1. The Worst Is Yet to Com
At a recent Planning Commission meeting,
a guest speaker, Ventura City Council member Bill Fulton, said, “No matter what we put in [our land use and circulation element update] or how you implement it in Santa Monica, traffic is the least congested now till the end of time. Housing prices are probably the lowest [now] than they will ever be again. Parking prices are the lowest [now] than they will ever be again and density is the lowest [now] than it will ever be again.”
Fulton went on to say that in the last 25 years Santa Monica has become a “brand name” and so will never have “fewer jobs and tourists,” and described our town as “a typical Southern California beach community with less ethnic diversity, more affluence, smaller households, fewer children and a huge daytime population.”
The only thing we know about Ventura is that it’s there because we see it every time we drive up the coast, and all we know about Fulton is that his views of both the workings of the world and Santa Monica are, to put it politely, incomplete.
2. But The Only Constant Is Change
For one thing the only constant in the universe is change. Santa Monica has been, is and always will be a town in flux in a region in flux in a state in flux.
At bottom, there are only two kinds of change – that which occurs naturally – as when a flower blooms, or that which is imposed or forced — as when one nation invades another or a beach town’s bosses force it to go commercial.
Natural change is as healthy as it is inevitable. Things, people, places evolve. Imposed change is not only unhealthy, it’s perilous, as it’s usually far easier to destroy something than to change it.
3. The Proof Is In The Past
Before Fulton made predictions about Santa Monica’s future, he should have looked at its past. Before it was Santa Monica, the land we inhabit was a Spanish land grant that consisted almost entirely of open ranch land. Late in the 19th century, Colonel Robert S. Baker wanted to build a new town called Truxton here, Nevada Senator John P. Jones wanted to make it the terminus of a new Los Angeles railroad, and Southern Pacific Railroad titan Collis Huntington was determined to make it the Port of Los Angeles. They were all foiled.
Baker and Jones then pooled their resources and founded Santa Monica. Its name derived from a spring in West Los Angeles that a priest had named for Saint Monica because it reminded him of the tears she famously shed. The first lots in the new town were sold at auction on July 15, 1875.
Thus, after several lurches and false starts, the open ranch land became a real estate development that, in turn, became a proper small town. More Midwestern than Californian in spirit, it played Babbitt to L.A.’s Gatsby, but the ocean, then as now, was the primary fact of the place, and it soon prevailed. With Ocean Park and Venice, Santa Monica became a beach playground whose focal points were the pleasure piers that ranged down the coast from here to Venice. 100,000 people came to the opening of the Looff Pleasure Pier, which was built hard by the Santa Monica Pier in 1917.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Santa Monica was colonized, in effect, by what passed for Los Angeles aristocracy and Hollywood stars and bosses. The swells built elaborate beach clubs on what was called “The Gold Coast.” The stars built beachfront houses. For a while, four of the five most powerful men in Hollywood owned houses on the beach, along with Irving Thalberg, MGM’s “boy genius” and J. Paul Getty, and Charlie Chaplin, who shot his first one-reeler on this beach, moored his boat in the yacht harbor at the Pier.
But even as the rich and famous frolicked on the beach, a brandnew industry was being hatched in the southeastern reaches of Santa Monica.
Aviation pioneer Donald Douglas designed his first airplane in the back room of a barber shop on Pico Boulevard. By the early 1930s, Douglas Aircraft was in business and building planes. With the coming of war in Europe, Douglas boomed, working round the clock, producing war planes for America and its allies.
And so the beach playground grew up and became a factory town, and that was that.
After the war, Douglas merged with McDonnell, and left town, and just as the ranch land, the pleasure piers, most of the beach clubs, and the moguls’ Gold Coast disappeared, so did the aircraft industry, and Santa Monica came into its own – as a legendary beach town – in ferment.
4. Beach Town In Ferment
Brought low by time, neglect, a succession of inept operators and the opening of Disneyland in 1955, the Santa Monica Pier became a kind of magnet for “undesirables,” as the City characterized them, including motorcycle gangs.
Self-described “old radicals” found Santa Monica a congenial place to retire, and, with the opening of the Santa Monica Freeway in 1965, numbers of young ‘60s activists moved in.
During the same period, the old guard, in the name of progress and urban renewal, made some drastic moves that included sacrificing a serene, attractive neighborhood that was inhabited largely by African American residents to make way for the Freeway, and demolished dozens of modest beach bungalows in Ocean Park and replaced them with the two Santa Monica Shores towers and Sea Colonies I and II. People talked of installing a marina north of the Pier and others, including Alphonso Bell who developed Bel Air, wanted to build a causeway that would cut diagonally across the bay from Malibu to Santa Monica and create a whole new swath of beachfront property.
In 1973, the City Council voted to demolish the Santa Monica Pier to make room for an artificial island and convention center, but outraged residents mounted a successful initiative campaign, “Save Our Piers Forever.”
That was the beginning of the end of the old guard. By the late 1970s, 70 percent of the residents were renters, and, galvanized by the young ‘60s activists and the old radicals, they founded Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, passed a stringent Rent Control ordinance in 1979, and in 1982 won a majority of seats on the Council, which they have held for 22 years – except for two years in the mid-1980s.
5. Bigger Is Better
Then, without consulting residents, City Hall decided to turn this legendary beach town into regional shopping mecca and bigtime tourist mill, in order to generate more revenue for City coffers. The operating premises were right out of the Big Bureaucrats/Old Guard Book of Cliches: growth is good and bigger is better.
In their naiveté, these people believed that a legendary beach town is just a step away from a bigtime tourist town. They were wrong.
Like beaches themselves, beach towns aren’t made, they evolve naturally, and each one is unique. Malibu, the Palisades, Santa Monica and Venice occupy the same stretch of sand and water, but that’s all they have in common — except for their thoroughly free-spirited residents.
In contrast, tourist meccas are made, are more rides than places, and are docile.
When the effort to turn Santa Monica into a tourist mecca began, two-plus decades ago, Santa Monica measured eight square miles, was the densest city in the region and had about 85,000 residents. On warm days in any season and all summer, thousands of beach-goers streamed in and out. Traffic was already a problem.
Too much traffic aside, it was a beautiful, economically healthy, self-sufficient beach town — the Southern California ideal made real.
City Hall had only to keep the municipal machinery oiled and functioning efficiently. But it thought it could do better, and bigger is better, isn’t it?
Not in an eight-square mile, densely made town.
For more than a century, Santa Monica had changed naturally, evolving smoothly from one stage to the next, taking the occasional bumps in stride. But, for the last two decades, changes, too many of them, and the wrong ones, have been forced on Santa Monica. And so, here and now, the town is out of synch with itself, and out of sorts, as we have all the problems that were caroled gleefully by the man from Ventura.
But, contrary to his prediction, we’re at a crossroads, not a dead end.
Clearly, the restoration of the health and well-being of this legendary beach town resides in eliminating the causes of the problems.
6. But Less Is More
The City’s traffic measurement and management is utterly inadequate – the proof is in our increasingly clogged streets. But the City has made no move to improve its methodology, much less to reduce traffic. In fact, the primary focus of its “Motion by the Ocean” program is not to get the cars out of Santa Monica, but to get Santa Monicans out of their cars.
But when our population rockets from 85,000 to 250,000 every day, as it does according to City Hall, everyone of us could abandon our cars in Culver City, and there’d still be traffic jams.
In making Santa Monica an attraction, the City has overseen the wholesale replacement of businesses that serve residents with businesses that are meant to amuse visitors and so we have an abundance of haut schlock, but Evans Hardware, Fisher Lumber, Santa Monica Stationary, most of the small corner grocery stores and pharmacies and nearly all of the independent bookstores that once flourished here are gone, and so while the hordes drive in daily to shop, residents are forced to drive out of town to buy the essentials that they could once buy here.
When it decided to expand the Big Blue Bus yard, the City opted not to move it from downtown Santa Monica to the eastern edge of the City, on airport land, where it could have incorporated a park-and-ride lot, which would have materially reduced traffic. Nor has it ever bothered to run convenient shuttle buses around town between Montana Avenue and Main Street – with plenty of stops along the way.
Rather than dialing down the frenzied Third Street Promenade, with an eye to recasting it as a kind of low-key community gathering place, the City has spent over $20 million tarting it up, and the City staff and Council regularly rejigger the retail/restaurant mix to maintain what one Councilman has called “the magic.”
In sum, much of the damage that has been imposed on Santa Monica in the last two decades in the name of progress can be undone, the community’s natural equilibrium can be restored and we can get on with the vital tasks of preservation and refinement. The only thing standing in our way is City Hall.As comedienne Rita Rudner once said, “We can’t have everything. Where would we put it?” City Hall continues to want everything. And more.