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Bad Year, Good Year: The Bad News Bears (**)

By any measure, 2005 has been a less than halcyon year – globally, nationally and locally.

It got off to a slow, sad start as the world reeled from the Indian Ocean tsunami that slammed into southeast Asia, killing hundreds of thousands of people and wiping out entire towns on December 26, 2004.

As if to ensure that we never forget the sheer and overwhelming power of the planet’s oceans, last week great high waves, churned up by storms 1,100 miles away, broke over the decks of the Santa Monica and Venice Piers. When the big waves tore a piece off the Venice Pier, the police shut it down until engineers can examine its concrete pilings. The fishing decks on the Santa Monica Pier were also shut down for a time.

A surfer died in the waves off Carlsbad last Wednesday and on Thursday the LAPD issued a flood warning for Venice, Marina del Rey and Dockweiler beaches, and beach crews began building sand berms.

But our current run of big waves is merely an afterthought to the record-breaking run of hurricanes that whipped over and slammed into the east and Gulf coasts earlier this year, and reached a tragic and devastating crescendo with Hurricane Katrina, who mortally wounded New Orleans and other Gulf towns. The Bush administration did too little badly and too late. Subsequent hurricanes compounded Katrina’s damage, but, months later, Bush’s boys are still waffling.

Today, New Orleans, once a city of 500,000 people, has shrunk to 50,000 residents. More than 1,000 people died, and the others are living makeshift lives all over the country.

It is a tragedy of unprecedented proportions – a great American city turned to flotsam, debris and stench, stripped of its people and its point, moldering now, and wondering.

Another tragedy – American-made, this country’s war on Iraq flamed on through 2005. Nearly 2,200 American soldiers and God knows how many Iraqi have been killed in this war that no one, not even its makers, can explain in any coherent way. Just as the death of a major American city was unprecedented, and tragic, so America’s engaging in a pre-emptive war is unprecedented, uncalled for and tragic.

And it is less the “war on terror” that Bush claims it is than a war of terror – with Iraq becoming a virtual school for terrorists, a school whose enrollment has increased exponentially. As we have lately learned, federal agents have been tracking and wiretapping Americans illegally. Among their targets are peace and environmental groups and American Muslims.

President Bush said some months ago that wiretaps must be authorized by the courts, but now says that he has the authority to order wiretaps without court orders. And so our civil liberties and the Constitution itself are betrayed in the name of expediency.

Wherever he is, Joe McCarthy must be chortling now, but Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln are surely raging or weeping at the insolence, carelessness and gall of their latest successor.

Things seemed to be going off the rails here in the golden state, too, when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger called a $55 million special election whose sole purpose was to give him more power. Happily, Californians, especially Angelenos, are very savvy people, and we went to the polls and rejected both the governor’s power grab and his effort to demonize nurses, teachers, fire fighters and other public employees.

The governor did not grant clemency to ex-gang member Tookie Williams, who had been on death row for 25 years, to the distress of the people who oppose the death penalty as well as the people who found the decision profoundly hypocritical and backward.

For years, Police, social agencies and the clergy have urged gang members to renounce their gang ties, go straight, and thus redeem themselves. That’s exactly what Tookie Williams did, and yet he was put to death, and the state took a step back toward the stone age.

The election of Antonio Villaraigosa as mayor of Los Angeles and Bill Rosendahl as the L.A. City Council member from District 11, which includes Venice and Pacific Palisades, seemed to signal a new and more spirited era in Los Angeles City Hall, but though they have been ubiquitous, turning up everywhere, promising progress on every front, neither of them has managed to find the will or the means of preserving Lincoln Place, the largest and most beautifully made and arranged affordable housing complex in this area.

Seven buildings in the complex have already been torn down. The current owner, AIMCO, has proposed replacing its 795 rental units with 1,008 market rate condominiums.

Architecturally as well as historically significant, the Modernist Lincoln Place was built in 1949-1951, and was unanimously awarded Historic District designation by the California State Historical Resources Commission in August, 2005 as it met California Register criteria as a splendid and enduring example of both the garden apartment and Modernist architecture, as well as being a prime intact example of the low and moderate income rental housing built in Los Angeles after World War II in response to a severe housing shortage.

“The historic designation doesn’t provide iron-clad protection from demolition,” Ken Bernstein, Director of Preservation Issues for the Los Angeles Conservancy, said. “But it does mandate a review process.”

The listing on the California Register, combined with a recent victory in Appeals Court, requires that Lincoln Place be treated as a significant historical resource under state law and local ordinances. Demolition won’t be allowed unless an Environmental Impact Report process finds that there are no feasible alternatives.

Rosendahl, noting that a recent round of evictions was the largest single-day eviction in the history of the City of Los Angeles, said, “These evictions are intolerable. We cannot continue to see the middle class and affordable housing be squeezed out of the Westside.”

But action, not words, is needed. Neither the Councilman nor the mayor has taken action – though L.A. is currently in the grip of a housing crisis that is at least as dire as the post-World War II crisis.

More Bad News

Like the world, the nation, the state and the city of L.A., Santa Monica has had a bad year. But unlike the worlds, the nations, the states and L.A.’s bad year, Santa Monica’s bad year may be the preface to a very good year.

One of the most striking sequences in Santa Monica, which had been gathering force for a while and peaked in 2005, was the increasingly aggressive posture of City staff.

Though they are paid employees, under the City Charter, staff members have extraordinary powers. The City Council names the City Manager and the City Attorney, but the City Manager hires everyone else. Ironically, members of the Council may make policy for Santa Monica, but they may not ask a staff member to do anything.

Presumably with the approval of just retired City Manager Susan McCarthy and former Planning Director Suzanne Frick, who now heads the planning department in Long Beach, the staff made a bold bid to increase its power, by proposing that the public review of new projects be dramatically reduced. The docile Council seemed ready to okay what amounted to a staff coup, but residents stormed City Hall to object, and the Council had no choice but to stand with the residents.

Still, staff continued to flex its muscles, overturning two major Landmarks Commission decisions, with the support of the majority of the Council members — despite the fact that the staff reports, in both instances, were short on facts, long on hubris. And so two valuable and worthy landmarks were lost.

Almost simultaneously, the staff made a rather large misstep, collaborating with Macerich, owner of Santa Monica Place, on a redevelopment plan that included a trio of 21-story condo towers.

Residents greeted the proposal with almost universal scorn and outrage.

No one was surprised that Macerich wanted to turn its downtown retail operation into a far more lucrative luxury real estate development.

But many people were surprised and disturbed that City Hall had so completely misread both the town’s character and its temper.

Still, the redevelopment of Santa Monica Place remained in play and City staff seemed to be allied with Macerich in moving it forward. A new citizens’ group, Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, had to go to court to force the City to release relevant documents. (See SMCLC letter, page 7, for details).

Macerich’s plans for redevelopment were put on hold when the Federated, which owns Macys, bought Robinsons-May, and thus had a major say in the future of Santa Monica Place, but was not ready to say what its plans were.

The City’s treatment of the revision of the land use and circulation elements of the 1984 General Plan brought the divisions between residents and City Hall into sharp focus.

Frick called the General Plan our “Constitution,” as it determines both the shape and course of the city, but City Hall treated it, by turns, like a PR campaign and a blueprint for continued development.

It tarted it up with slogans – “Shape the Future 2025” for the land use element and “Motion by the Ocean” for the circulation element. It distributed a “Vision” booklet of questions to every household in Santa Monica, and held “community workshops” at which people discussed what Santa Monica should be.

After all that, the planners and their team of consultants produced their first report on the revision, “Emerging Themes.” They were:

1) A unique city with a strong sense of community.

2) A city rich in amenities, within walking distance to shops and services from neighborhoods.

3) A diverse and inclusive city.

4) A community built at an appropriate town-scale.

5) A city of strong neighborhoods, protected from commercial and industrial uses.

6) A pedestrian and bicycle-friendly-place.

7) A city rich in its array of transit offerings.

8) A city where traffic and parking work.

9) A city of balanced growth.

10) A city with attractive boulevards.

11) A safe and secure community.

12) An environmentally sustainable place.

Even though the “themes” were larded with the usual tilt and spin that characterizes staff reports, it was clear that residents preferred the restoration, preservation and refinement of the iconoclastic beach town they cherished to the “regional shopping hub” and bigtime tourist mecca that the staff was in the process of making.

The staff’s second report, “Opportunities and Challenges” made its position clear. Sweeping right by the “Emerging Themes,” it was a virtual handbook for turning an iconoclastic and gorgeous beach town into a booming money mill.

Though Santa Monica’s eight square miles were literally full, open space was at a premium, and traffic congestion was the rule not the exception, the City proposed more of everything – including more commercial and residential development. As if to codify City Hall’s mantra – growth is good and big is better – the docile Council once again did the staff’s bidding and approved the misbegot Civic Center Specific Plan, and the demolition of the two RAND buildings, despite the fact that they were historically and architecturally significant and ideal candidates for “adaptive re-use.”

The City itself remained the biggest developer in the city. Work proceeded on its latest parking structure, on Fourth Street, Community Corp. projects at Main and Pacific and 26th Street and Santa Monica Boulevard, and Airport Park, even as the long-awaited expanded Virginia Avenue Park and the new Main Public Library were completed.

Appropriately, the last City Council meeting of the year was a near-perfect demonstration of both the madness of 2005 and the promise of 2006.

In a giant step forward, the Council named former L.A City Councilman and L.A. County Supervisor Ed Edelman to spearhead a concerted campaign to find regional solutions for homelessness.

But, as we noted last week, the meeting degenerated into farce when City staff proposed that the Council authorize the City Manager to negotiate with a design/develop consortium, Related Companies of California, to do The Village in the Civic Center, a massive mixed use project, but failed to give the Council any financial analysis or design details.

Council members Herb Katz and Bobby Shriver each said that he could not possibly authorize anything without much more information, and after some staff nattering, the item was tabled.

And so it was that City Hall ended 2005 on a ludicrous note.

The Good News

In over-stepping its bounds so blatantly and so regularly on some crucial issues this year, City Hall not only aroused and angered residents, but forced them to become actively engaged.

It was City Hall’s ludicrous declaration of war on residential hedges that triggered Bobby Shriver’s run for the City Council, and won him an outsized number of votes and a seat on the Council.

In his first year on the Council, he has changed the chemistry in the Council Chambers, breaking up the old staff-Council alliance. Unlike his veteran colleagues, he is anything but docile, questions everything, and right out of the box proposed a dramatic acceleration in the City’s efforts to solve the problems of homelessness.

Though some of his colleagues seem to resent his independence, he proceeds.

Now Mayor Pro Tem, Shriver has restored a measure of democracy to Council proceedings.

In the same way, City Hall’s increasingly arrogant demeanor set off a kind of residents’ revolution, out of which residents’ groups emerged that are now engaged in closely monitoring staff actions.

The Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City is comprised of people who have diverse points of view but a common interest in preserving the city we all love, As its letter in this issue notes, SMCLC will be on very active duty in 2006.

The recently formed Ocean Park Association will be equally busy in 2006. and may inspire the resurrection of now-dormant neighborhood organizations.

With Shriver on the dais, SMCLC and OPA members in the audience, a new City Manager, Lamont Ewell, and a new Planning Director to be named soon, the revision of the General Plan, the resurrection of the old Marion Davies estate, the fate of Santa Monica Place and the future of the Civic Center, may all be determined by residents, as they should be, rather than staff fiat.

And there could be no better news than that.

P.S.

But things are not wholly rosy. There are 12 demolition permits posted on 19th Street between Wilshire and Montana.

Residents have always been smarter than City Hall. If they are also vigilant and quick, they may finally prevail in 2006, and reorder this small portion of the planet.

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