Santa Monica is shrinking. The city has felt more intimate to our residents over the past seven weeks. Streets that feel safer and walkable sidewalks are the norm. Traffic is now a distant purr instead of a constant cacophony of congestion and noise. The silence between sirens much longer. The roses are blooming, and the poppies open. Yet we are unsettled. The pandemic brings constant uneasiness to each of us. Twenty-one souls have been taken from us by COVID-19 in Santa Monica, with 296 confirmed cases in all. Yes, these include those in rest homes as well as permanent residents. I’ve heard that St. John’s Hospital has twenty-five COVID-19 patients this week with eighteen in the ICU. I pray for their recovery.
~ I talked to two residents Wednesday, one on the north side and the other, south of the tracks. While I am feeling idyllic about the newly found quiet in our 8.3 square mile city, both of them brought up the issues of crime and homelessness. Neither female feels a sense of safety in our town, and both wonder when or if Santa Monica will ever feel safe again for them and their families. It is distressing to hear the same comments over and over again about the city that I love. Our police chief, Cynthia Renaud, discussed her twin priorities this week at the virtual City Council meeting. She wants residents to feel safe and to be safe. If my conversations with either resident are typical, then the chief has a ways to go.
~ Retail sales were down, vacancies up, and hotel occupancy falling in Santa Monica even before the pandemic took hold. Yet city officials never would admit that homelessness and crime were major factors in the decline of downtown. If we are going to recover, then those problems have to be solved. If they aren’t, then no amount of revitalization will work. Our town has to be first and foremost, a city that works for residents. The health and safety of residents MUST be the top priority of our local government.
~ From Chelsea Sullivan, a Samohi ’08 grad who lives in the NOMA neighborhood, “My family has suffered much personal property loss due to theft in Santa Monica over the years. And every year it seems to get worse and worse. We’ve had computers taken, multiple bikes jacked, our mailbox repeatedly ripped open, and even my husband’s truck was taken straight out of our garage, all in the middle of the night. The city doesn’t care about our personal property or safety; they enjoy collecting more of our money. We are leaving.” With our new reality in Santa Monica, a city that is leaner by necessity, the words of Chief Renaud must become our new mantra. “Feel Safe, Be Safe!”
~ Seven hours, forty-five minutes was the length of the marathon Santa Monica City Council meeting on Cinco de Mayo. The city administration pink-slipped 247 staff positions, and more left voluntarily with an exit package for a total reduction of 337 jobs. There was an exhaustive staff report about the proposed post-pandemic recovery and reorganization. The primary topic, of course, was how to solve the multi-million dollar budget deficit we face. It was an enormously challenging afternoon and evening for the members of the City Council and for the residents who called in. Ninety people gave comments by telephone, some waiting up to five hours to speak. The technology was imperfect, and many in the queue had their calls dropped. Council members received almost 2000 emails from residents about programs and departments they considered vital. Except for the overall restructuring guidelines, these changes remain in flux. If you are advocating for the preservation of a program or activity, keep writing the city council! “It ain’t over till it’s over!”
~ The budget deficit will balloon to an estimated $224 million over the next two years, thanks to the pandemic downturn. The council grabbed $117 million out of reserves, rainy day funds, capital projects, water settlement funds, and Measure GSH Funds to offset this deficiency. The council also approved a restructuring plan, which will reduce ongoing deficits by another $86.2 million. None of the council’s steps are final, as negotiations with the pink-slipped staff’s bargaining units began on Thursday. The negotiating bodies can respond with offers to chop their pay and take furlough days. The final budget adoption will be in mid-June. There are some in the city who are happy a day of reckoning is here. Santa Monica has overspent and overreached for decades. Can the same people who got us into this pickle be trusted to get us out? Wilmont Neighborhood Chair Elizabeth Van Denburgh states, “I’m good with the lowering of staff in a bloated city, but I’m not happy about the residents’ essential services not being provided.” Making do with less needs to be the new, permanent city goal. The City Manager must become a master minimalist.
~ The proposed cuts reach deep into programs as diverse as youth sports, our swimming pools, the library system, the POD and WISE programs for seniors, mental health programs, the Big Blue Bus, street cleaning, and more. Before many of these programs hit the chopping block, the city manager needs to look deeper into the city administration for cuts that do not directly affect our youth, teens, and seniors. For example, as many have cited, why has only one position been cut from the city’s communication department. There are five remaining positions. Before former city manager Rick Cole’s hire, the department was comprised of one PR person. Cutting just three jobs from this department would free up another $300,000, enough to keep Miles Playhouse open or restore needed funding to our library system.
~ Crossing guards are a big deal. With our traffic congestion and general morning chaos, the proposal on the table is to enlist volunteers to assume the duties of the crossing guards who protect our children. Zina Josephs, the Chair of the Friends of Sunset Park, argued that the elimination of one police sergeant position would fund the entire crossing guard budget for the city. The top two SMPD police sergeants in 2018 grossed (including benefits) $438,479.00 and $435,248.00 respectively. Yep, one of their salaries would easily fund the crossing guard program and save lives. The bigger question – How could a sergeant log in that much overtime in one year?
~ The city’s plan calls for the elimination of city commissions that are not mandated by the city charter. Residents of this city are an engaged, curious group who have a keen interest in the mechanics of city government. Reducing the amount of advisory input will lead to the stifling of dissent. How will Santa Monica have an engaged citizenry if residents can’t participate?
~ Santa Monicans for Renters Rights proposed a dramatic uptick in the business tax this week as a way to raise more revenue to balance the budget. They want this measure on the ballot in November. When will businesses decide that the high cost of rent and peripheral expense of running a business in Santa Monica is just not worth it? Many have already pulled out, and this tax is not even on the ballot yet!
~ Santa Monica Forward is still pushing its credo of increased density and wants to stack the city with boxlike buildings from their developer backers. One thousand four hundred new apartments in the canyon of Lincoln Blvd is not enough? The “manifesto” they offered to city hall has traction among the density hounds that don’t understand that there will be a new paradigm in already dense, urban areas because of the pandemic. The Planning Department, with the backing of this group, is already pushing for upzoning the entire city under the guise of restoring the city’s revenue. Open space, fresh air, and the sounds of the surf are the essential qualities of Santa Monica, not cramped apartments in mid-rise boxes.
~ We were universally unhappy with the traffic, density, and safety of Santa Monica before the COVID-19 shutdown. Imagine how we’re all going to feel in a few weeks when things are back to “normal!” Emphatically tell the City Council that you will not take any more overdevelopment in our beachside community. The new developments have been a no-win proposition for residents, and ultimately, isn’t this city about you and me?
“I suddenly realized I was in California. Warm, palmy air – air you can kiss – and palms.” ― Jack Kerouac
By Phil Brock 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.
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