In the early 1990s, with no fanfare at all, City documents split Santa Monica in two: City Hall became “the City” and the rest of us were “the city.” The difference was telling…and crucial.
The City’s primary focus is the process. Not the democratic process, or the creative process, but the bureaucratic process – that whichy thicket of procedure, rules, regulations and routines that every project and program must go through.
Naturally enough, the rest of us are fairly more interested in the value, quality and usefulness of programs and projects produced by the process. Do we need them? Do we want them? Will they improve Santa Monica?
Since we live here and own the city and care deeply about it and pay for everything, we expect to play an active role in the initiation, evaluation and selection of projects and programs. But, for some time, City Hall has used the process to effectively exclude residents and discourage our participation, and, more often than not, our veteran elected representatives seem to speak for City Hall, rather than the people who elected them.
This has led to a fundamental schism between the City and the rest of us that was in full view at last week’s Council meeting.
The evening’s agenda included two matters of great import: approval of the Civic Center Specific Plan, the largest development ever undertaken by the City, and approval of a contract with the people who will design the restoration of the Marion Davies estate
The Civic Center Plan, which has been in the works since 1989, has undergone a whole series of arbitrary changes, and, as any sensible person might expect, it is the worse for all the wear and tear, and the years it has been kicking around City Hall. In the beginning, its primary purpose was to accommodate the RAND Corporation’s plan to build the biggest commercial development in the city’s history on its property across Main Street from City Hall. At the time, many of us thought it was a truly bad idea, but it was approved. Some years later, RAND changed its mind and offered to sell 11-plus acres of its parcel to the City for $53 million.
The City bought the land and, rather than starting over, or simply holding onto it until the community decided what, if anything, should be done with it, it immediately subtracted the commercial development and added a bunch of disparate elements, including RAND’s new behemoth of a HQ, housing and pocket parks, a parking structure and a new public safety facility, a playing field and a childcare center, a new east-west street, two reconfigured streets and a new bridge over the freeway, a town square and a “City Services” building and an expanded Civic Auditorium.
At the same time, the City decided, with virtually no public discussion, to demolish both the existing RAND buildings, though they are historically significant as well as ideal candidates for “adaptive reuse,” and the back portion of the City Hall, though it could be rehabbed and restored to use as City offices.
A Civic Center Working Group, three of whose members were also members of the City Council, oversaw and presumably liked all of the additions and changes, and a “new” revised Civic Center Specific Plan was completed and “conceptually” approved by the Council in 2002
About the same time, the City proposed to Macerich, owner of Santa Monica Place, that it remake the mall, promptly folded it into the Civic Center Plan and began working with it on a redevelopment plan.
Late last fall, Macerich unveiled its new plan, which included three 21-story condo towers that, presumably, City staff approved, as it had worked closely with Macerich, but hardly anyone else did.
By then, the City had begun to revise the land use and circulation elements of the General Plan, and, given the size and scope of the Civic Center Plan, it seemed not only sensible but necessary to put it on hold until the General Plan, which former Planning Director Suzanne Frick described as our Constitution, was complete. But City staff continued to push the Plan forward – perhaps because they feared the revised General Plan might forbid such mega-projects.
At last week’s Council meeting, City staff asked that the Council uphold an appeal of a Planning Commission decision not to approve the Plan or certify the EIR, and to approve the Plan, certify the EIR and thus give it the green light.
The very long and windy “Comprehensive Update to the Civic Center Specific Plan” that was delivered to the Council did not chronicle the tangled, often irrational history of the project, but presented a wrinkle-free version of the process, i.e., everything had been done by the book and therefore the Plan deserved approval, but it did not address any of the questions that have been repeatedly raised by residents and did not include either a time table or a price tag, and so, after all these years, we still don’t know when it will be done or what it will cost or whether it will complement or contradict the revised General Plan.
After the City delivered its report, nearly two dozen people spoke. One of them praised the plan. Others spoke in favor of particular elements.
Several residents, along with some people from the L.A. Conservancy, asked that serious consideration be given to preserving the RAND buildings and finding new uses for them as they are of great historic significance.
Several other people objected to including the Santa Monica Place redevelopment in the Civic Center Plan and, thus, in the Environmental Impact Report when the revised redevelopment proposal has yet to emerge, and asked that approval of the Civic Center Plan be delayed until such time as the Santa Monica Place redevelopment plan is complete and can be evaluated.
Appellant Darrell Clarke, Vice Chair of the Planning Commission and a member of the Civic Center Working Group, seemed less interested in explaining his appeal than in speaking in favor of adding cafes on Olympic Drive.
Planning Commissioner Julie Lopez Dad, responding to the appeal, spoke of the inadequate traffic data in the Plan’s EIR and posited that extending Olympic Drive through the Civic Center to Ocean Avenue would exacerbate existing traffic congestion in the area.
Together and separately, the speakers made a powerful case against approval of the Civic Center Plan now.
They spoke in specifics, noted problems, questioned City assumptions and data. Neither City staff nor the Council members who had taken part in the making of the Plan responded to the speakers’ questions or criticisms in any substantive way, but repeatedly referred to the process.
For example, neither staff nor Council spoke about the RAND buildings, their historic value or potential future use, but claimed that the decision to demolish the buildings came after extensive public discussion and review. No one we know remembers any public discussion at all. In fact, the City has repeatedly insisted that the question was moot, because, as a condition of the sale, RAND demanded the buildings be demolished (though RAND officials have denied making any such demand), so why would it have even held such discussions?
And, in any case, why should some alleged previous discussions invalidate the persuasive arguments against demolition of the RAND buildings that were made last week? They shouldn’t, of course, but they apparently did, and, as a result, barring a miracle, we will lose two buildings that are not only historically significant, but potentially useful…because City Hall wants them gone.
It was a perfect example of the City prevailing over the city.
During the Council discussion, Mayor Pam O’Connor and Council and Working Group members Richard Bloom, Ken Genser and Kevin McKeown, who ultimately approved the Plan and certified the EIR, all talked much more about what had been done than what should be done now, while Mayor Pro Tem Herb Katz and Council members Bob Holbrook and Bobby Shriver, who voted against approval, focused on possible changes and what should be done now.
And so the City staff and its process triumphed, and the rest of us lost.
The City also asked the Council to authorize the City Manager to negotiate a design-build contract with Pankow Special Projects for the rehab of 415 PCH. According to the City staff report, bids from over 90 design, engineering and construction firms were requested, four responded, one of the four was disqualified, leaving three, one of which was Pankow.
Shriver suggested that if so few proposals had been received on a unique and challenging project on a spectacular site, the process must be flawed, adding that Frank Gehry, the world’s leading architect who has lived and worked in Santa Monica for decades, had told him that he didn’t respond to requests for bids, but would have been happy to take a phone call from the City.
Since Gehry’s office recently responded to a note from one of the Community Gardens’ gardeners to discuss designing a perimeter fence for the gardens on Main Street, it’s likely it would have taken a call from City Hall. But no such call was made – presumably because the process did not include informal queries – even to the world’s most esteemed architect.
Shriver’s right, of course, the process is flawed, perhaps fatally flawed.
If you disagree, take a look at its two most recent products: the Public Safety building, that closed fist of a building next to the sublime City Hall, or the new library, that looms like a branch of the L.A. County Jail.With the Council’s approval of the misbegot Civic Center Plan, that’s 3 for the City, and 0 for the rest of us.