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What Does City Hall Want?:

City staff and Council members speak often and enthusiastically of Santa Monica’s successful “sustainable city” programs, and, as if to ratify their enthusiasm, on June 2, Santa Monica was named American’s fifth most “sustainable city” by a San Francisco-based organization, SustainLane.

In the same survey, it ranked first among all cities for green buildings per capita, tied for the top slot, with San Francisco, on solid waste diversion and recycling, and headed the list of farmers’ markets per capita. It also got high marks for “excellence in energy and climate policy…innovation in pollution prevention” and reducing urban runoff.

In conclusion, SustainLane noted that Santa Monica “would vie for the very top spots in our study were it not for the Los Angeles Basin’s air quality” and the lack of a regional public transportation infrastructure. “These challenges that face the region as a whole aside, little Santa Monica is proving that the greater Los Angeles area can live more sustainably in important ways.”

On accepting the award at ceremonies in San Francisco, Santa Monica Mayor Pam O’Connor said, “For years Santa Monica has taken pride in its leadership role in the sustainable city movement…It is an honor to be recognized for our achievements and included in this exceptional group of top 10 sustainable cities. Santa Monica has shown that even the small cities can lead the way and we hope that these awards inspire many other U.S. cities, large and small, to begin reaping the benefits of becoming a sustainable city.”

Aside from the obvious questions of precisely who or what SustainLane is and how reliable, accurate or significant its analysis and rankings are, there are other questions.

Everyone seems to accept the notion that ”sustainable” is something to aspire to, but is it really the best we can do? Every city in America is, to one degree or another, “sustainable,” because a city that is no longer sustainable is more or less done for.

In that, and every other, sense, “sustainable” seems an insufficient, even meager goal. After all, Santa Monica has “sustained” itself since 1875 – long before the “sustainable city” concept was born.

Its population has remained constant at around 85,000 for decades. Its bones are solid and elegant. It is gorgeously, ideally, located on the line between the world’s largest and most diverse ocean and Los Angeles, the world’s most diverse and most compelling city.

Both Santa Monica’s small size, eight square miles, and its location next to the ocean have made the task of “sustaining” itself easier.

Wouldn’t “livable” be a better goal? After all, a city could be “sustainable” in the most basic sense or could conceivably meet all the formal “sustainable city” criteria and still be unlivable. We can think of several such places.

Still, like “sustainable,” “livable” is a generality, while Santa Monica is unique, and thus its aspirations should be unique. Despite periodic efforts to tart it up or make it into something more, or something else, Santa Monica has long been and is a legendary beach town. Surely, then, our primary task, and aspiration, should be to preserve and refine the beach town, rather than aspiring to be the fifth, or even the top “sustainable city” in the country.

How can SustainLane truly rate cities’ “economic development and quality of life,” by measuring “transportation, air quality, tap water quality, food and agriculture, land use, zoning, planning, green building, energy/climate policy, solid waste, city innovation, and knowledge base,” while ignoring such fundamentals as traffic, ocean pollution, poverty levels, employment opportunities, housing, educational and medical, recreational, cultural and arts facilities?

Given the survey’s narrow range, the primary focus of the “sustainable city” program appears to be policies, not practices.

Santa Monica may score high on the SustainLane scale, but its score on the broader, more concrete and human scale is not nearly so impressive, suggesting that the City’s planning and economic development staff is lagging behind its environmental programs staff.

The heart of the city goes into traffic arrest daily. The once-serene residential streets in Sunset Park have become throughways for people leaving and coming to town daily, with cars creeping along, bumper to bumper, for hours.

Despite recent municipal efforts, our ocean waters remain so severely polluted after rainstorms that swimmers often get sick.

Though Santa Monica appears to be an affluent community, an unconscionable number of its residents live below the poverty line or on the streets.

69 percent of the residents who are employed work elsewhere. Every year, hundreds of bright, talented young people graduate from Santa Monica’s public and private schools. Many of them go on to some of this country’s most prestigious colleges. Others go to Santa Monica College. But Santa Monica has few good jobs, meaning interesting jobs with futures, for recent high school or college graduates. The housing picture for young people is equally bleak.

The bad news is that, every year, Santa Monica loses far too many of its young people to other places. The good news is that Los Angeles is literally next door and it has always been hospitable to talented young people seeking bright, challenging futures.

The City’s decision twenty-plus years ago to pump up the tourist industry in order to generate more revenue for the City has made lots of money for the City and the operators, but most of the jobs it has created are low-end menial jobs, which has bred a whole set of ancillary problems, including a quantum leap in commuter traffic as the majority of tourist industry workers can’t afford to live here.

Despite continuing budget cuts and crises, Santa Monica schools and SMC are first-rate, and, with two expanding hospitals, Santa Monica is better-equipped medically than most towns of its size, but escalating medical costs remain an insuperable problem for many residents.

Everyone knows by now that Santa Monica, arguably the most densely populated city in Southern California, has too few neighborhood parks and even fewer playing fields, though it has a dazzling beach.

City Hall, which, in a frightening lapse, calls Santa Monica “Art City,” talks a good “art and culture” game, but, in fact, has become increasingly less hospitable to artists in all media. Still, artists are extraordinarily tenacious and devoted and, thanks to them, the local arts scene remains rich and lively.

Housing is a continuing problem in Santa Monica, and the problem has been exacerbated by contradictory state legislation – which mandates, on the one hand, that the City maintain a certain amount of affordable housing and, on the other hand, via such vehicles as Costa Hawkins and the Ellis Act, systematically reduces the stock of affordable housing. Though the City has overseen the development of “senior” housing, it has done nothing to develop housing for young couples with children, who, as a class, are more financially beleaguered than older people.

The housing market has been further complicated by the rapid escalation of sales prices, with houses in the 90402 zip code the most costly in Southern California, and so it is that pleasant apartments are knocked down to be replaced by “luxury condominiums.” But rather than subsidizing existing housing and thus slowing down such conversions, the City prefers to build new housing, in spite of its expressed devotion to “adaptive re-use.”

The ultimate questions, of course, are what Santa Monica is and who or what we are “sustaining” it for? For its own sake? For ourselves? For our children. For the money?

Residents answered them long ago. They know what Santa Monica is and what it’s for. But does anyone here know what City Hall thinks Santa Monica is or what it’s for – besides winning awards?Given the number of major projects and decisions now on the table, isn’t it time we knew?

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