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The Invasion of the Town-Snatchers:

You must have seen the movie, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, director Don Siegel’s 1956 cult classic, in which soulless pods take over the bodies of the residents of a small California town – one by one.

We happened on it last week on Turner Classic Movies, and had a kind of epiphany.

For a number of years, we have wondered about the people who come to Santa Monica, presumably because they like it, but then propose major developments that are designed to turn it into something else.

In the same way, we have been baffled by City officials whose only reason for being is to serve the city and its residents, but who devote all of their waking hours to projects that diminish the townscape and demean its residents.

Plenty of places would welcome both the developers’ big deal proposals and the officials’ ambitious agendas. Why don’t the developers and bureaucrats go to those places?

The developers opt for Santa Monica because those other places aren’t gold mines, just waiting to be mined, and, in their view, Santa Monica is.

When residents look at Santa Monica, they see a beach town that, like a coral reef, has been shaped and honed and made fine by time and events and their own collective imagination and is, at its heart, as integral to this fabled coast as the sun and fog.

When developers look at it, all too often, they see a place with real “potential,” and they want a slice of it.

The bureaucrats prefer it, because the basic stuff is already in place, so they can spend their days trolling for state and federal funds that will pay for such “improvements and enhancements” as the “transit mall,” which are neither necessary nor “improvements or enhancements” – except to the extent that they improve and enhance resumes.

Or, to put it simply, both the developers and the bureaucrats would rather cash in on what we and our forebears have wrought in 130 years than start from scratch.

And so they come, all smiles and guile, and promise us everything, but, more often than not, just give us headaches.

The developers and City Hall are natural co-conspirators, because they all worship at the altar called change, as that’s where the developers’ profits and the bureaucrats’ top jobs are.

The last time we looked, the City employed 24 planners. If the City merely preserved and refined what is here – as most residents would have it, it wouldn’t need 24 planners.

There are obvious exceptions to the rule, but not enough.

And years of that has led inevitably to the recent sturm und drang over the General Plan, the redevelopment of Santa Monica Place and the Civic Center and Santa Monica College’s plans for its new airport campus.

And the sturm und drang has led, of course, to the current rash of community workshops – on the General Plan revision, the Santa Monica Place redevelopment and the college plans for its new Airport campus.

And as we have reported in these pages, the workshop “facilitators” and developers and bureaucrats come all full of guile and smiles, but the workshops are merely elaborate shows in which everyone is required to suspend his or her disbelief and pretend for two or three hours that the games with blocks are actually going to have an impact on the final projects.

It has been clear for some time that these people are a different breed. Though they often dress more fussily than we do and speak in abstract rather than concrete terms, they look and move like us, but it wasn’t until we saw Invasion of the Body Snatchers that we finally identified the difference.

These people, these agents of change, are the town-snatchers.

They arrive, all smiles and guile, toting their soulless plans, promise us anything, and the next thing we know several blocks of useful, often handsome, functional apartment buildings have been demolished and replaced by overwrought, deeply pretentious edifices, and a working library is replaced by something that looks like nothing so much as a branch of the county jail, and the new public safety facility casts an ugly shadow on our gorgeous City Hall, and elegant Spanish colonial and Craftsman houses are razed and replaced by replicas of Orange County funeral parlours and so on…

The body-snatchers’ victory was absolute; by the end of the movie, the soulless pods had overtaken all the residents. While the town-snatchers have made a considerable dent in our townscape, we still out-number them, but we must be more vigilant, or they will eventually take over, because they are nothing if not persistent.We suggest an emergency ordinance requiring town-snatchers, actual or would-be, to wear bells – so we can, at the very least, hear them coming, and get in their way.

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