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Thinking Inside the Box:

From the beginning of time, virtually every step forward humankind has taken can be credited to some brave, talented individual who broke out of the crowd to cut a new path and, as Abraham Lincoln, who was such a person, said, to “think and act anew…and disenthrall” himself.

Such singular people are originals, not copies, and are not bound by convention or tradition. They are endlessly curious, see things differently, question everything, and think broadly and deeply, and the world progresses in exact proportion to the extent that they topple the old walls and break fresh ground.

Along with Lincoln, Galileo, Shakespeare, Einstein, virtually every great inventor, scientist and artist moved the world forward. So did America’s founding fathers, Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers, the women who won the vote, the great filmmakers from Chaplin to Hitchcock to Coppola, Frank Lloyd Wright, Martin Luther King, Jr. and a host of others.

Sadly, in the marketing-mad nation we now inhabit, it was inevitable that some clever phrase-maker would reduce the giants’ triumphs to a snappy phrase: “thinking outside the box,” and suggest that anyone could do it.

Of course, it became immediately chic. “Yes, I wear Armani, drive a BMW and, of course, I think outside the box.”

Today it’s more or less mandatory for anyone in any line of work who wants to get ahead to “think outside the box,” and so the world is full of people who purport to be original, but, in fact, produce nothing but recycled ideas and tarted up conventional wisdom.

In all likelihood, the CEOs who have ended up in jail recently for looting their companies were people who thought outside the box.

And so it is that genius – that radical, original, stunning, world-altering genius – has been supplanted by legions of people who are neither radical nor original, but merely ambitious and clever. Such people are not only not changing the world or moving it forward, but are making a grand mess of things because they insist on thinking outside the box.

The world would be a far, far better place, if everyone swore off thinking outside the box, and took the advice of the old ad man who said, “If you want to be different, you can always come downstairs in the morning with a sock in your mouth.”

A lot of clever, ambitious people work in City Hall and they have been thinking outside the box for years and got Santa Monica out there on the leading edge, ahead of the curve, and in major trouble.

The problem is, Santa Monica IS a box, a very small box, only eight square miles. And the box is full to overflowing now, thanks, in large part, to City Hall.

But instead of recognizing the error of its ways, as it, in its word, “updates” the 1984 General Plan, which is the basis for most of our problems, it seems bent on compounding the problems by continuing to think outside the box. Here and now, that amounts to ignoring both things as they are and the box itself.

In contrast, as they demonstrated at the last City Council meeting and in numerous letters to City officials, residents are thinking in the box and about the box in order to repair the damage done in recent years and restore the character and integrity of the beach town they love.

Their ideas are more original and more useful than anything proposed by City Hall in 1984 or now.

Santa Monica, this eight square-mile box we inhabit, was founded 130 years ago, so six generations have left their marks here. It is the second densest city in Southern California, surpassed only by West Hollywood. Its permanent population is about 85,000, but its transient population soars to 250,000 daily, according to City Hall.

As anyone who goes about Santa Monica now knows – at almost any hour on any day – it’s not merely full, it’s jammed. There’s too much of almost everything here – except space.

Yet the City continues to waste space, and destroy distinctive and valuable old buildings in order to make room for oversized and undistinguished new buildings.

Rather than relocating the Big Blue Bus yards to land it owns at the airport, the City has opted for an $80 million expansion of the yards in downtown Santa Monica.

In a more bizarre move, the City is tearing down the RAND buildings, which are both historically and architecturally significant, and could be used by the City for offices, a proposed new child care center, and/or artists’ lofts, to make way for a new City Services office building, a new child care center and/or new artists’ lofts

The City proposes more new development in its “update” of the General Plan, even as residents advocate “adaptive re-use” of existing buildings, which would not only unclutter the townscape but would preserve the small scale, character and history of the place.

Thinking in the box requires an understanding of the box, its limits and its assets. Based on what the City has done in the last 20 years and its plans for the future as liuned in its reports on the update, it understands nothing.

As the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City wrote to the City Council, “Santa Monica’s present resident population and density as projected in the future do not justify the upzoning and increased mixed use development that is discussed [in the City’s “Opportunities and Challenges” Report].”

“There is not a population shortage in Santa Monica. On the contrary, there is an open space shortage. According to page 3-5 of the Report, Santa Monica has a population density of 10,131 people per square mile. That’s 29 percent higher than Los Angeles, 33 percent higher than Culver City and 71 percent higher than Beverly Hills. On page 3-2, it states that Santa Monica’s resident population has not grown since 1970 and that household averages have actually been declining while the daily work force commuting into our city has risen to 179 percent of the resident population.

“Over the past 15 years a lot of housing has been built in our City at an accelerating rate. Between 1970 and 2000, a 30-year period, the number of housing units increased from 42,106 to 47,863, an average rate of 192 net additional units per year…In contrast, between 2000 and 2005, the City reported a net increase of 1695 housing units, which represents an increase of 339 net units per year, and these numbers do not even include all the data for the entire year of 2005.”

According to its Report, the City now wants to further accelerate growth and development. As the box is already packed tight with buildings, large portions of Santa Monica will have to be demolished to make room for new, larger buildings.

We have already seen too many charming courtyard apartments and distinctive old buildings replaced by big, boxy, boring new apartment and office buildings by people who were obviously too busy thinking outside the box to notice what they were doing to the box.

Despite the City’s best efforts to turn Santa Monica into a regional shopping hub/tourist mecca/money mill, it remains a legendary beach town with incomparable, irreplaceable assets – intangible and tangible.

The primary fact of Santa Monica is the ocean. Rolling out endlessly from the beach, it never repeats, contains every color, and is sometimes no color at all. The light and air here are oceanic, and are in and on everything. The translucent air is richer than the sandy soil, and so palm trees outgrow the ground they’re set in and bougainvillea regularly runs riot, tumbling up and over whatever is there.

Like the ocean itself, ocean light is as merciless as it is boundless, and it has been integral in the making of this place. The landscape is, by turns, lush and spare…flowers and sand.

This most sublime setting, this dazzling surround demands beauty, rigor, grace, modesty and authenticity in everything. Six generations of residents have known that, but City Hall does not. It persists in believing that Santa Monica can be endlessly adjusted, as it were some sort of machine, to be more profitable or respond to the latest “trends.”

But this box, this Santa Monica, can only be what it is…or less than it is. Adding more, as the City proposes, will inevitably make it less. City Hall tells us constantly that it is “improving” and “enhancing” all over the place, but there is no such thing as a better Santa Monica. The only alternative to Santa Monica is un-Santa Monica.

City Hall has had its way with Santa Monica for two decades and has not “improved” it, but merely cluttered it up, and now it wants to finish the job. But if we allow it to proceed, it will not simply finish the job, it will finish this legendary beach town.Ed. Note: the entire text of SMCLC’s Open Letter can be seen on its website www.smclc.net

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