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Santa Monica: For Love or Money?:

Following presentations by several traffic experts from other cities at a joint meeting of the City Council and the Planning Commission last Tuesday, Mayor Pam O’Connor said that we should decide what we want Santa Monica to be before we decide on a traffic plan.

Like many people in City Hall, O’Connor apparently believes that, though Santa Monica is 130 years old, it’s made of play dough and can be endlessly poked and pulled and pounded into whatever we want it to be.

That’s nonsense, of course, but it has been the basis for most of the City’s missteps in the last two decades.

A beach town is perhaps the best and highest form of urban life — because it is, by definition, gorgeously located, thoroughly idiosyncratic, unpretentious, elegant in a bare bones sort of way, free-spirited, a renegade of a place, unsusceptible to all the conventional lures, and, occasionally, downright magical.

To the untutored, a beach town may look like a “destination resort.” But as a beach town is contrary, and an original, and a destination resort is subservient, and a copy, the only way to turn a beach town into a destination resort is to bury the beach town.

Santa Monica is a legendary beach town. But, in 1992, with that kind of naïve arrogance that afflicts too many public officials, the City went into the bigtime tourist business as casually as if it were adopting a new slogan, with no thought at all of the consequences.

The only thing on the City’s mind was the additional revenue it would reap from the new bed tax and an anticipated rise in the sales tax. It gave little or no thought to the negative impacts, which included quantum leaps in traffic and congestion, additional strains on the municipal infrastructure, an increase of low-end, dead-end jobs, but no comparable increase in mid-level or executive jobs, and a perilous inflation in real estate prices that was bound to warp the city’s economic foundation.

In creating the Hotel District, the City deliberately built a wall in the center of the beach town that divided the town from its beach, and put an exorbitant price tag on the priceless prospect, restricting it to people who could afford to pay hundreds of dollars a day for the privilege.

In that way, operating on the assumption that Santa Monica could be altered to order, City Hall created the municipal equivalent of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, a town at war with itself, as beach town residents battled endlessly with resort operators and their allies in City Hall for the soul of the place.

Today, the City spends $2 million annually on tourist promotions, and, ironically, “colorful” residents have, without their consent, become part of the pitch – real people in playland.

In 1973, residents beat back a City decision to demolish Santa Monica Pier. In 1982, residents said they wanted the pier to remain a pier – simple, low-key, unadorned, with only a few cafes and surf shops, and the merry-go-round. But in 1985, the City decided that was not economically feasible and set out to turn it into a tourist attraction.

In the 1982 Santa Monica Pier Guidelines, the residents had decreed that the pier should not become “Disneyland-by-the-Sea,” but, with the City-mandated 70,000-square-foot fun zone, that is what it became. And several years later, in a town with an astonishing number of great places to eat, ranging from very cool diners to world-class restaurants, the City gave a key location on the pier to Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, a chain restaurant.

Though, according to the City’s own studies, the addition of the Fun Zone would attract an additional two million visitors a year, it took no steps to deal with the additional traffic, and that was the genesis of the perpetual traffic jam that afflicts virtually every street in the vicinity of the pier.

But, as they say, ignorance is bliss, and the City pressed on, cranking the pleasant Third Street open-air mall, which was notable for small independent bookstores and locally owned shops, up into the frenzied Third Street Promenade, which was chiefly notable for chain stores. It was one more bow to the tourists and one more traffic magnet.

At the behest of the RAND Corporation, the next target on the City’s ever-lengthening list of alterations was that portion of Main Street between Pico Boulevard and Colorado Avenue on which the Civic Auditorium, L.A. County Courthouse, Santa Monica City Hall and RAND were located. The City dubbed it the Civic Center, but its principal feature was to be the largest commercial development in the City’s history – directly across Main Street from City Hall.

Several years later, RAND abandoned its plans for the commercial development, but the City, rather than abandoning its misbegot plan, bought an eight-plus acre-parcel from RAND for $53 million, and RAND drew up plans for a new building for itself on its remaining acreage.

Far more elaborate and misbegot than the original plan, the revised Civic Center Plan calls for the demolition of the old RAND buildings and the addition of the new RAND HQ, the new public safety building, a new parking structure (now under construction), a new housing complex with 300-plus units (some affordable), shops and restaurants, a new $20 million “City Services” building, a new day care center, a new playing field, an immense “town square” in front of City Hall, and little bits of green here and there. In addition, the plan calls for ending Main Street south of City Hall, turning the existing Main Street bridge into a pedestrian walkway, and extending Second Street south across Colorado Avenue and onto a new bridge over the #10 freeway into the Civic Center.

As far as we know, the City has yet to estimate the cost of all this, but the Public Safety building, which was originally estimated at $33 million, cost nearly $70 million, and, for all that, is one of the ugliest buildings ever to cast a shadow in Santa Monica.

And so, if City Hall has its way, what is now a plain and pleasant prospect will become the site of what will resemble nothing so much as a kind of architectural disaster area in which the existing historically and architecturally significant buildings will be swallowed up in a crowd of bloated and pretentious buildings – the perfect manifestation of a bloated and pretentious bureaucracy, and a profound embarrassment to the rest of us.

The tardy addition of Santa Monica Place to the Civic Center Plan is proof, if any were needed, that the Plan is as flawed as the rationale for it has always been.

City staff worked with Macerich, the mall’s owners, for more than two years on a redevelopment plan that included three 21-story condo towers, which are in clear violation of City height limits, and called for the demolition of existing City-owned parking structures and the construction of City-financed new “smart” subterranean parking.

To put it as politely as possible, that plan had few advocates, and so the City Council directed the staff to continue to work on a development agreement with Macerich while soliciting “community input” for a revised plan. To that end, a series of four community workshops, at which participants worked with children’s blocks and play dough, has just concluded.

And, in the midst of all this commotion, the City has also embarked on a revision of the land use and circulation elements of the General Plan.

It was last revised in 1984 and this revision is supposed to set the city’s course for the next 20 years. Departing Director of Planning and Community Development Suzanne Frick has called it our Constitution, and, like O’Connor, has also suggested that we can decide what we want the city to be.

But, at community workshops, residents are armed with blocks and play dough, while City Hall is armed with something like absolute power and real dough.

But, of course, residents also have the town itself, and it is not made of play dough, it’s made of soil, trees, shrubbery, flowers, grass, lumber, asphalt, cement, bricks, mortar, stucco, glass, thousands of buildings, thousands of yards – back and front.

Santa Monica is a fact, not a concept. It’s 130 years old. It measures eight square miles. It has a population of 84,000 people. It’s one of the densest cities in Southern California. And, in spite of all of City Hall’s insults and missteps, it’s still a great beach town.

In sum, we don’t have to decide what we want the city to be, we HAVE a city, we just have to decide what we want City Hall to be – and in that effort Plato will be more useful than play dough.

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