When she departed for Long Beach last week, Santa Monica’s Planning Director Suzanne Frick left a vacuum in City Hall.
Frick spent 22 years in the City Planning Department and was Director of Planning and Community Development for ten years. Her impact on the City and the townscape is incalculable. She was at least as powerful as the top gun, City Manager Susan McCarthy, and one of the most influential people in the city. When she talked, everyone listened.
On Frick’s watch, the City became the biggest developer in the city and Santa Monica changed more radically in her ten years than it had in the previous 20 years.
The $69 million public safety building, the new $72 million Main Library, the $80 million Big Blue bus yard expansion, the $15 million Transit Mall, the $4.5 million “pedestrian improvements” on Second and Fourth Streets, the new Civic Center parking structure, the initial Santa Monica Place redevelopment plan with its three 21-story condo towers, the misbegot Civic Center Plan concept with its $20 million city services building, the medians, islands, expanded curbs, round-about, and other so-called “traffic calming” devices, and, indeed, the traffic itself, are all products of Frick’s reign.
She also presided over major expansions at St. John’s Hospital, the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica College, the Water Garden and the Arboretum, RAND’s new mega-HQ, the very large development now rising on the old Boulangerie site and the transformation of Sixth and Seventh Streets downtown from low-key, low-rise, interesting streets to unbroken walls of overwrought apartment buildings.
Given that extensive list of extensive changes, and the fact that she did it all in a town whose residents are dedicated to slow growth, small scale, historic preservation and serene residential neighborhoods, some might see Frick as a kind of Wonder Woman. We see her as a principal player in an increasingly irrational municipal drama, in which the City Council, by preference or inclination, almost always defers to City staff.
As currently drawn, the City Charter gives an inordinate measure of power to the staff, but, policies are determined – or should be – by our elected officials, and so Frick could only do what she did with the approval of the Council.
Not surprisingly, Interim Planning Director Andy Agle’s initial report to the City Council and Planning Commission last night on “emerging themes” in the community’s suggested revisions in the General Plan was a polite, but devastating repudiation of the City Hall/ Frick “bigger is better” policies of the last ten years.
According to the report, these themes are: “A unique city with a strong sense of community; a city rich in amenities, with walking access to shops and services from neighborhoods; a diverse and inclusive city; a town-scale community; a city of strong neighborhoods, protected from commercial and industrial uses; a pedestrian and bicycle-friendly place; a city rich with its array of transit offerings; a city where traffic and parking work; a city of modest and balanced growth; a city with attractive boulevards; a safe and secure community; an environmentally sustainable place.”
At the same meeting, the City Manager requested that the Council members and Commissioners discuss “the challenges and opportunities that will face an incoming Director of Planning and Community Development and qualifications and experience that would assist high performance in the position.”
The Council and Planning Commissioners’ only role here is to advise and consent. Under the charter, the City Manager has the last word.
According to assistant City Manager Judy Rambeau, McCarthy will employ a head hunter “as is the norm for most department head-level positions, but has not selected the firm yet. Depending on the scope of the search and other factors, the recruitment, selection and hiring process could take three to six months. She will want to take enough time to get the right person.”
Ah, yes, the “right person.” Just as the planners have asked residents to engage in “visioning” the future of Santa Monica, we cannot help but engage in “visioning” the next Planning Director.
For reasons that must be obvious by now, we would immediately eliminate anyone currently employed by the City of Santa Monica, and our blood runs cold at the thought of another “high performance” Planning Director.
Above all, the next Planning and Community Development Director must fully comprehend Santa Monica in all its shapes, colors and nuances. It is not a theory, it’s a fact.
It’s not a blank slate in need of filling in. It’s not someone’s dream project. It is what it is — home to 84,000 highly diverse, smart, devoted men, women and children, a legendary beach town, an eight square mile island in the vast L.A. nation, the product of 130 years of dreams, nightmares, genius, idiocy, jokes, accidents, luck – bad and good, all bound up by serendipity.
Movies and warplanes have been made here. Champion women tennis players and the Z-boys have been born here.
A number of the world’s leading architects have lived and worked here. Artists in all media have been drawn to this blessed curve of sand and palm trees. And six generations of African-American, Anglo, Asian and Latino doctors and bankers, teachers and chefs, clerks and lawyers, housewives and auto dealers have lived and worked here and made a town like no other.
And all of that is in it — like bones and sinew and blood.
In addition to understanding the place, the next planner must understand its residents and their aspirations, and, on the most basic level, must agree with them, and play by their rules, not the usual planners’ rules. We are not suggesting that he or she should be a Uriah Heep, but that he or she should listen as well as talk.
Ideally, he or she will have been everywhere and seen everything, and will know that Southern California cities are not made like cities in other parts of the country – for all sorts of very good reasons. The ROMA Design Group struck out every time the City employed it because, among other things, it is based in San Francisco, which is as different from Santa Monica as Mars.
We are as interested in the next planning director’s taste, aesthetic sense and priorities, imagination and creativity, experience and general knowledge as in his or her formal planning credentials, and can, in fact, see some benefit in naming an architect with planning experience to the post.
And, as long as he or she works in Santa Monica, the next Planning Director should live in Santa Monica.Finally, planners tend to see things in terms of problems. The next Planning Director must accept the fact that Santa Monica is not a problem, it’s the solution.