The Santa Monica Planning Department’s latest concept, “emerging themes,” has got decidedly mixed reviews.
A portion of the first phase of the revision of the land use and circulation elements of the City’s General Plan was devoted to collecting and evaluating community attitudes and aspirations, likes and dislikes, hopes and fears via workshops and surveys. Once they had collected and collated all the material, the planners and their consultants isolated what they called “emerging themes.”
Anyone who doubts the planners’ conclusions should review all the raw materials, which are contained in their very large “Initial Outreach, Assessment and Emerging Themes Report.” In this instance, the planners’ summary is remarkably accurate.
The 12 common threads the planners plucked from the masses of material are:
1) A unique city with a strong sense of community.
2) A city rich in amenities, within walking distance
to shops and services from neighborhoods.
3) A diverse and inclusive city.
4) A community built at an appropriate town-scale.
5) A city of strong neighborhoods, protected from
commercial and industrial uses.
6) A pedestrian and bicycle-friendly-place.
7) A city rich in its array of transit offerings.
8) A city where traffic and parking work.
9) A city of balanced growth.
10) A city with attractive boulevards.
11) A safe and secure community.
12) An environmentally sustainable place.
What is most surprising about the themes is that so many people claim to be surprised by them.
20 years ago, without consulting residents, City Hall set out to amp up City Hall revenues by amping up the volume of Santa Monica, and from that moment on residents have been caught in a whirlwind of commercial and municipal development and its debilitating and destructive consequences, which have included rapidly escalating traffic congestion and ballooning hubris in City Hall.
For two decades, residents have employed a whole spectrum of means – from neighborhood groups to endless protests at hearings on new projects to ballot measures – to stop or slow down the City Hall bulldozer, but have not had much success.
Now, finally, after all that, in concert with the revision of the General Plan, residents have finally got their voice back.
Anyone who expected them not to use it, and use it in a formal and emphatic way to reiterate everything they have been saying for two decades does not understand the nature of this place, or its residents.
In the early 1980s, Santa Monica was idyllic – a legendary beach town – eccentric, contrary, lively, loose and quite gorgeous. The economy was sound and healthy. There were 11 million people in the L.A. metropolitan area and we had the beaches, which meant that, without any hype at all, hundreds of thousands of visitors came to town annually. 69 percent of employed Santa Monicans earned their livings outside the city, but spent their money here so local independent businesses thrived.
There were nearly a dozen booksellers, music stores, first rate galleries and theater companies, funky cafes and world-class restaurants, independent grocery, hardware and stationary stores, nurseries, real drug stores, and clothing and furnishings from haute chic to hip to square. Virtually everything one needed was here – including Los Angeles.
Residents didn’t want, much less need, the $1 million (now $2 million) a year Convention and Visitors Bureau, or the Hotel District, or the reduction of the quirky Third Street pedestrian mall into the “regional shopping/entertainment venue” known as the Third Street Promenade. The additions amped up both Santa Monica and City Hall’s revenues, and did not swamp the beach town, but did demean it and clutter it up with a lot of deeply mediocre and extraneous trappings.
With all that in mind, when the revision of the General Plan began, residents naturally, spontaneously, immediately, finally said, “STOP!” said, “Undo what you have done and give us back our town,” and said it over and over again
Residents are determined now to not only restore, preserve and refine the legendary beach town that City Hall has spent 20 years “improving” out of existence, but to revive the democratic process, too.
Among the first critics of the emerging themes was Kathy Dodson, CEO of the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce. She said the “emerging themes seem to ignore the economy and its effect on Santa Monica…[such as] City revenue from business related taxes, job creation for residents and the diversity and richness of the business community.” She concluded by suggesting that the omissions occurred because the City did not seek “enough business input.”
Dodson’s remarks were seconded by attorney Kevin Kozal who criticized the City for not talking to “major employers, healthcare providers such as St. John’s Hospital and the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, and education leaders from Santa Monica College (SMC) and the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.”
Bayside District Corporation Board member John Warfel said the themes lacked “a regional context.”
In these ways, critics of the “themes” demonstrated their misunderstanding of the planners’ process, democracy, residents and the town itself.
The community workshops were well-publicized and were open to everyone and so Dodson, Kozal, Warfel and other critics could have and should have attended the workshops and expressed their points of view. Clearly, if the planners had sought what Dodson calls “enough business input,” in fairness, they would have had to also seek “enough input” from every other faction in town, and the result would have been fatally fragmented, and ultimately meaningless.
Besides that, to complain about the “themes” is akin to complaining about the weather. The weather is what it is, and the themes are what they are – a candid expression of the attitudes and aspirations of a large and diverse number of residents here and now. Whether anyone likes them or not, the “themes” are as accurate a reading of the current temper of residents as we are likely to have.
On other fronts, Landmarks Commission Chair Roger Genser lamented the “absence of arts in the document,” and Santa Monica Child Care Task Force representative Irene Zivi criticized the report for not “promoting quality affordable child care facilities.”
They, too, misunderstood the “emerging themes” and their place in the revision of the General Plan. The themes define the town, and its essential components.
Presumably, the content of the town will be defined in additional workshops, including two on arts and culture.
The community has spoken – clearly and succinctly.
At bottom, it prefers to move into the future by not simply acknowledging its legendary past but preserving it and refining it.
That’s not only good news, it’s smart – because legendary beach towns have far longer, happier and more productive lives than fat, trendy resorts.There is one other thing. City Hall has had its turn at the wheel, and now it’s the community’s turn, and woe to anyone who gets in its way, because, in the long run, love almost always trumps money in Santa Monica.