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When Planning Goes Awry:

Harvard philosopher George Santayana famously wrote, “When experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

An article in last week’s Mirror, “Master Planning: Santa Monica in 1958,” by Nina Fresco, Chair Pro Tem of the Landmarks Commission, perfectly demonstrates Santayana’s thesis.

In addition to chronicling a significant chapter in the life of Santa Monica, the article is a cautionary tale that is particularly pertinent as the City is currently revising the land use and circulation elements of its General Plan as well as pondering the redevelopment of the Civic Center and Santa Monica Place.

As Fresco tells it, City Hall decreed that a nine-block area on the ocean in Ocean Park suffered from “blight,” and set out to fix it. That was the genesis of the “Ocean Park Redevelopment Project.”

The area in question was bounded by Nielson Way to the east, Speedway (now Barnard Way) to the west, Ocean Park Boulevard to the north and the city limits to the south. It contained 259 houses. The City bought the property, demolished the houses, shut down all the east-west streets in the area, and sold the land to developers, who subsequently built Santa Monica Shores’ two towers, and Sea Colony I, II and III condominiums. From start to finish, the project took 30 years.

As Fresco wrote, “The Ocean Park Project destroyed a large neighborhood of original homes and commercial buildings and displaced many long-term residents for a fix that took 30 years to complete. The blight would have remedied itself in that time without displacing people from their homes and without the loss of what would today be considered valuable historic resources, which, coincidentally, are one of the top draws for tourism to an area.

“In exchange, we have different, unanticipated negative effects on the neighborhood in that the walled-in character of the redevelopment project separates its residents from the community and separates the community from the beach. It also serves as a barrier to visitors to Main Street who can not circumnavigate the nine-block area in order to reach the beach parking lots during their visits.

“Master planning must respect the approaches of those who came before: renewing, re-adapting, reusing and rebuilding the historic houses of our city to meet modern needs while maintaining continuity with the past that brought us here. Since the 1950s, we have learned the imperative of sustainability and are learning to reuse our resources. Why not apply these ideas to the way we plan our city?”

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the Ocean Park Redevelopment Project is that it allows us to compare Neighborhood redevelopment and neighborhood evolution.

In this instance, redevelopment replaced acres of houses that were integral to Ocean Park with a walled mini-city that is isolated from the rest of Ocean Park.

In contrast, the South Beach Tract, which stretches north from Ocean Park Boulevard, between Nielson and Barnard and was once a virtual twin to the blocks of “blight,” is now one of the most attractive and desirable neighborhoods in Santa Monica. As Fresco wrote, “Neighborhoods often fall into disrepair as one generation ages before the next generation starts to move in and bring energy and life back into the area.”

In Ocean Park, in the 1950s, impatience, ambition and conventional planning led not merely to the destruction of a neighborhood, but to the addition of a wholly inappropriate and aesthetically mediocre development, while natural evolution has led to one of the city’s most attractive neighborhoods.

As we revise the General Plan, if we don’t remember the mistakes that City Hall has made in the name of progress, we will be condemned to repeat them.

There is at least one other lesson in the Ocean Park Redevelopment Project: planning is only a means to an end, not an end in itself.Ed. Note: Nina Fresco’s article, Master Planning: Santa Monica in 1958, can be found on the Mirror website: smmirror.com.

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