After 22 years in the Santa Monica Planning Department and 10 years as Planning and Community Development Director, Suzanne Frick will ease down the 405 later this month to become head of the Long Beach Planning Department.
In an interview with Andy Fixmer in the April 4 issue of the Los Angeles Business Journal, she gave us further proof, if any were needed, of how badly City Hall has misread the city and its residents.
When asked how Santa Monica has changed since she came to work here 22 years ago, Frick is quoted as saying, “It’s a completely different city. When I started there wasn’t a hotel district along Ocean Avenue or an office district on Colorado or the Third Street Promenade in its current form. It wasn’t the vibrant urban environment it is today.”
No resident we know wanted “a completely different city” 22 years ago. It was a legendary and wonderfully contrary beach town, a kind of unruly paradise, and it was entirely sufficient.
And the notion that the addition of the hotel district, an office district and a promenade dominated by the chain stores that one finds all over L.A. and everywhere else were the bases for “a vibrant urban environment” is naïve, at best.
The hotels rise like a wall between the town and the beach, generate lots of loot for their mega-corporate owners and City Hall, and contribute to the perpetual traffic congestion.
The so-called office district has replaced an off-beat gathering of light industrial plants and lively artists’ studios and galleries with big, mute, architecturally pretentious office buildings, made a lot of money for developers and been a major maker of the ever-spreading traffic mess. The promenade has replaced unique businesses, including a collection of bookstores, with ubiquitous formula stores, made a lot of money for landlords and the City, and exacerbated the major and pervasive traffic problems.
In other words, Santa Monica is not a whit more “urban” now than it was 22 years ago. It’s merely blander, more conventional and less spontaneous and quirky than it was. And, if it is more “vibrant,” which, not incidentally, is City Hall’s latest adjective of choice, its “vibrancy” is due solely to the explosion of traffic City Hall has inflicted on us.
It’s not “completely different.” It’s still a legendary, wonderfully contrary beach town, but now it has “vibrant” problems, thanks to Frick and friends.
Later in the interview, Frick is quoted as saying that her “initial reaction to Macerich’s proposed 22-story residential towers along with rebuilding its current mall space” was “It’s a great dream. It’s great to have a property owner of Macerich’s size to think big and have vision. We let them know it would be controversial and we knew that going in. But we thought it also contained key outstanding components downtown, including extending the Promenade a fourth block, a pedestrian orientation on all sides of mall and open space.”
Judging by the community’s initial reaction to the plan, City Hall’s chief planner’s “great dream” turned out to be many residents’ worst nightmare.
And whose dream should prevail anyway? Surely, City Hall’s only legitimate role is to respond to residents’ needs and wishes, but, for several decades, City Hall has devoted its principal energy to undoing what six generations of Santa Monicans have done, pitting its ambitious and utterly conventional dreams against the reality of a thoroughly idiosyncratic town.
So it was that when former City Manager John Jalilli boasted several years ago that the City had become “the city’s biggest developer,” countless residents winced.
Macerich and City Hall are made for each other. They both “think big and have vision.” But, unfortunately, “thinking big” in an eight-square mile town that is 130 years old, and. for all practical purposes, built out, is not merely foolish, it’s disastrous. What Santa Monica wants and needs is preservation and refinement – but where’s the fun in that for a City Hall dominated by a gang of would-be shapers and movers?
Imagine, for a moment, a string of real pearls. It’s very simple and very beautiful. If a pearl were damaged, most residents would replace it with another pearl of equal size and beauty. But, based on its record, City Hall would replace the real pearls – one or several at a time – with big clanking gold balls – for no reason except that it could.
When asked by Fixmer why development has always been “contentious and controversial in Santa Monica,” Frick is quoted as saying, “It’s an active community and historically has been a community where residents organize and tend to be very involved. Any project in Santa Monica will require a lot of community input…”
Frick is either being deliberately disingenuous, or she hasn’t been paying attention. In fact, residents “tend to be involved” because they have learned the hard way that they can’t trust City Hall to do the right thing. Not only is its “vision” of the city at odds with their reality, but, as Frick noted, City Hall is inordinately fond of developers who “think big.”
Fixmer also asked “How does Santa Monica see itself developing?” To which Frick replied, “There’s a conflict between a desire to grow and to also be a small town. They need to reconcile those competing objectives…they are going to have to decide which they want to be.”
Again, Frick has apparently not been paying attention. Residents not only don’t have “to decide which they want to be,” they can’t. The decision was made more than a century ago. Santa Monica is not a theory, it’s a fact — an eight-square mile, 130-year-old fact. And it is too tightly made to be susceptible to major alterations. It cannot be changed in any fundamental way, but it can be destroyed – and sometimes it seems that that’s what City Hall has in mind.
Residents know what the planners apparently don’t know, or won’t admit: Santa Monica can and should be preserved and refined, but it cannot “grow” physically in any significant way without being diminished. Nothing can be added now without the removal of something else. And every major recent addition has resulted in the elimination of some splendid piece of our city.
Does anyone actually believe that the razing of the old Boulangerie to make way for a elephantine mixed use project is progress? City officials love to talk about the virtues of “adaptive re-use,” but if they were serious, they would have found someone to buy the Boulangerie property and reconstitute it. But that, of course, wouldn’t be “thinking big,” it’d simply be sensible.
Surely, in her 22 years here, Frick must have noticed that residents regularly and frequently declare their opposition to “growth.” In every city election but one since1982, voters have filled the majority of the seats on the City Council with Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights members, who are avowedly “slow” or “no growth” advocates (though they have recently been inclined to give City Hall its way). In 1989, citizens approved an initiative, Prop S, that forbad the construction of any more hotels on the beach. In 1992, residents tried to block the creation of a 70,000 square foot “Fun Zone” on Santa Monica Pier, but were betrayed by the Council. Residents who live North of Montana succeeded in banning “monster mansions.” Mid-City residents tried to stop the expansion of St. John’s Hospital. A couple of years ago, residents defeated a ballot measure that would have radically reduced the authority of the Landmarks Commission to preserve significant houses and buildings. Residents of Sunset Park are now struggling to limit the growth of Santa Monica College. And residents’ consternation over the proposed transformation of Santa Monica Place into a mega real estate development is still reverberating through the city.
Believing the shape, scope and thrust of the City’s current efforts to measure public opinion on the revision of the General Plan to be inadequate, Friends of Sunset Park conducted its own survey, and it is as clear an expression of current resident attitudes as we are likely to see.
The Executive Summary of the survey says that residents “are looking for the City and its leaders to begin paying more attention to the concerns of its citizens. That the focus needs to be less on the City’s image as an influential business center within the Los Angeles Basin and more on it as a community of residents. The residents want you to refocus your energies on the small-town atmosphere that we were known for years ago reminiscent of Santa Monica’s days as a beach community. Yes, we want to be an urban community that makes a difference in Southern California and the country but we do not want to give in to the pressures of growth and an expanding population and become like everywhere else in Southern California and the nation. We want a Santa Monica that is unique because it has stood against these pressures and not turned into yet another indistinguishable gentrified community on the sea.”In sum, residents decided long ago to preserve and refine this unique beach town, and have reiterated that decision again and again. If City officials can’t accept it, and act accordingly, perhaps they should all hit the 405.