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Wrong Questions, Right Answers:

At a community meeting staged by the City’s Planning Department on August 16, planners introduced their second report, “Opportunities and Challenges,” on the revision of the land use and circulation elements in the General Plan.

At the meeting, the staff focused on 16 questions in the report that it believes demonstrate the kinds of choices that must be made as the work on the revision proceeds.

These are the 16 questions, and our answers.

City: How can Santa Monica plan for the regional aspects of its economy, medical and educational institutions, and locational draw to create balanced growth and enhance the quality of life for residents?

Mirror: “Growth” of any sort shouldn’t be a goal in a town that is already over-built, but if we are to restore balance and the quality of life we once enjoyed, we must immediately abandon the addled policies that City Hall imposed on us 20-plus years ago.

Santa Monica is a 130-year-old, eight-square-mile, densely made town with 85,000 residents in a metropolitan area that measures thousands of square miles and has a population of 13 million people. An exemplary Southern California beach town, it was, with Malibu, the epicenter of the surfing surge, the birthplace of skateboarding, and it has always had a sizable population of artists in all media. 20-plus years ago, City Hall chose to ignore all that and make Santa Monica over as a “regional commercial center.” It was akin to draping the latest so-called alleged fashions on a great classic sculpture, and the results have been as disastrous as they were predictable – a diminution of the town’s character, a serious drop in the stock of reasonably priced housing, an equally serious loss of unique local businesses, the proliferation of haut schlock and over-sized pretentious buildings, and chronic traffic congestion.

We are at a crucial verge. We can either continue to deconstruct the town we cherish in the name of commerce, or we can change course and resume our traditional role as a Southern California icon.

City: What role can visitor services play in Santa Monica’s future?

Mirror: On the assumption that by “visitor services,” the City means “tourism,” it must pay its own way. Its principal beneficiaries have been the mega-corporations that own the major hotels and chain stores and tourist-oriented businesses, their landlords and the City treasury. Though relatively few residents benefit – directly or indirectly – from tourism, residents spend $2 million annually on the Convention and Visitors Bureau, whose sole function is to promote these mega-corporations.

City: How much new housing should Santa Monica plan to maintain inclusiveness and opportunities for affordable housing and yet retain an “appropriate town scale?”

Mirror: Santa Monica is built out. We shouldn’t plan any “new housing,” but rather the City should buy, preserve and subsidize existing housing. That will not only save money, it will save Santa Monica and the homes of many of its residents.

City: What types of new development could fulfill the City’s diversity and quality of life objectives?

Mirror: In fact, in the last decade, “new development” has led to less diversity and major dents in the quality of life.

As Landmarks Commissioner Nina Fresco recently said, “Re-use is that best way to preserve the town-scale beach community feeling – not tearing down and building new, fake “town-scale” structures, but actually using the ones we have. It also speaks to the sustainability issues…The land use element needs to read ‘re-use or re-development’ in every instance rather than the …vague ‘development.’”

We agree. The emphasis now should be on adaptive reuse and preservation of existing buildings, not “new development.”

City: How best can the existing industrial areas meet Santa Monica’s needs?

Mirror: By remaining as they are and evolving naturally – with existing buildings perhaps becoming artists’ studios, galleries, small theaters, film production or post-production companies, or Internet start-ups and the like. In a town as densely made as this we need more unfinished areas, not less. In any case, they should not be rezoned and turned into real estate. Here, again, adaptive re-use and preservation are key.

City: How best can the character and quality of Santa Monica’s residential neighborhoods be preserved while promoting neighborhood-serving amenities on adjacent commercial streets?

Mirror: First, traffic must be got under control, so the City must replace its outmoded traffic measurement and management tools with more accurate, advanced and functional tools. Second, neighborhood “amenities” don’t have to be “promoted,” they need to be permitted.

City: What is the appropriate scale and mix uses for boulevard commercial corridors?

Mirror: The market, not the City, should determine the mix, and the scale should be determined by the existing historic buildings. With a few notable exceptions, the scale and mix on the “commercial corridors” make more sense than the City-mandated scale and mix in the downtown area.

City: What is the appropriate scale and character of specialty commercial corridors?

Mirrotr: We assume by “specialty community corridors,” the City means either Montana with its mostly upscale boutiques and cafes or auto dealer row on Santa Monica Boulevard. Having all the auto dealers on one street makes sense, but Santa Monica’s too small for other such corridors. Commercial diversity is always preferable.

City: How can the City maintain its economic vitality and protect economic advantages?

Mirror: The City, meaning City Hall, is far more economically “viable” than most residents – thanks, in part, to its draconian taxes, and, in part, to its tourism push. We’d all be better off if City Hall were less economically viable.

City: How can the City foster small businesses and establishments to maintain uniqueness?

Mirror: Only by reversing the policies it put in motion that sent commercial rents skyrocketing, attracted chain stores, and squeezed unique small businesses out.

City: How can facilities that support a properly balanced transportation system be created?

Mirror: We don’t need more “facilities.” We need more sense. Santa Monica College’s shuttle lot is being moved from Santa Monica Airport to a beach parking lot – thus materially increasing traffic all over Ocean Park, by requiring lot users to drive the length of the city to park and board shuttle buses that will then transport them back to the SMC main campus or the airport campus, and then back to the beach, so they can then drive the length of Santa Monica again at day’s end. In this way, the City has managed to exacerbate an existing problem.

If the City had any sense at all, it would leave the SMC shuttle lot where it is, and at the same time it would bag its plans for the $80 million expansion of the Big Blue bus yards in downtown Santa Monica, and move the yards to the eastern edge of Santa Monica Airport, and add a park-and-ride lot that would permit visitors to leave their cars on the edge of the city and go around town by shuttle.

In addition, it should run small cheap or free shuttle buses up and down the boulevards, and back and forth across town. Currently, a Santa Monica resident can go to downtown L.A. on Big Blue, but not from Main Street to Montana.

City: How much parking is the appropriate amount for the community and what is the City’s role in facilitating its availability?

Mirror: We have “an appropriate amount [of parking] for the community” right now. What we don’t have, and shouldn’t have, is “an appropriate amount” of parking for the 165,000 people whom, the City says, come into town daily. The City needs to reduce the number of people rather than increasing the amount of parking.

City: How best can transit-oriented development be promoted?

Mirror: Again, development is not the answer to anything. The answer is adaptive re-use, preservation and restoration.

City: What are the appropriate scale, intensity, and character of the new development, particularly in areas that are likely to experience change over the coming 20 years, such as the industrial areas along corridors, and public spaces?

Mirror: How is it that the person standing behind us in the checkout line at The Farms, a locally owned neighborhood grocery store, has a better fix on Santa Monica – what’s gone wrong with what was so right – than the platoon of City planners? Because he deals with facts, reality, while the planners think theoretically. Change, as we have noted, is a given, and natural change is not only preferable, it’s far more workable than imposed change. As previously noted, the industrial areas will evolve compatibly, unless the City opens the door to drastic changes by rezoning them. And the only addition that should be made to public spaces is the addition of trees, gardens and turf. And, again, the focus should not be development but adaptive re-use, historic preservation and restoration — in which case scale, intensity and character will take care of themselves.

City: Other than policies directing new development, what resources are available to the City to implement the Community’s vision? Which strategies are the most important? Are there resources that might be overlooked by a traditional land use and circulation plan?

Mirror: The 130-year-old city, the legendary beach town is our template, our primary resource. It’s both model and clay, our vision, our inspiration – past, present and future. It doesn’t need “implementation,” it needs preservation and refinement, and we don’t need “strategies,” we need devotion.

The fact that the planners asked this question suggests that they see Santa Monica not as an actual town with imperatives of its own, but as a kind of sand castle that they can add to and subtract from at will.

City: How best can Santa Monica promote greater connections between different parts of the City? How could the priorities of the Circulation Element integrate and support the City’s land use and how can urban design be best used as a tool in this integration?

Mirror: As noted above, shuttle buses endlessly circulating through town – cheap and quiet.

And so…

As is its habit, the City has based this latest round of questions on its own assumptions and preferences.

Chief among the City’s assumptions are that Santa Monica and everything in it are not only subject to change, but exist primarily to serve City Hall and its current priorities. It also assumes that Santa Monica is utterly passive and can’t determine its own destiny, but must endlessly adjust itself to the pressures of the moment.

Along with many other residents, we believe these assumptions are not merely false, but dangerous to the future of Santa Monica, and this puts us on a collision course with City Hall. It clearly wants to go forward at any cost, while we believe the only way to go forward is to go back, undoing. to the extent that we can, the mistakes that have been made in the last two decades.

But until City Hall begins to ask the right questions, it will never arrive at the right answers.

There are only five right questions: 1) What is Santa Monica? 2) What’s it for? 3) What must we do to preserve its integrity and character? 4) What, if anything, can we do to improve the quality of life for all of its residents? And of course, 5) Who has the last word?

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