Sharon Gilpin, former City Planning
Special to the Mirror
Almost 20 years ago the six-story Loew’s Hotel opened on Santa Monica’s Ocean Avenue, then a street of sleepy two-story hotels and modest apartments. Although then Mayor Denny Zane proclaimed it “didn’t look that big on paper” the luxury hotel cat was already out of the city planner’s bag: developers were lined up for permits to cover the beach with luxury hotels.
To many alarmed residents it became clear that unless you could afford a $300 per night hotel and a $7 beer your access – or even view – to the beach was in danger.
These citizens formed the Save Our Beach committee and wrote an initiative to create a “beach overlay” district: if passed by voters it would prohibit hotels or restaurants over 2,000 square feet west of the center line of Ocean Avenue from the Southern to the Northern end of the City’s limits. Housing was exempted. Scores of volunteers worked hard gathering signatures across the City for months and finally quickly collected enough to put Proposition S on the November 1990 ballot.
Around the same time, the Santa Monica City Council decided to back a developer’s proposal to build a luxury beach hotel on public parkland owned by the State but leased by the City and managed by the private Sand and Sea Club. If developed this hotel would have replaced the former Marion Davies beachfront home that was, unlike the other private clubs below the Palisades, a family friendly (read: funky) facility.
The 415 PCH hotel proposal had been worked on fairly quietly in Sacramento but it was met with a storm of protest when it came before the City Planning Commission for approval.
That public hearing had to be moved to the Civic Auditorium because more than 400 people wanted to speak. The Council had misread the passion of Santa Monica citizens just as they had when the City Council attempted to create a commercial office park on public parkland at the Santa Monica Airport a few years before (that plan was overturned by citizen referendum).
Public parkland advocates from across the City soon joined together to force the City Council to put a public approval of the 415 PCH project on the ballot as Proposition Z. Along with Proposition T – a developer counter initiative to Proposition S – that November’s ballot was ground zero for determining future generation’s access to Santa Monica’s rich beach resources.
The campaigning was fierce. Up against developer money the David vs. Goliath odds didn’t look good for beach access advocates. However, even though our citizen-backed parkland campaign was outspent 50:1, the voters rewarded the grassroots work by choosing 62 percent in favor of restricting hotel development on all three issues.
But they did even more – they preserved the beach as a place for future generations to enjoy regardless of their economic status. And they saved 415 PCH for eventual use as a truly public beach club.
The bad news is these many years later Marion Davies’ former home still sits silently in ruins. The good news is the Annenberg Foundation has stepped up to the plate and is willing to give the City $28 million to create that public beach club we all fought so hard to save.
The strength and intelligence of any civilization is its future focus. Although Santa Monica has not taken advantage of this unique opportunity to date, thanks to the past hard work of citizens and the current offer from the Annenberg Foundation, Santa Monica City can now realize this gift – one that will keep on giving for generations.
The public hearing of the Appeal of the 415 Public Beach Club will be heard by the Santa Monica City Council on Thursday, May 25 – pack the hall and the let them know the people of Santa Monica still want to Save Our Beach.