The topic under discussion at the joint Planning Commission/City Council meeting last Tuesday night was the “emerging themes” that City planners had culled from the initial round of community workshops, questionnaires, surveys and other tools they have employed to assess residents’ views preparatory to revising elements of the City’s General Plan.
A number of residents spoke, and, for the most part, reiterated, substantiated or amplified on the themes.
Then Howard Robinson stepped up to the podium. Once the City’s Economic Development Manager, he’s now a consultant. It’s always mildly annoying to hear a former City Hall insider’s glib new spin on Santa Monica, and it’s impossible to take them seriously. But Robinson was not simply annoying, he was infuriating, scolding his previous employers because the themes didn’t reflect the views of such key “stakeholders” as developers.
“Stakeholder” is a fairly recent addition to the civic mix, a wholly bogus category designed principally to give people who have no real place in the mix, much less a stake in the outcome, power. To our continuing astonishment, “stakeholders,” however bogus, are actually taken seriously in some quarters.
But not here, and not now. The residents of Santa Monica are the only people who have a real and legitimate role here. It’s their city and they get to define the “themes” and determine what happens here, because they made Santa Monica, and they have made and are making not just their livings, but their lives here. Residents. Not developers. Not non-resident corporations. Not real estate trusts. Not chain stores. Not City employees. Residents.
Developers, corporations, real estate trusts and chain stores and City employees come and go. They’re in it for the money. There’s nothing the matter with that – except that their first loyalty is to their stockholders and they usually hit and run. When they’ve done what they came to do, they leave and we are stuck with their leftovers.
20 years ago, Macys was the Broadway, and Robinsons-May was Robinsons. Then the Broadway became Macys and Robinsons became Robinsons-May. And, not long ago, The Federated, which owns Macys, bought Robinsons-May, and now The Federated controls a major chunk of Santa Monica Place, but, as far as we know, however much it knows about Macys and the May Company, The Federated knows nothing about Santa Monica, and yet suddenly it’s a major player. We like Macys, a lot, but we are not willing to cede a place at the table to its owners simply because they did a big deal here.
Residents are literally betting their lives on Santa Monica. Whether they own their own houses or rent, whether they own a business or have offices here, or work or go to school here, they are committed to the town and its beaches, its schools, its parks, its past and its future. It may be real estate to developers, but it’s home to the residents.
Proving that he missed the point as thoroughly as Robinson had, architect David Hibbert mocked the planners’ solicitation of students’ views on the future of Santa Monica, as, like his own children, he said, they’d never be able to afford to live here. That’s just one of the many things that the alleged stakeholders and residents disagree on. Residents find the lack of housing that young residents can afford not only unamusing, but unacceptable, because they know that a community that cannot house its offspring is not a community, but merely a way station for the affluent.
Indeed, the performance of the self-anointed stakeholders at the meeting was further proof, if any were needed, that they should have no role in the revision of the General Plan.
Residents must have the last word, because they are the only people who are capable of making the crucial revisions that are required if the General Plan is to be of any value. They see the town as whole and complete, and see every addition in context, while the alleged stakeholders see it in pieces, and focus exclusively on their particular pieces.
If the builder of Sea Colony I and II had seen Ocean Park whole, and wanted to complement it, he would not have turned his development’s back on the town and, in effect, erected a wall that divides the neighborhood from the ocean and insults everything on its landward side.
If the alleged stakeholders had their way, the legendary and thoroughly idiosyncratic beach town that six generations of Santa Monicans have loved and cherished would vanish in less than a generation, to be replaced by a relentlessly trendy amusement park in which everything is subject to change and the primary measure is profit. Profit is a fine thing – but not when it comes at the expense of this or any town.
Though these alleged stakeholders are invited guests, subject to the rules residents have made for themselves, they have been treated rather more royally by City Hall in the last 20 years, because City Hall’s priorities have been very different from our own.
The “emerging themes” that Robinson found so insufficient 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 joint meeting, after some discussion, the Planning Commissioners recommended to the Council that the “emerging themes” be accepted and that City staff should examine such ancillary areas as health, education, small business, arts and culture, as well as regional problems. The Council accepted the Commissioners’ recommendations, but then, either misunderstanding the “emerging themes” concept or finding it insufficient, added some themes of its own, including “preservation of existing affordable housing, continued improvement of city services, open space, child care and universal access/mobility.”
It was clear that some Council members not only didn’t understand that the “emerging themes” were what they were, and could not be altered, but didn’t like them. Indeed, a couple of them scolded residents randomly for not understanding how Santa Monica works.
Actually, it is residents’ understanding of how our town works here and now that is driving them to take back control of the city.
As the first step in the revision of the land use and circulation elements of the General Plan, the City staff and a veritable squadron of consultants have produced “Initial Outreach, Assessment, and Emerging Themes,” a document that has the size and heft of a telephone book.
According to the document, the 1984 land use element of the General Plan stated that “it is not intended that the elements suppress or enhance but direct the City’s share of the region’s economic growth.”
The document does not state what “the City’s share” was, or why we were compelled to go after it, given the fact that, in 1984, Santa Monica’s economy was very healthy, but, now, 20 years later, it is clear that whether or not the city got its “share,” it got more than it could handle.
In 1980, City Hall projected that, by now, the population would have increased by 4,000 people, but, in fact, there are about 2,000 fewer residents now than there were in 1980. It predicted there would be 6,000 more people in the labor force, but the labor force has not increased, and it further predicted that the number of jobs would increase by 30,000. but they only increased by 21,000.
The City also estimated that the number of households would increase by 2,000, and they did. It projected an increase in office space of 4 million square feet, but office space has nearly tripled — from 4.8 million to 13.4 million square feet. It anticipated an increase in retail floor space of about 2 million square feet, but it has only increased by 500,000 square feet. It expected industrial floor space to rise by 300,000 square feet but it has risen by about 250,000 square feet. It expected the number of hotel rooms to double and they did, and it predicted that the total number of housing units would increase by 3,000, and it has.That may look like “directed” economic growth to City Hall and the so-called stakeholders, but it looks like chaos to us. The “emerging themes” are a clear renunciation of City Hall’s policies of the last two decades, and suggest that this time around residents are determined to radically revise the General Plan, or, failing that, to radically revise City Hall itself.