Well, sure it does. Change is how we gauge progress. Let me offer an example: Years ago, our brave pioneer ancestors had to go out into the woods and cut down trees, then go back home and build their own furniture. Now, we drive to IKEA then go back home and… build our own furniture. There, you see?
Whether change always brings real change was on my mind when it was pointed out to me that Santa Monica could arguably be reeling from change right now. Our beloved mayor passed away, two City Council seats were filled with appointments following deaths within a year of each other, we have a new fire chief and a new city manager… and Ruth Seymour has left KCRW. Santa Monica bureaucracy is seeing more fresh faces than the government in Honduras did after last year’s military coup. And yet… has that personnel-quake brought with it any dramatic changes?
In the case of the city council, there’s a view that the long-time struggles between tenants and property owners that dominated council business are shifting to battles over development. To some extent, that story is also the story of Santa Monicans for Renter’s Rights, or SMRR, an organization that in some ways has become the fluoride in the water of our city government. A quick visit to SMRR.org’s “Elected Officials” page will verify what the teeth of city government are rinsed in; 2 of our past 4 mayors have been SMRR members.
SMRR was formed in 1978 as a response to the then Los Angeles real estate boom. At that time the action on Santa Monica apartments and condos had the appearance of the doors opening at Wal-Mart on the day after Thanksgiving. Rapidly rising rents, often intended to clear apartments of tenants, so that owners could gentrify their buildings for BMW driving, sushi-snackers on blow (okay, maybe they all didn’t eat sushi)… were deflected by SMRR’s work in passing the strongest rent control law in the country in 1979.
One might say, “That was then, and this is now,” but the energy to keep pushing things upscale and the Darth Vader-like persistence of those who benefit from it never quite abates. As a Santa Monica resident since 1992, I’ve seen neighborhood apartment buildings go condo after long struggles and the winners and losers in those battles would be defined by which end of the change you were on. I can offer slices of my own experience, such as the first apartment I rented on 19th Street near Broadway. That place was $1,100 a month at that time and featured a foot-wide third floor deck that hovered over an auto body shop. I had to keep the sliding door closed to keep the apartment from smelling of spray paint. Both the body shop and the apartment are still there. I have no idea what the rent is now for that same aroma-rich lifestyle.
Contacted by phone, Councilman Kevin McKeown told me he believes that there is a danger that Santa Monica is “losing a grip on keeping development in check” and that tougher economic times will produce arguments for development bent toward a view that “we need the business.” McKeown notes that there’s even a split in SMRR on development, and he pointed to the defeat of development-restricting Proposition T as a kind of bellwether of a new development mood.
There’s always some wind blowing on that line in the sand. A columnist in another local newspaper dramatically closed a recent column by intoning that “Santa Monica is not for sale.” Having asserted in the same article that the city council now had “five council persons who are considered pro-growth” and that “developer and real estate lucre has already found its way into some SMRR politician war chests.”
There was a time when Santa Monica was a richly multi-ethnic city where African American and Latino families lived side by side with whites and Asian Americans mostly in an area bounded by Pico Boulevard, Centinela Avenue, Santa Monica Boulevard and Lincoln Boulevard. Then construction of the I-10 freeway brought a whole new geography, and it’s that post-freeway city that more of us are familiar with. A comprehensive discussion on containing development might have to include pondering whether there was ever any chance of stopping the 10 and what it did to Santa Monica.
Few things stay exactly the same over time, especially a city with a sweet ocean view. But to have quality of life you’ve got to have representatives who dwell with regularity on the very notion of quality of life. Now, I’m not the guy for that job because, for one thing, I can’t imagine the need for any more retail. But just because I don’t personally need another clothing store doesn’t mean there isn’t some kind of an argument for it… although I’d be fascinated to hear that argument. Any discussion about “progress” and change has to include a voice that asks, “If we build it, who wins… exactly?” My sense is that, so far, Santa Monica has been blessed with that voice. When we no longer hear that voice, something will have changed.
Mirror Contributing Writeropinion@smmirror.com