According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, a community is “a group of people living in the same locality and under the same government; the district or locality in which such a group lives; a group of people having common interests (the scientific community; the international business community), a group viewed as forming a distinct segment of society (the gay community; the community of color); similarity or identity (a community of interests) sharing, participation, and fellowship; society as a whole; the public.Ecology. A group of plants and animals living and interacting with one another in a specific region under relatively similar environmental conditions…The region occupied by a group of interacting organisms.”The word derives from “Middle English communite, citizenry, from Old French, from Latin commnits, fellowship, from commnis, common.Over time, this plain, simple word has devolved into one of those warm and fuzzy terms that sound wonderful, but mean little or nothing. And it’s one of City Hall’s favorite words. City Hall holds “community workshops,” engages in “community outreach,” and frequently seeks “community input.” When residents speak to the City Council or any of the City’s boards and commissions, they are usually referred to as “members of the community.”There are numerous smaller “communities” within the community of Santa Monica: the Santa Monica College community, the African American community, the Latino community, the senior community, the environmental community, and so on. The City Hall roster includes the Community Corporation, Community and Cultural Services, Community Events, Community Programs, Planning and Community Development, and so on. But, like true love, utopia and justice, authentic community is easy to talk about, but hard to find. For all its much-caroled devotion to “community workshops, community outreach and community input,” the City habitually ignores what the “community” says or spins it to suit its own ends – which are, more often than not, at extreme odds with what Santa Monica residents actually want. Indeed, as work on the revision of the land use and circulation elements in the General Plan (a.k.a. our Constitution) proceeds, the long-running divide between City Hall and the rest of us has begun to look a lot like the San Andreas fault – deep, dangerous and destructive. In these circumstances, when the people who are charged with serving the residents oppose them, the very notion of community is turned on its head. The so-called college community is currently on hold, as faculty, employees and students wait to see what the new SMC president has in mind, but rancor still hangs in the air, as students are offered fewer classes at higher fees, and the faculty and employees still smart from their losing battles with the previous president, and work to overcome what they see as her mistakes. Compounding things, the somewhat bruised college community is at odds with both City Hall and its immediate neighbors over the development of its Bundy campus and the traffic it generates, as well as traffic overflow from the main campus. In a town of 84,000 people who rank “diversity” high on their list of priorities, African American and Latino communities would ideally be devoted exclusively to preserving and celebrating their cultural, aesthetic and historic traditions, but, sadly, African Americans and Latinos find themselves often isolated and ill-served in both the scholastic and socio-economic arenas, at frequent odds with each other and City and School District officials.In sum, City Hall’s seeming attention to community as fact and concept is a trick, a show, a means to an end, not an end in itself. Santa Monicans’ political views span the full range from far left to far right, which has led to some fierce battles, but, wherever they stand on the political spectrum, most residents are devoted to this old and esteemed beach town.City Hall has more grandiose aspirations.Unwilling and apparently unable to simply be good stewards, City “policy makers,” as they enjoy calling themselves, determined some years ago to make something of Santa Monica.They either didn’t notice or didn’t care that it already was something — and something quite splendid, quite definite and wholly distinctive. They wanted more of everything, but, most of all, they wanted more revenue for City Hall, and so they set out to turn this easy-going beach town into a busy regional commercial hub, major tourist mecca and luxe office cluster – Century City west. And why not? Its location squarely in the middle of a major regional mega-intersection made it an ideal site for a money mill. When he retired from the Council in 1992, Denny Zane said, “In ten years, we have made this a wonderful city.” It was hubris run amuck. In fact. it had taken four generations of Santa Monicans 100 years to make it a wonderful city, and it had taken Zane and his City Hall pals ten years to make it less wonderful. Still, the new cranked up town generated more revenue for City Hall, stoking the policy makers’ appetites for more. Of everything. And so the deconstruction of the beach town and the construction of the eight square-mile mall proceeded. Residents protested – in larger and larger numbers and more and more frequently, but the City Hall steamroller made mince of them. Then a funny thing happened – one of those last straw moments.On orders from the City Council, City planners and their pet consultant Roma Design Group labored for a year-and-a-half with the owners of Santa Monica Place, Macerich, to turn the two-block, three-story mall into a massive real estate development that featured three 21-story high end condo towers. The moment the proposed plans were unveiled, shock and outrage seized the town, and scorn was virtually universal. When asked by the Los Angeles Business Journal what she thought when she first learned of the possibility of redeveloping Santa Monica Place, the City’s then planning director, Suzanne Frick, said, “A great dream.”Frick’s dream was the town’s nightmare, and, ironically, it ignited a fierce community spirit in people of every political stripe. Some of them formed the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City. It has not only forced City Hall to hand over relevant documents, but has prepared smart, thorough and frequently devastating analyses of the City’s work on the General Plan revisions. At the same time, Ocean Park residents formed a new neighborhood organization, Ocean Park Association, and it and Friends of Sunset Park are also now riding heard on the planners and policy makers. In its crude creation and manipulation of a bogus community, the City had sandbagged itself and unleashed an authentic community that is smarter, quicker and faster on its feet than the swollen City Hall. But the struggle by the aroused community to take back control of Santa Monica’s destiny is by no means over. City planners remain in development mode, periodically presenting small variations on the same old “growth is good and big is better” line they have pushed for more than two decades for possible inclusion in the new General Plan. Resident opposition notwithstanding, they and their consultants seem determined to extend and elaborate on the 1984 General Plan. The planners know that residents want to curb development, end the traffic nightmare and restore and refine the beach town they cherish, because they cited those views in their first report, “Emerging Themes.” But they soon shelved that report and moved on to “Opportunities and Challenges.” Opportunities for City Hall. Challenges for the rest of us. At the moment, the principal challenge residents face is taking control of our future away from the planners, their consultants and their obedient servants on the Council. But new City Manager Lamont Ewell has nothing invested in the prevailing City Hall “grow we must” line, and is making an effort to get to know residents. He could break with the prevailing tradition, and become residents’ most powerful ally. And this is an election year, so both the incumbent policy makers and their challengers will have to listen, at least a little, to the ever-enlarging and ever more determined community of residents. Besides that, residents are smarter, more creative and at least as determined as the policy makers…and they almost always speak in complete sentences.
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