By now, every household in Santa Monica should have received a booklet from the City that asks “What is your vision of Santa Monica?” and then invites the recipient to “Shape the future 2025.”
The booklet is one of a number of tools the City Planning Department has devised to encourage residents to participate in the revision of the land use and circulation elements of the General Plan, which was last revised in 1984.
The booklet opens with a letter addressed to “Friends of Santa Monica” from Planning and Community Development Director Suzanne Frick. It says, in part, “Santa Monica is a great place to live, work and visit. The City you know today did not happen by accident. If you look back 20 years the Third Street Mall, today’s Promenade, was a quiet shopping street, hotels were virtually non-existent along Ocean Avenue, the eastern part of the city around Olympic Boulevard and Colorado Avenue consisted of industrial uses and few residents inhabited the downtown.
“In 1984, the community created a vision that has guided growth and development over the last 20 years. The City you know and enjoy today is the direct result of the 1984 vision.
“Now it is time to shape the future of Santa Monica for the next 20 years. Where will people live? Where will people work? How will people move around? What will change, and what will remain the same? The future is literally in your hands.”
Well, yes and no.
20 years ago, the future was definitely not in our hands. And if there was “a vision,” it was City Hall’s vision, not the residents’. Though Santa Monica was not, by any definition, broken, City Hall was determined to “fix” it.
The de-industrialization of the area in the Olympic/Colorado corridor and the rise of the so-called “Media District,” the creation of the City’s Convention and Visitors’ Bureau and the Hotel District, the addition of a 70,000 square foot amusement park on Santa Monica Pier, the transformation of the pleasant mall into the frenzied Third Street Promenade and the proposed Civic Center Specific Plan were all conceived in City Hall, without the consent of or, in some cases, the knowledge of residents.
And all the growth and development that City Hall conjured in the early 1980s generated all the traffic and congestion that afflict Santa Monica now. But, of course, Santa Monica has long been the capital of unintended consequences.
We don’t know anyone who thinks that Santa Monica or life in Santa Monica has been improved by the massive changes wrought by the City in the last 20 years, which may be why it’s making so much noise about the “vision thing” this time around and nattering endlessly about the need for residents to be involved in shaping the future.
Still, as Frick put it in her letter, “We are asking you to provide your comments between now and March, 2005.” The City estimates that the revision will take two-plus years to complete, so it’s giving the community three months to express its vision or visions and itself nearly two years to fold, spin and mutilate it.
There will be, we are assured, more community forums and reviews of the proposed revisions down the road, but, based on past experience, we are somewhat skeptical about both the City’s late-blooming devotion to residents’ views and its willingness and/or ability to incorporate those views in the new General Plan
For one thing, it has been clear for some time that residents and City Hall see things differently. For another, the future, to a large extent, has already been determined. Much of what has been done in 130 years, for better or worse, cannot be undone.
Santa Monica is not simply real estate or some kind of machine that can be endlessly modified to suit the tastes of the moment. Created by geography, location, circumstance, accidents and people, it has been in the works for 130 years, is fully formed, concrete, real, and thoroughly idiosyncratic. Complex and complete, it does not need MORE of anything. It needs LESS of some things, and our primary task, as residents, is to recognize, preserve and refine what is good and get rid of what is not.
The horrifying and glorious truth is that when a town is as old and as well-made as Santa Monica, it is easier to destroy it, than to change it.
If the last 20 years have taught us anything, they have taught us that. Without fully realizing what it was doing, City Hall set out to turn this fully contrary old beach town into a docile four-star resort. To that end, it sacrificed a row of nearly perfect low slung beachside motels on Ocean Avenue to make way for the starchy Hotel District, turned a lowkey light manufacturing area in which artists could also find space into a gathering of luxe office buildings, and traded in local independent businesses and services on Third Street, Wilshire and Montana for big box chain stores.
Property values have soared, City Hall coffers have exploded, the daily population has skyrocketed to 250,000, and traffic congestion has spread like a virus.
And there are more, equally wrong-headed changes already in the works: the $40 million bus yard expansion, the misbegot Civic Center Plan, and the expansion of the City yards.
In inviting residents to “shape the future,” the City has suggested that we can have whatever we want. We can’t, but if we are to preserve and refine what we have, we must first unplug some of the more ambitious City plans, and undo some of its mistakes – like toning the promenade down rather than cranking it up.
In a recent interview in the L.A. Times, City Council member Bobby Shriver was asked what he liked best about Santa Monica. He said, “I like the weird diversity of it. I like the gym guys. I like the surfboarders. I like the actors. It has a feeling, a flavor, as the rappers say.”
Asked what Santa Monica should look like in ten years, he said, “As close to the way it looks like now. I prefer not to think of it as the status quo, but to think of it as Paris looking as much as possible as it did in the 18th century.”
A 17-year resident of Santa Monica, Shriver has only been on the Council for a couple of months, and, unlike his long-running colleagues, he sees Santa Monica as a place to be cherished, rather than a problem to be solved. We’d be more optimistic about “shaping the future,” if his view prevailed in City Hall.