It is finally here, it is beautiful, and it is a testament to tenacity. The new field at the Civic Center is an example of how a number of individuals with no official support, budget, or established organization managed to get a multi-purpose sports field built for the good of the community.
The lesson from all this: If your idea is good enough, if the community gets behind it, if you are willing to stick with it, you CAN fight City Hall.
In 1996, newly elected City Council member Mike Feinstein had the idea that a sports field should be built in the Civic Center next to the Civic Auditorium and across the street from our field-poor high school and told Neil Carrey, a sports and open space advocate, who later became Chair of the Recreation and Parks Commission. Because all of Santa Monica is field and park-poor, that same year, in its “A Call to Action”, the Santa Monica Youth Athletic Foundation identified the Civic Center as an ideal spot for a community athletic field. Almost immediately a small group of stalwarts started to run with it, recruiting crucial additional leaders, then hundreds to thousands of supporters along the way on the bumpy ride from good idea to great new field.
Early field advocates included the heads of local youth sports groups who had been squabbling over the limited field space available. They joined the quest for more fields. When their request for a field in redesigned Virginia Park was denied, City staff promised them a field at the Civic Center. However, the first Civic Working Group’s recommendations didn’t include a field, so the new field advocates decided to take their cause directly to City Council. Thus began the two decades long push to put a field in the Civic Center.
In July 2002, City Council directed staff to put the field and a surrounding park into the plans after being persuaded by an army of little kids and big kids in soccer and baseball uniforms, student athletes, parents, coaches, administrators, and even SAMOHI’s marching band, along with detailed site drawings by Mario Fonda-Bonardi, an architect by day, a soccer coach by nights and weekends. In 2005, the Civic Center Specific Plan was codified with the field firmly in place along with the ECEC (now the Early Childhood Lab School), park space, and a parking structure to replace the surface level asphalt parking lot. Time to relax and wait for construction to begin? Not so fast. There still would be 15 years of a seemingly endless game of whack-a-mole as one obstacle after another popped up to threaten the field.
There were funding issues due to loss of state redevelopment money, futile attempts to figure out how to fit another field on the high school campus instead, perceived indifference and negative attitudes of City Staff, changing priorities of City Council, and a near quadrupling in size of the ECLS footprint which resulted in encroachment on space intended for both the field and the park. Then the Civic Auditorium fell on hard times and eventually closed. Still, the community demanded the field and pushed forward as additional youth and adult sports like lacrosse, rugby, Ultimate Frisbee and their players joined the movement and kept their cause before City Council.
A new Civic Working Group formed in 2013 with a mission to advise Council on how to revitalize the now closed Civic Auditorium and its surroundings and how to pay for it. This second CWG favored a boutique hotel and office buildings on the site. Field advocates rose up to oppose commercial development on public land as well as the elimination of the long-ago-promised field. They felt dismissed, disrespected and sidelined. The silver lining to this dark development was an increased determination to save the field and the emergence of some new, steel-willed leaders to help the community intensify the fight. The field had one friend on the CWG, now Councilmember Phil Brock, a long time park and field advocate. Phil told the field advocates to keep showing up and speaking up and told them when and where. They did by the hundreds, in person and in emails. The result was that the CWG backed off recommending elimination of the field and instead kicked that (soccer) ball back to City Council for investigation and determination.
In early 2016, the local crowd of advocates roared and scored again. The field issue came before the City Council with presentation in February of the CWG’s report about the Civic Center area. Hundreds of supporters from the sports, education, and neighborhood communities showed up, preceded by over a thousand emails in support of the field. On February 9, 2016, Council reaffirmed its commitment to build the field. A few more delays ensued over the next two years while parking and other proposals were considered, but the pressure was on to build quickly. In 2017, Council voted unanimously to prioritize the field and directed then City Manager Rick Cole accordingly. He assembled a team of senior Staff to expedite getting the field done. Success still required getting the California Coastal Commission to allow removal of parking spaces in the coastal zone without space-for-space replacement, a near impossible hurdle that required more Staff time and effort.
And where and how does the Belmar history part of the project fit in? Along the way, the story of the Belmar neighborhood came to the attention of field advocates during the 2013 CWG process. Learning that history only added fuel to Team Field’s fire to keep the Civic Center field area public land for public use. They communicated the history in written and oral comments to the CWG and to City Council. The CWG included a recommendation that the Belmar community be recognized in its February 2016 report to Council. And when the field went to the Coastal Commission for its development permit on March 6, 2019, field advocates wrote to the Commissioners in advance about Belmar, shared newspaper articles about it, and spoke at the hearing about its history on the site. Unaware of the Coastal Commission’s pending new Environmental and Social Justice Policy, Team Field left the hearing surprised and delighted that the Commissioners, led by Effie Turnbull-Sanders with input from historian Alison Rose Jefferson, had attached a Belmar commemoration condition to the field’s construction permit. The city embraced the task of satisfying that condition and we now have Historic Belmar Park History + Art.
There are too many individuals and groups who participated in the advocacy for the field to name here, but to everyone who showed up — from the little kids who are now grown up to the kids who are still playing, to the coaches, parents, and administrators, and to anyone who wrote to City Council or cornered a Council person in the supermarket or at the car wash or in a park or at a community meeting — this was your fight and this is your field. Generations will play and learn in Historic Belmar Park thanks to your grassroots advocacy. Thank you for never giving up.
By Team Field — Maryanne LaGuardia, Ann Hoover, Jaleh Mirhashemi, Elizabeth Manco, and Lori Brown. Guest Columnists for SMart: Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow
Ron Goldman, Architect FAIA; Dan Jansenson, Architect, Building & Fire-Life Safety Commissioner; Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Planning Commissioner Commissioner; Robert H. Taylor, Architect AIA: Thane Roberts, Architect; Sam Tolkin, Architect; Marc Verville accountant ret.; Michael Jolly, AIRCRE
For previous articles see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writings