That huge gust of wind you felt one rainy afternoon last week wasn’t a gust of wind at all. It was the collective sigh of relief from supporters when the Coastal Commission granted a Coastal Development Permit for the building of the Civic Center Multi-Purpose Sports Field. I don’t know how many Coastal Commission votes conclude with a round of applause from the audience, but that’s what followed all the exhaling. 20-plus years ago, when residents began their serious push to get this field, it was inconceivable that it would take so long to get this far.
It is a history replete with heroes and villains, lots of drama, and dogged determination. Could anyone have imagined that here in greener-than-thou, healthy- outdoor-wellbeing-promoting, family-and-education-friendly Santa Monica, a city that has declared war on the use of personal automobiles, it would take over two decades to even begin to replace an ugly, underused, asphalt parking lot with a much needed and wanted athletic field? Go figure, or as SNL character Roseanne Roseannadanna was wont to say: “If it’s not one thing, it’s another.”
The concept of a field in the Civic Center was raised throughout the early and mid-1990s. Sports groups were promised they would be taken care of at the Civic Center when their request for a field in the redesign of Virginia Park was denied. When the first Civic Center Working group submitted its proposal, there was no field in it.
And so began the adventures in the activism of a whole bunch of good people demanding the field that was promised to the youth of our city. Adorable children dressed in soccer uniforms and their doting, sports-loving parents pleaded with City Council for the playing field. Not wanting Council to overlook the value to the field-poor high school across the street, the marching band joined the already noisy group in Council Chambers. Mario Fonda-Bonardi, an AYSO coach with a day job as an architect, showed up with drawings showing how and where the field belonged.
In July 2002, City Council directed staff to put a field in the plans! The Field Sports Advisory Council and the Recreation and Parks Commission rejoiced. Local columnist Frank Gruber, in 2003 column and later in his 2009 book, Urban Worrier, treated the field as both an asset and a given: “(S)omeday there will be a big park with a soccer field at the corner of Pico and Fourth, ensuring lots of people on weekends.” Ultimately, the Civic Center Specific Plan was codified in 2005 with the field firmly in place. And then stuff happened — lots of it. Over the years the finish line kept moving — from funding issues caused by the loss of Redevelopment money, to futile attempts to reconfigure the high school campus to accommodate another field, to perceived disinterest among the city staff, to the tripling in size of the ECLS which necessarily reduced the size of the “big park , to the Civic Auditorium falling on hard times and its ultimate closure.
And still, the field supporters persisted…bringing out different groups of adorable children in uniforms and their assorted doting parents because the kids who originally came to Council had grown up, gone to college and were now practicing law and medicine and so on and having kids of their own. More sports joined the throng seeking field space. Lacrosse and rugby were growing exponentially. High school kids had to walk to John Adams to practice and play because there were so many sports needing the high school’s one field at the same time. Adults needed playing space, too, as evidenced by the city’s wildly successful adult soccer league and the proliferation of adult lacrosse, ultimate frisbee, and rugby players.
In 2013 the city convened the Civic Working Group (CWG), ostensibly to examine revitalizing the auditorium and surrounding area, including considering commercial development (hotels and office buildings). Viewed by the field supporters as an assassination attempt when it was disclosed that CWG members were told they could ignore the inclusion of the field in the Civic Center Specific Plan, new breath flowed into the field supporters. Their activism took the playing field off life support and into the forefront once again. With just one field friend on the CWG, Recreation and Parks Commission Chair Phil Brock, the community rallied the troops to let the CWG know neither interest nor need had waned and they were committed to doing battle if necessary. This is not to say the intentions of the CWG were not good (well, except for the part about commercial development on public land) and that the Civic Auditorium remains to be restored/revitalized, but that the field issue had long since been decided, the need for the field had increased, and it was time to deliver.
Intense activism spearheaded by FSAC members and the dynamic PTSA Civic Center Task Force resulted in City Council voting unanimously in February 2016 to reaffirm its commitment to the field and direct the staff to give it priority. Ultimately the field was designed, funded, and sent out for construction bids. Elected officials and civic leaders, SMMUSD, SMC, Neighborhood Council, and a host of individuals supported the field before the Coastal Commission.
There are too many in the community who worked in the trenches to mention by name. Everyone contributed. Ultimately it took priority action by Public Works, Planning, and Community and Cultural Services and the City Manager, pursuant to a unanimous Council directive, along with a thousand or more vocal community members to get us to this point — a scheduled groundbreaking in August!. We all know what Yogi Berra said: “It ain’t over till it’s over.” And while it isn’t over yet, it certainly looks like the finish line is in place. Perhaps we should have those young AYSO coaches who asked for more field space so many years ago who now play on the Santa Monica Old Stars Over 60 team take the field for the inaugural game.
Guest Columnist Maryanne LaGuardia is a Santa Monica Recreation & Parks Commissioner, a longtime community activist and a member of the California Bar. We thank Maryanne for her contribution this week.
By Maryanne LaGuardia J.D. for SMart (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)
Thane Roberts, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Architect, Dan Jansenson, Architect, Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi, AIA, Planning Commissioner, Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission. For previous articles see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writing