construction paper and told to have fun, by a leader who spoke very slowly, using one-syllable words exclusively. It’s an altogether foolish ritual, but the leaders seem to enjoy it. Sadly, more often than not, ideas and comments that have emerged at previous residents’ workshops have seldom actually found their way into City policies.
At the January 22 workshop, residents were invited to post their answers to questions on six City-designed “issue boards.”
The six “issues” chosen by the City were housing, with an emphasis on affordable housing, ”getting around,” “neighborhood character,” “economic opportunity,” “environment,” and “how buildings look.”
Workshop participants then divided up into 16 groups for “shared vision” discussions, during which each group was asked to write headlines and subtitles that summarized its vision. Subsequently, spokespersons for the groups explained their visions to everyone in the room. To no one’s surprise, some common themes emerged from the individual group discussions
As we reported last week, one group’s headline was “A City By the Sea – A Neighborhood For Everyone.” Its subtitles included “a green community, low density, open space, affordable housing, historic preservation, cultural diversity, controls on building heights and managing traffic.”
Another group’s headline was “Santa Monica – A Pearl On The Bay – A Model City For Civilized Living – Setting Their Own Trend For Others To Follow.” Its subtitles included “being environmentally friendly, clean beach, urban villages, neat transit centers, affordable housing, communities with centers, architectural diversity, pedestrian friendly, protect and promote small business, better infrastructure and make sure the community embraces family living.”
Other headlines were “United Nations Designates Santa Monica As A Model City of Wealth, Beauty, Sustainability, Affordability, and Diversity, Santa Monica Solves Major Urban Issues,” and “Conscientious Citizens Determining What A Small Town Is.”
The City Council meeting, three days later, was definitely not elementary. It was very grown-up, very advanced, adults only. Macerich officials and consultants described their goals for Santa Monica Place and their devotion to Santa Monica, and delivered a short course in what they think works in retail now. If they are to be believed, Santa Monica Place has been obsolete for years.
They were followed in close order by devotees of the Third Street Promenade. Kathleen Rawson, Executive Director of the Bayside District Corporation, opted for the “global” approach and she and other Promenade spokespeople not only praised Macerich’s plans to redevelop, but plumped for Third Street improvements, too.
Most of the residents who spoke saw it differently. They were critical of Macerich’s plans, finding them not only outsized, but out of synch with the city. And several of them suggested that a project of this size and scope should follow the General Plan rather than precede it. Naturally enough, the Macerich people disagreed. Such a delay could doom the project, they said.
Somehow, City Hall has managed to create the planning equivalent of a car crash. It has spent years tinkering with the Civic Center Specific Plan and is now apparently bent on rushing it through the requisite reviews to approval. It has spent nearly three years collaborating with Macerich on a plan that, inexplicably, not only violates existing standards but the basic character of Santa Monica. And now it’s begun work on the General Plan revisions.
Civic Center Specific Plan crashes into Macerich proposal! Macerich project collides with General Plan! General Plan hits Civic Center Plan. BLAM! SPLAT! BANG! What were they thinking? What ARE they thinking?
Obviously, both the Civic Center Specific Plan and the Macerich proposal, which are major parts of the whole, should be shelved until the General Plan revision, the whole, is complete. But the planners seem to want all three to go forward simultaneously.
And the City Council seems to agree.
Or not. One savvy observer at Tuesday night’s meeting said that he believed the Council thought it had voted against going forward, but had, in fact, given staff the go-ahead. Another longtime player said, on leaving the meeting, “What in hell did they do?”
According to the City’s own “wrap-up,” the “Council directed staff to begin working with Macerich on a public/private partnership approach to remaking Santa Monica Place under a development agreement, with certain guiding principles and including analysis and advice from a financial consultant, and specific direction to return with a plan for integrating public input into a decision-making process facilitated by a consultant paid for by the developer and on an expedited timetable. Council also adopted a resolution of intent to move forward with the adoption process for the Civic Center Specific Plan, keeping the areas north of Colorado in the plan.”
The day after the meeting, Macerich issued the following statement: “The Macerich Company is pleased with the unanimous vote of confidence of the City Council last night to continue the process toward determination of a final redevelopment plan for Santa Monica Place.
Today, our priority is to begin working with the city staff to develop a comprehensive community outreach program to open a useful dialogue with the residents of Santa Monica because as we have continued to say, ’any successful redevelopment plan must have the imprint of the community.’
For Santa Monica residents or business owners, this is the opportunity to have voices heard and opinions expressed. This inclusive action will have a direct impact on the future of Santa Monica.”
As it turns out, the grown-ups were at John Adams last Saturday. The 175 residents at the workshop know what they want. And what they want, in the most profound sense of the word, is LESS, meaning the preservation and refinement of everything that is good and true in this old beach town and the elimination of those elements that diminish it – such as gridlock and congestion and grandiosity in all its forms. But City Hall and Macerich seem bent on MORE.
Frick said, “The key component is public participation” and Macerich said its plan “must have the imprint of the community.” But when the public spoke eloquently last Tuesday night, reaffirming what workshop participants had already said, no one on the dais was listening.