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The Monsters That Ate Santa Monica:

When an institution reaches a certain size and speed, it inevitably begins to elevate its own interests and welfare over the interests and welfare of the people it was created to serve.

City Hall was created to serve this idiosyncratic beach town and its residents, but in 1992, as he retired after ten years on the City Council, Denny Zane, perhaps inadvertently, signaled a new tack when he said, “In ten years, we have made a wonderful city.”

It was the rankest kind of hubris. In fact, the primary maker of Santa Monica was and is its location in the heart of the fabled Southern California coast, and, by the time Zane turned his attention to Santa Monica, six generations of Santa Monicans had made a fine, complex and wonderful beach town.

What Zane and his City Hall colleagues actually made was an ambitious bureaucracy that created some worthy programs, but, in 1992, separated itself and its priorities from the town and its priorities. In its pronouncements, City Hall became the City, while everything else was merely the city – except the beach, which was reduced, in the City Hall lexicon, to “a visitor-serving facility.”

Since then, the City has had its way with the city.

The last 12 years have been chiefly notable for more and more bloated and pretentious projects, and fewer and fewer worthy programs. Though it trumpets its devotion to slow growth, “sustainability,” and “adaptive re-use,” the City has not only become the biggest developer in the city, it has accumulated more and more power, and the more it has, the more it seems to want.

As anyone who has watched City Council meetings knows, in recent years, Council members have become more like supplicants than elected leaders.

The City staff sets the agenda and the residents’ representatives almost invariably approve it, even if it runs counter to what residents want or need.

For example, residents have long been bothered by ever-escalating traffic congestion. Rather than taking steps to reduce traffic and/or manage it more efficiently, the City has engaged in a very costly “traffic calming” experiment – installing “expanded” curbs, medians and islands, and cutting four-lane streets to two lanes, which has not calmed traffic, but has enraged drivers and increased gridlock. We have yet to encounter anyone outside of City Hall who thinks these changes have improved life in Santa Monica, much less reduced congestion.

This concentration of power in City Hall is perilous, but the peril is enlarged exponentially by the unfortunate fact that the City doesn’t do what it does very well.

An esteemed architect told us not long ago that “the best architects do their worst work” for the City. The proofs, like the power, accumulate – the buildings on the west end of Santa Monica Pier, the Third Street Promenade, the new Public Safety building, the new Main library, etcetera.

And now City Hall is pushing such mega-projects as the $80 million bus yards expansion, the $120 million-and-rising Civic Center Plan, and the $40 million City yards expansion. All of them were initiated by City staff, and if they go forward, based on what we have seen thus far, they would radically alter and, thus, diminish the city.

It is reasonable to assume that most residents live in Santa Monica because they like both it and the lives they lead here, and thus favor preserving and refining what is here, but City Hall seems determined to, in its own words, “improve and enhance” our town. However, its notion of “improving and enhancing” seems to mean turning this legendary beach town into a posh and conventional enclave on the sea – Newport Beach North perhaps.

If we don’t change direction soon, the preamble to the revised 2006 General Plan, and/or Convention and Visitors press release, may well begin:

“From Haute to Hot

“Poised for world domination…A destination where trendsetters bypass Beverly Hills to find the rare and unusual…from waif-like haute couture, to richly déclassé and high-ticket grunge.

“The median home price is nearly 2 million—up 43.6% from June, 2003…

“A Legendary Location

“Paradise with international panache where globetrotters & fashionistas, the famous & the fortunate revel in sun and fun, la vida loca haute couture to bohemian chic—this is Santa Monica and everyone who’s anyone plays here.

“Global Attraction

“At the end of legendary Route 66, the sun meets the ocean at the close of each day, and the faithful worship at one of the seven wonders of the beach world. Here lies the rainbow at the journey’s end, where wishes are fulfilled and dreams come true. And the stars come out at night to play. A few fabled places across the globe draw society’s elite from Europe, the Far East, the Middle East and all the Americas. Those who by fortune or fame find themselves in the enviable position of having all the freedom in the world—to come and go at will, to buy whatever and whenever they wish. They surf, swim and sun worship along 3.5 miles of beach that’s 74-degrees and sunny year-round. Here, it’s a short stretch from stardom to bohemian—and the sheer diversity of styles, tastes and experiences make Santa Monica one of the top beach destinations in the world. Shopping is the top recreational activity of both domestic and international tourists.”

Actually, these passages appeared last year on the Santa Monica Place website. (copyright@1998-2004 The Macerich Company)

The thing is, Macerich, which owns Santa Monica Place, is in business to make money, while City Hall exists solely to serve Santa Monica and its residents, and neither the place nor its residents would be well-served by turning this beach town into a money mill – however chic.

The demeanor of City Hall staff people when they appear before the City Council is solemn and modest, but their aspirations are primitive, raw: power for themselves and money, hundreds of millions of dollars, for the projects that will remake Santa Monica along richer and more conventional lines.

In the last year, City Hall has grown measurably bolder, as when it moved to radically reduce public review of new projects. The proposed diminution of the public’s role was vigorously opposed by residents and members of the various boards and commissions, so City Hall did a Uriah Heep and is now pushing its panoply of projects forward, while actively soliciting “community input” on the revision of the General Plan’s land use (“Shape the Future 2025) and circulation (“Motion by the Ocean”) elements.

Clearly, common sense mandates that a moratorium be declared on major projects until the revision is complete, or the revision will be obsolete before it’s in place, but common sense is regularly trumped by expediency in City Hall.

And if the past is precedent, and it is, the General Plan promotional campaign, the snappy slogans – “Shape the Future 2025,” “Motion by the Oceans,” the workshops, the website questionnaires, the booklet that asks “What Is Your Vision of Santa Monica?” are all smoke and mirrors — a City Hall show designed to gull us into believing that the revised General Plan will faithfully reflect the residents’ “vision, ” when, in fact, once again, City Hall’s “vision” will prevail, and, one day soon, Santa Monica will exemplify that most melancholy of clichés: it’s a great place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.

It’s not that City Hall wants to destroy this fine old beach town, it’s just that it thinks it knows better than we do what and how it should be, and nothing is more destructive to places and people than hubris.

“What Is Your Vision of Santa Monica?” booklets were mailed to 56,000 households in Santa Monica. They should have also been sent to the City planners who are working on the General Plan revision, as – here and now – their visions will have more weight than all the others, because the fix is in. According to the City’s timetable, residents have only a few more weeks to submit their comments on the revision of the land use and circulation elements of the General Plan. After that, the planners will spend the next year and nine months manicuring them.

In the end, the town as it is should be the primary measure and basis for the revised General Plan. Mistakes, eyesores and all, it is our collective “vision,” made manifest by generations of Santa Monicans. And it is what it is – 130 years old, solid, real, quirky and unique, and that is why so many people, including the City planners, want a piece of it, want to put their brands on it, and that is why we must be alert, very alert.

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