The yes men
Once upon a time an emperor who loved nothing so much as beautiful clothes was conned into ordering new clothes made of material that, according to its makers, was so exquisite it couldn’t be seen by the incompetent or stupid. When the con men dressed the emperor in his fine new clothes, no one, including the emperor, could see them, because, of course, they didn’t exist. Still, everyone praised them, because no one wanted to be condemned as stupid or incompetent. Then a small child said, “He doesn’t have anything on!” Everyone, including the emperor, knew the child was right, but the emperor simply drew himself up and pressed on.
That, of course, is Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fable The Emperor’s New Clothes, in brief, and, as we watched the Planning Commission’s discussion of the misbegot Civic Center Specific Plan last week, it came to mind.
The City Staff wanted the Commission to make recommendations to the City Council on five “actions” related to the Civic Center Specific Plan. “1. Certifying the Environmental Impact Report, 2. Approving a Statement of Overriding Considerations, and 3. Adopting the comprehensive update to the Civic Center Specific Plan, as amended, and 4. Adopting a discrete amendment of the Land Use Element of the General Plan.”
This was major stuff — ground-breaking, sweeping stuff that could change the face of Santa Monica…for good or ill…forever.
The particulars were contained in a densely made and very long Staff report. Though the Plan has been in the works for 12 years, some key points were new.
Only four of the seven Commissioners were present. Arlene Hopkins and Terry O’Day were absent, and Gwynne Pugh had recused himself. This meant, among other things, that if the Commission were to make any recommendation to the Council, all four of the Commissioners who were present would have to favor it.
Several members of the public spoke, and each of them made cogent arguments against portions of the Plan, but Laurel Roennau’s dissection of the traffic data in the EIR was devastating. A 40-year resident of Santa Monica, Roennau knows more about traffic, traffic analysis, measurement and management than anyone in City Hall or any of its traffic consultants, and she found the data in the report outdated, inaccurate, misleading and overly optimistic.
Because the data’s bases were off, she argued, the stated impacts were off, too.
The generalities are ours. Roennau’s statement was precise, specific, and reason enough for any rational person to reject the Plan.
From the moment they began to talk, it was clear the Commissioners were divided. Mustering four votes for anything would be difficult. Commissioner Julie Dad had serious reservations about certain elements in the Plan and the EIR, including the traffic projections, the placement of Olympic Drive and the truncation of Main Street. At the other extreme, Commissioner Jay Johnson saw the Plan as “the crown jewel” of Santa Monica, and described it as “beautiful…beautiful.” Commission chair Barbara Brown was somewhere in the middle and Commissioner Darrell Clarke, who served on the Plan Working Group with Council members Richard Bloom, Ken Genser and Kevin McKeown, said it was vital that the Commission make recommendations.
It was when Johnson called the Civic Center Plan our “crown jewel” and Clarke suggested that the Commission would be derelict if it didn’t recommend the Plan that we began thinking about The Emperor’s New Clothes.
Is the Plan really Santa Monica’s “crown jewel,” and are those of us who find it misbegot simply too “stupid and incompetent” to recognize it, or, in fact, is there really no plan at all, just a jumble of urban design clichés that City Hall wants to dump into the last remaining open space in downtown Santa Monica? Who is conning whom here? And to what end?
We have seen the Civic Center Specific Plan in all of its iterations, dating back to the early 1990s. We have read all the planners’ hype, and have heard the various boards, commissions and Council discussions of it. To this point, the only physical manifestation we’ve seen of the alleged “crown jewel” is a succession of renderings that are principally notable for their lack of detail – vague structures of indeterminate height and mass, clip art trees, landscaping and streets.
The emperor’s new clothes didn’t exist, and neither does this “crown jewel.”
Why, then, do so many people persist in seeing what is not now and never has been there?
Were Johnson and Clarke afraid that they’d be condemned as stupid and incompetent, if they didn’t approve the Plan? Or did they believe that it was a good plan because when people spend 12 years on something, it must be good? Or were they simply trying to please the powers that are, and not rock the boat? After all, Former Planning Commissioner Kelly Olsen often rocked the boat, and when his term ended, he was summarily bounced off the Commission by the City Council.
Johnson and Clarke are good men, conscientious, public-spirited and active. And it’s a bad plan. But they wouldn’t say so and they couldn’t say no.
Dad, with a hand from Roennau, saved them from making fools of themselves, and us. The Commission did not recommend approval of the Plan, the EIR or any of the ancillary items, but did recommend that Santa Monica Place be taken out of the Plan.
But who will save us when the Plan goes to the Council? After all, three of the seven Council members – Bloom, Genser and McKeown – were on the Civic Center Specific Plan Working Group, and thus are co-conspirators.
In our view, to allow officials who work on a plan to then have the power to approve the plan is a kind of procedural incest and shouldn’t be allowed, but it has happened before, and will probably happen again.
Will the other four Council members have the courage and wisdom to say no, or will they, like Johnson and Clarke and their three Council colleagues, persist in pretending that not only is there a plan, but it’s a worthy plan?
If the alleged plan is rejected, the egos of its makers will be bruised, but Santa Monica will have lost very little. On the other hand, if it is approved, we will have lost the true “crown jewel,” over 20 acres of City-owned open space in the heart of the town, overlooking the ocean.
The big spin
On recent evenings, residents have gotten calls from Goodwin Simon research, the city’s pollster, and been questioned about Santa Monica Place.
One resident who was polled forwarded the questions to other residents, noting, “I’m afraid that the survey sets up some false choices by prompting questions about support for open space, and then saying that more open space requires height…My guess is that the poll results will show that residents favor changing Santa Monica Place, that they would like it to be a social center with open space and they would support height limits equivalent to some downtown buildings. A pretty good roadmap for where things may be going.”
1. How long have you lived here?
2. Rank local places for shopping:
Century City Mall
Santa Monica Place
3. Which is your favorite of the following and why?
Century City Mall
Santa Monica Place
4. Which is your least favorite, and why?
5. How many times did you visit Santa Monica Place in the last year?
6. What do you like about Santa Monica Place?
7. What do you find appealing about Santa Monica Place?
8. Have you heard anything about a proposal to change Santa Monica Place?
9. In one or two words, what would you like to suggest about proposals to change Santa Monica Place?
10. Rate Santa Monica Place.
The way it looks
What it is like to park
How safe you feel
Availability of parking
Affordability of shopping
11. Which of the following statements do you agree with more?
I like it as is and would oppose any efforts to change it OR I would support efforts to change it to integrate more with the city downtown and surroundings
12. At community workshops, the public identified priorities. Please rate them as low, medium or high.
Offices above shops
13. The community suggested guidelines. How important would you rank them?
Design should be at human scale with pedestrian orientation
Economics work for city and property owner
Variety of housing types, including low-income
Link to existing public transit and parking strategies
Open air pedestrian links to Promenade and Pier
As much open space as possible
Sufficient parking, if possible underground
14. Rank these suggestions.
A European style neighborhood where you can walk to everything, convenient access to bus and shuttles, light rail, replacing existing parking with underground, new housing that’s affordable for all, replacing current structure to link Promenade and Pier, true center for Santa Monica for concerts, gathering, open air design
15. To balance the desire for open space, buildings would have to be higher. Which of these building heights would you support or oppose, strongly or somewhat?
Sears (incorrectly identified as at Wilshire and Ocean)
GTE building at Ocean and Wilshire
16. SM place is privately owned and they can control who comes in or out. If there is public space, would you support or oppose:
Removing unwanted individuals who are exhibiting offensive behavior
Remove loitering individuals
Remove street performers that don’t meet the property owners’ standards
17. Did you attend any of the public meetings?
Unfortunately, these questions are not designed to measure public opinion, but to mold it, and so its results will merely confirm what we already know: that Santa Monica Place’s owner and City staff favor a major new development on the site of the existing mall.