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Back in the Day: Main St. ‘81

While in the process of remodeling my studio, complete with many drawings and papers in storage boxes, I came upon one box marked “Main St ’81”.  So what to do but open it, and explore what might be in it that was worth saving for almost 40 years.

In 1979 thru ’80 the Ocean Park residents and the Main Street merchants worked together as the Main Street Planning Group in an effort to improve Main St. which had become rather derelict after Pacific Ocean Park (POP) closed in the late ’60s and then burned down in the early 70’’s.  The street, and general area, was under new development pressure to build larger and taller, e.g. the Sea Colony condos, though unlike today’s developer attack on our town, it seems the developers at the time were locally based for the most part. 

The “Main St ‘81” box contained handwritten meeting notes and formal typed reports by the city planner liaison. It also included several newspapers reporting on the joint effort of the residents and Main St. business communities in finding common ground to limit development, heights and density, and address traffic, parking and open space. The effort limited the number of restaurants and bars along Main St. from Pico to the south City line, and also addressed noise and parking intrusion onto the residential streets.   

The goal was a redesign of Main St. from derelict to a resident serving neighborhood ‘Main St” with shopping and family-oriented restaurants, and improving the business district with local ‘mom & pop’ businesses. That was the goal. It was not a smooth fit at the beginning as residents and Main St. merchants were suspicious of each other and had very different perspectives on some issues. Parking, always an issue, then and now, was hotly debated, with some that were opposed to providing more parking arguing that “the car will be dead by the year 2000” (I never forgot that little comment), and quite clearly that hasn’t turned out to be the case – has it. We addressed traffic, open space and solar access to encourage alternative energy uses.

Thru many months of meetings, negotiations and debate, we finally reached consensus and presented the proposed changes to the City for a zoning revision. Ultimately the City zoning ordinance was changed from the citywide C4 (commercial) zone to the CM (commercial Main St) zone that limited heights, use, density, and parking.  

Here are a few quotes (edited) from a now-defunct local paper of the day (Independent)

Titled “Main St. Plan Nears Accord”. It states “As improbable as it may have seemed months ago, a team of negotiators representing the Main Street Merchants and the Ocean Park Community Organization appear to be on the brink of agreeing on a far-reaching set of planning guidelines…  “Substantial agreement” has already been reached on many of the thorny issues, including future bars and restaurants, height limits, community rooms, gardens and pocket parks…

“Heights: a 2-story limit on three-quarters of Main St. with 3- and 4-story buildings near Pier and near Pico, with second stories on the east side of Main required to have 25 ft setbacks to prevent abutment to residences on 2nd St.  

“Bars, Restaurants: No more bars permitted south of Ocean Park Blvd. and just two more permitted to the north giving a total of five bars. Limit of two restaurants per square block (counting both sides of the street)

“Pocket Park: to be established on Ashland between Main and the alley, and a square to be constructed on the corner of Kinney between Main and the alley.

“Community Service Room: to be provided in the new parking structure (if constructed)(and it was not) with rents from them to subsidize construction.”

To the best of my recollection, as a member of that team, there was no limit on the number of nail salons and coffee shops! Guess there should have been.  But, what I find most interesting is that the issues we faced and attempted to deal with 40 years ago on Main St. are essentially the same we are confronted with citywide today. Except, today our town has succumbed to developers that seem to be from ‘elsewhere’, with projects that are much larger, and denser, and because of continued approval of large hotels and cookie cutter apartment boxes (todays ‘dingbat’ apartments…thank you ‘Crammin Jack’ council) traffic is much worse, infrastructure is being stressed (note the closure of Ocean Ave for water main repairs), and what seems to be the demise of downtown for all but the tourists. “It’s too crowded so nobody goes there anymore”.  

The evolution of Main St. from the community effort that set limits in 1980 to what it has become today with many empty shops and little retail diversity, seems to me to be a look into the future for what Santa Monica downtown, with its massive development, will become in the not too distant future. Large-scale development of the last several years has brought increased rents driving out ‘mom & pop’ local services, as well as increased gentrification, driving out long time lower income residents. Perhaps the lesson from the ’81 Main St. effort is that not all good deeds go unpunished.

Bob Taylor, AIA for SMa.r.t. 

Santa Monica Architects For A Responsible Tomorrow

Sam Toikin Architect; Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Planning Commissioner; Thane Roberts Architect;  Ron Goldman FAIA; Robert H. Taylor AIA; Dan Jansenson Architect, Building & Safety Life-Fire Safety Commissioner; Phil Brock Arts Commissioner

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