By now, the seemingly endless round of hearings on the revision of the land use and circulation elements of the General Plan has ritual aspects. City planners and their team of consultants prepare a variation on the ways Santa Monica can grow and change in the next 20 years. They then present the latest variation, as if it were new and different, to the Planning Commission and the City Council. After Commissioners and Council members make a few polite and perfunctory comments, it’s the residents’ turn. Unlike the staff, Commissioners and Council members, they get right to the point. They are polite, but anything but perfunctory. Their comments and critiques are smart, wholly relevant, and valuable, and their collective point is absolutely clear: until we decide on the purpose, the goal of the revision, any discussion of means is pointless – especially when the planners’ proposals are wholly out of synch with the residents’ goals. By now, residents have said it again and again. It took more than 100 years to make this beach town, but it’s taken City Hall less than two decades to diminish some of its principal assets and put others in serious jeopardy, they say. Stop the mindless commercial development that is wreaking havoc on the town and corroding the quality of life, they say, and restore, preserve and refine this extraordinary place, this demi-paradise. At each successive hearing, more residents speak, and speak more eloquently and more urgently than they did at the previous hearing, but the staff either isn’t listening, doesn’t like what it hears, or doesn’t understand what the residents are saying. The subject of the latest round of hearings was, according to the staff, “Land Use and Circulation Element draft alternatives and performance measures and Supplemental Report – recommendation that Council review and comment upon the direction of the draft alternatives, common themes, performance indicators and measure, and public outreach effort.” The four “draft alternatives” – “Status Quo, Grand Boulevards, Neighborhood Centers and Uptown/Downtown” – amounted to nothing but the same old material in a new package, suggesting that the planners have begun to run in circles, rather than going forward. Though the planners persist in talking about “public outreach,” when the public reaches out, they steadfastly ignore it. Their own first report summarized residents’ goals for the revision – that the low-key, small scale beach town be preserved and City Hall’s “growth is good and big is better” policies be abandoned. But rather than admitting that the residents’ goals were goals, the planners labeled them “Emerging Themes,” and apparently filed them under “irrelevant.” The second report, “Opportunities and Challenges,” lept right over the goals, a.k.a “themes,” and pitched City Hall’s standard growth line, while the “draft alternatives” said, in effect, there will be, must be growth, and the only remaining question is where it will be. Once again, at last week’s Council meeting, residents tried to reach out and touch the Council and the staff. They were numerous, informed, eloquent and emphatic, and they were on the mark. Speaking of the staff report, Geraldine Kennedy, a planner and former Planning Commissioner, put it most succinctly, borrowing Gertrude Stein’s classic line, “There is no there there.”As at all the previous hearings, the public presentations were followed by the ritual moment of silence, and then the Council plunged in. But then, lo, something untoward happened. Apparently, Mayor Bob Holbrook and Council members Ken Genser, Herb Katz and Kevin Mckeown had actually, finally heard the residents. Sort of. After delivering their usual meandering, extended and often self-serving comments, which included Council members Pam O’Connor and Richard Bloom’s ritual tributes to the staff (Mayor Pro Tem Bobby Shriver was absent), the majority of the Council voted to direct the staff to find a way to solicit community opinion that will assist it in setting “working goals to guide the analysis of the alternatives.” It was only a sideways step, and a very timid one, but it was a step, and it signified that the Council had finally realized what the residents have known from the start: It is impossible to develop the means of doing something unless you know, at the start, what you are doing. Otherwise, it’s akin to asking an architect to design a building – but not telling him or her whether the building is to be a house or a sky-scraper or even what it is to be used for. Like the staff, the Council refuses to acknowledge that, without any help from staff, the community has expressed its opinion – again and again – at meetings and in letters, and will continue to speak and write – without staff prodding, and has spelled out its goals – clearly and concisely, and all the staff and Council have to do is listen.The dirty little secret that staff and some Council members share is that by now though they know exactly what the community wants, they don’t like it because it is not what they want, and so presumably they will go on trolling until they find an opinion that suits them.
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