For 25 years, we have watched, with a mix of horror and fascination, the City’s planners at work. We have often argued with them – in person and in print, but we have never been able to divine what they’re really up to. For one thing they speak a language that is not quite English. For another, they seem to believe that Santa Monica is infinitely malleable, adjustable and subject to endless change, while we see it as a real place – with very real assets, including an extraordinary location, and equally real limits.When City Hall unleashed the planners in the early 1980s, its goal was as clear as it was lamentable – crank up the volume in order to crank up City revenues. To that end, planners set about to add several uncongenial layers to this legendary beach town – regional commercial hub, bigtime tourist mecca and luxe office district. Santa Monica was already complete, of course, more than sufficient as it was, and not in need of elaborate embellishment – much less larding up, but there was money to be made, and so City Hall proceeded. Either the planners didn’t know or simply didn’t care that, along with increasing City revenue, they would increase traffic to the point at which gridlock became the rule, rather than the exception. But unintended consequences has long been the name of the game in City Hall, as perfectly expressed in its mantra – “It didn’t look this big on paper” (originally uttered by then-Councilman Denny Zane on first seeing Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel).In 1982, the City held a series of community workshops at which the “Santa Monica Pier Guidelines” were written. Low-key, residents said. Small local cafes, beach gear shops, galleries, they said. No rides, they said. No Disneyland-by-the-Sea, they said. But, in 1985, the City abandoned the guidelines on the grounds that they were not economically feasible and went looking for a developer to build and operate a 70,000 square foot “amusement park” on the pier. As we recall, that was the last time City Hall actually asked residents what they wanted, but it was by no means the last time it ignored what they said.City Hall did not even pretend to ask residents what they thought about its plans for a regional commercial hub, a bigtime tourist mecca and a luxe office district. And that’s unfortunate, because if we’d engaged in the lively civic conversation then that we are having now, we would have less of a mess on our hands today. As with the pier, residents have long favored low key and small scale, because they cherish this iconic beach town and know its value. And, as with the pier, City Hall has long favored bigtime and continuing development on several fronts. To put it another way, we the residents are in it for love, while City Hall is in it for the money – not for us, but for itself. Though City Hall coffers have swelled in the last couple of decades, due to burgeoning development, one of the largest revenue generators is the draconian 10 percent across-the-board utility tax on residents. At over $30 million this year, it matches sales tax revenues, and surpasses the bed tax paid by hotel guests.That’s just one of the reasons our hair bursts into flames every time one of the Council members claims that the tourist industry is “the engine that drives our economy.” In fact, residents – now as ever – drive the economy, so we are, in effect, paying City Hall to do things we don’t want it to do. Which brings us back to our original question: What are the planners really up to? What do they want to make of this place that so many people love so ardently?The layers they’ve added in the last two decades have added a layer of problems, too, but now rather than solving the problems, the planners seem bent on adding layers to the layers….and new problems to the existing problems. Each of the reports that the planners and their consultants have made on their work on the revision of the land use and circulation elements of the General Plan (a.k.a. “Shape the Future 2025”) has consisted of variations on the same old theme: growth is good and bigger is better. And each successive report has elicited more questions and critiques from residents, but both the questions and critiques have been ignored by the planners. The residents have said, again and again, what they want, but the planners have not told us either what they want, beyond more of almost everything, or what they think they’re making. At their last meeting, finally acknowledging what residents have been saying for months, three of his colleagues agreed with Councilman Ken Genser who said, “There’s no substance to the [design] alternatives, so we don’t know where we’re going.” Will the planners respond? Will they actually tell us what they’re up to? Do they know what they’re up to? Will they answer any of the residents’ questions?We can hardly wait for the next installment in this long-running civic soap opera.
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