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Demolishing History:

At the request of Air Force Chief of Staff General “Hap” Arnold, Project RAND (Research and Development) was created in 1948 to prepare for World War III. Arguably America’s first think tank, it was located at Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica.

A couple of years later, it took offices in the lovely old building at Broadway and Fourth Street, and then, in 1951, the new non-profit RAND Corporation bought eight-plus acres on Main Street across from City Hall from the City for $250,000, used the parcel as collateral to borrow $1.4 million from a San Francisco bank, built the first of its two original buildings, and proceeded to make history.

RAND officials now insist that they don’t make policy, but simply do the research on which policies may be based. In the first decades, they were less modest. According to two former RAND men, they believed they could do anything, and did.

RAND’s original contract with the Air Force was augmented by contracts with other Defense Department agencies, as it devised Cold War stratagems and weapons, such as MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) and the Neutron Bomb, which kills people but doesn’t damage buildings. RAND men were deeply involved in plotting and overseeing the Vietnam war, and played a leading role in developing weapons for the short-lived War on Poverty. RAND’s Herman Kahn inspired Dr. Strangelove and it was a RAND researcher, Daniel Ellsberg, who released the top-secret Pentagon Papers.

It is hard to imagine a more historically significant site — here or anywhere.

At a Landmarks Commission hearing last week on the City’s proposed demolition of RAND’s Z building requested by resident Ted Winterer, he and other residents and the Los Angeles Conservancy argued against the demolition on these grounds, and Joel Brand of the Santa Monica Conservancy added that there had been “minimal public input” about the City’s plans to demolish the building next month.

Brand was being polite. There has been virtually no community discussion of the proposed demolition.

Subsequent to the City’s $53 million purchase of 11-plus acres of RAND land, City officials, when asked about the fate of the RAND buildings, said that, as a condition of the sale, RAND required that the buildings be removed, but RAND officials have denied imposing any such condition.

In addition to arguing that the buildings are historically significant, a primary criterion for preservation, a number of residents have also suggested that the buildings are perfect candidates for the City’s much-bruited but seldom practiced “adaptive re-use” policy, and could be rehabbed and used for City offices or live/work artists’ studios.

In either case, in addition to preserving these unique buildings, the city would save millions of dollars.

But the City prefers to knock the RAND buildings down and build a new $20 million “City Services” building and as yet unpriced new work/live studios.

Landmarks Commissioners agreed that the demolition of the Z building deserved more attention, but City staff said that, in fact, saving the building is not within the Commission’s purview. In 2000, according to a City staff report, the City Council ceded demolition rights on both buildings to RAND in concert with its plans to construct its new headquarters, exempted the project from Architectural Review Board review, and stipulated that RAND pay for the removal of any hazardous materials found on the site, such as asbestos, which, the report said, has been found there.

In other words, City Hall, which seems to reside permanently in the indefinite future tense, not only decided, on its own, that the buildings should be demolished, but arbitrarily short-circuited its own process, pre-empting both the ARB and Landmarks Commission, as well as residents’ wishes.

Because feeling ran high that RAND is embedded in both the history of the city and the nation, given its significant and sometimes controversial role in U.S. government policy, the Commission decided to agenize the question at a future meeting to discuss drafting a letter to the City Council expressing respect for the building’s history and asking that the buildings be photographed before the demolition.Every week, it seems, we are given further proof that City Hall, meaning City staff and its obedient servants on the City Council, has crossed the line that separates managing from bossing.

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