Santa Monica’s Divine Comedy

Common Sense

Dante Alighieri listed the sins of man in the first part of his epic poem, “Divine Comedy”. There were nine circles of suffering detailed by Dante in the first chapter, or allegory, of this poem, which is titled “The Inferno”. In ancient Christianity the seven deadly sins include Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, Pride and Lust. Dante expanded on the sins to include Treachery, Fraud, Violence, Heresy, Wrath, and Limbo. Scary indeed! Santa Monica residents have always thought that their city was an example of the third and happiest of Dante’s allegories, “Paradise”. However, many are beginning to believe we are teetering on the edge of the second allegory, “Purgatory”, in danger of sliding into “The Inferno”.

While the above comparisons are extreme, members of SMart and others in our city have identified many continuous problems with planning oversight in Santa Monica. It is appropriate to look at some of our civic problems in relation to the sins set out in the Divine Comedy. Gluttony has been suggested. There seems to be no other way to describe the “carpetbaggers” and “robber barons” intent on taking control of our city’s most precious resources. Our land, our proximity to the Pacific Ocean, our climate and our skyline all scream profit to those who want to exploit them.

While our natural attributes are precious to all of us, just imagine how valuable they are to outsiders who stand to make a tidy profit from blocking our sea breezes and sunny skies with their mid-rise and high-rise buildings. Developers just want to capitalize on our city’s potential. Mix in an element of Greed and they become dangerous. Rather than build within our city’s zoning codes, they set out to create Faustian bargains with city planners and our city council in order to maximize the plunder. Our land and our sky are incomparable commodities. Speculators know it and when Greed raises its head, they become blind to the natural beauty of our city and to the great value of the low-rise, comfortable, beach life style to the residents of Santa Monica.

Our city government is supposed to provide the checks and balances to counter Gluttony and Greed. It appears to many this responsibility to maintain our Paradise has been abrogated. In fact, you might suspect that our city planners, planning commission, architectural review board and city council are practicing card carriers of Sloth. They are not actively defending the residents of our fair city. They seem to be allowing the developers and their lawyers to maneuver around the planning processes of our city for their profit. Laziness has never been considered a virtue. Residents themselves have had to come to the defense of Santa Monica because our paid employees and elected representatives have failed to do so.

Lust is evident as developers eye our one- and two-story buildings, our historic stores and our renowned garden and courtyard apartments. They see dollar signs and we feel their Wrath when they don’t get what they want. We see Busy Bee Hardware begin to slide towards the abyss as landlords fight over a handful of parking spaces. We hear Typhoon begin its death spiral over rent that has been doubled. We witness older apartments approaching destruction and tenants being evicted. As small businesses and restaurants are lost forever, we see Greed, Lust, Gluttony and Sloth consume the leaders we elected. They should be working to protect our existing city. Instead we hear from them about the new “exciting” projects coming down the pipeline – the grandeur of a twelve-story building on city-owned land at Fourth and Arizona. They speak of the need to build more rather than the need to preserve. We hear that we need a new “local coastal plan, a downtown community plan”, and that the Land Use and Circulation Plan is a fine document – that more growth is needed. Perhaps the developers who are embedded in our Chamber Of Commerce and who pervade City Hall have Envy towards the growth they see in downtown Los Angeles or New York City. Santa Monica is a beachside community. To think that our city must become such a metropolis is Heresy.

In actuality, residents are not swayed by the bigger is better argument towards building more in our city. We feel pride in our uniqueness and want to fight those who would deprive us of our special sense of place. Many feel that Fraud and Treachery are being committed against them in the name of the need for more housing. Developers want more housing because it’s profitable. There is nothing altruistic about their sales pitches. They just want more money, more profit. It’s already dangerous to walk, bicycle or drive in our city. More people moving in create more traffic, clear and simple.

Santa Monicans do not want to see their lifestyle diminish. Growth that is organic and measured, growth that is in line with our city’s existing character, is acceptable. And, no matter how much our city planners and city council try to tell us that there is very little growth, we all can feel it. From maddening traffic to buildings blocking the sunlight on our streets, we know we are being stifled by growth. We are a special place and we must regain our Paradise.

These developers with their minds consumed by dollar signs want to come in and “Pave Paradise” – and without putting up the proverbial “Parking Lot”.  So the residents are all doomed to be driving around and around in a never-ending circle in a concrete maze looking for parking – or fresh air – or sunshine – or trees that are no longer there, never finding any peace or beauty again…is that Purgatory or the Inferno? It probably doesn’t matter which Allegory you choose – the point is made.

The focus of our city government seems to always be on our Downtown and how to grow it, how to build it up. No one listens to the neighborhood associations that are the voice of the residents of our city. Wouldn’t it be an act of healing for our city council, our planners and our city staff to take a holistic approach to the city…to listen to all residents and preserve what has made us such an enviable Paradise?

Phil Brock for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

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The Alchemy Of Greed

More & More

Our City is experiencing an identity crisis fueled by gluttony. The powers in the City of Santa Monica have apparently decided that bigger is better and that that this “bigger” needs to be fueled constantly by more…more development, taller and denser buildings, structures that are out-of-scale with our town…more people…more tourists…more workers…more residents. Just More. Our City’s appetite appears to be insatiable. Santa Monica government has become like a giant Pac-Man that wants to devour the City that our residents love. And – make no mistake – our residents love this place. It is, as the City Seal says, a place for “fortunate people in a fortunate land”.

Residents want to see a city that thrives, but they also want to breathe. They are concerned about the day-to-day issues of life in an increasingly big city. We are now constantly congested. Rents are skyrocketing. Local restaurants can’t survive and homegrown retail appears doomed. Crime is rising. Our long-time homelessness issues seem unsolvable. The Fire Department now handles 16,000+ calls per year. Our Police Department needs more sworn personnel. Our sewers are backed up. Our electrical grid suffers repeated outages. We’re building a new fire station that won’t even be large enough to meet our needs by the day it opens. We can’t handle the masses of concertgoers that our Pier attracts in the summer. And while we celebrate the opening of the Expo light rail and our Breeze Bike Share program, both have actually increased the congestion and chaos in the heart of Santa Monica. Our school structures have deteriorated. Repairs run years behind. At Samohi paint is peeling, buildings are missing letters and even the signs identifying the school name are not kept up. At other SMMUSD schools, the potential for lead and PCP poisoning is apparent. Yet nothing is done.

We no longer appear to have the characteristics of the beachfront town residents fell in love with. To many of us, Santa Monica appears to be on steroids, and a serious intervention is in order. To some, the answer is “build more”. Developers gaze upon Santa Monica as a gold mine that must be tapped. Look at the fervor that a slow growth measure in this election cycle has attracted. The donations accrued to fight the resident-sponsored measure will soon top $1.5 million. Much like the “robber barons” of the 1900’s these developers and their aligned businesses will cajole, persuade and dispense with the truth in order to capitalize on the income stream they foresee from their properties in our town. They hawk the need for more housing as subterfuge for their real issue…desire to suck more profit from Santa Monica. Imagine, if you will, all of these businesses, their affiliated non-profits and their local, national and international developer friends at a giant Hometown Buffet. As they salivate over the unlimited food they are about to feast upon, the residents who own the buffet look on in horror as these “guests” keep eating and eating. This gluttony of greed will consume our city unless residents close their buffet.

Our city staff and city council promise to ease traffic congestion but it keeps getting worse. They suggest if we live closer together we won’t need to drive. They have become skilled at echoing the developers’ calls for adding more height and density to our downtown and our boulevards. They suggest that thirty-plus proposed developments will not add to our woes. From new hotels to mixed-use, mid-rise commercial/residential buildings and a city sponsored, twelve-story building on city land in the heart of our downtown, the steroid analogy is apropos. Many residents call these developments “run-away” – more, always more.

In 2008, Ted Winterer (now a City Council Member seeking re-election) talked about our city’s growth and the need to contain it. “If one is truly concerned about run-away development, the only way to slow it down is to actually slow it down.” Ted went on to talk about traffic and the need to control the actions of city hall. He said about the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) and city hall projections, “the city’s projected amount of commercial development for the next 16 years was surpassed in only six years. And did our city stop growing after it reached the projections it had planned for? Hardly. City Hall just changed the plan.” Wow! And that happens over and over again. The gluttony I talked about? Yep, in city hall – In the corridors of power, our residents are being derided for asking for limits on growth. Yet those limits are necessary. According to Jennifer Taylor, Santa Monica’s Economic Development Administrator, Santa Monica hosted 8.3 million visitors last year, a figure up from 7.3 million in 2014. On the surface that sounds positive. However the additional police and fire personnel mentioned earlier are needed because of this rise in visitors. As we continue to increase the heights and density of our buildings, strive to add more office workers and house more people, our need for infrastructure correspondingly rises. As that occurs, the City seeks more revenue. Our taxes and fees continue to balloon. With a $614.2 million dollar annual budget, you would think that our 94,000 residents would receive free bus service, discounted parking meter rates and unlimited swimming at our city pools. Yet, residents are left out. Instead, the City’s quest for new revenue is endless. Fees for services rise, taxes increase and residents increasingly are angry and distrustful of city hall.

Are we, the residents, destined to lose the City we love? Can the buffet be closed? Can the modern day robber barons be controlled? The answer is a resounding YES. We must demand that the city council and staff answer to residents first, rather than the moneyed interests that currently control their time and energy (note that $1.5 million donated to fight our “pitchfork-wielding” residents). We must slow the pace of change, decide that enough is enough, and not allow history to repeat itself. We know that city hall will not slow development when money is the controlling interest. We the residents must change the discussion. Santa Monica’s mantra must become “Do NO harm to residents, ever”.
Phil Brock for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

Thane Roberts AIA, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Samuel Tolkin AIA, Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission

When it Rains it Pours (Money), part 2

Campaign Financing

 

In last week’s article we noted the large sums of money attracted by several proposed local measures. In addition to the measure mentioned last week, several others have attracted large contributions.

Supporters of Measure GSH, a tax to help build affordable housing and schools, have amassed a war chest of between $130,000- $150,000. Supporters of Measure V, a bond measure for Santa Monica College, have assembled their own war chest amounting to over $550,000.

Last week we asked whether land-use measures attract especially large contributions. In each of the cases mentioned above, the connection to land uses is immediate and direct. One measure proposes to issue bonds for Santa Monica College; to pay for new facilities, and repair and modernize existing ones, among other things. The other promises to apply half the money raised to maintain and improve affordable housing, which may include new construction as well as purchase of older buildings. In both cases, the moneys raised are in support of legislation that, directly or indirectly, will affect the way land and certain projects in the city are used and built.

But the amounts given to support such measures pale in comparison with contributions to proposals that affect development in general. This has been the case for many years. For example, in 2008, opponents of Proposition T mounted a controversial million-dollar campaign to help defeat the measure. Prop T, introduced by the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, intended to limit commercial construction in Santa Monica to 75,000 square feet a year for 15 years. Larger projects would have been submitted to voters for their approval. Schools, hospitals, religious buildings and various community-serving projects would have been exempt.

Opponents of this 2008 measure immediately swung into action. They included hotel owners, the Chamber of Commerce, unions representing firefighters, teachers, police and municipal employees, the Community for Excellence in Public Schools (CEPS), and five members of City Council. The biggest contributors were large property owners and development firms, a group that included the Village Trailer Park, Hines and Belle-Vue Plaza (owner of the site for the future Frank Gehry hotel). By October, 2008, this group had streamed nearly a million dollars into the fight, overwhelming the modest funds of the measure’s sponsors. City Council member Pam O’Connor said the proposition “is opposed by the broadest coalition in our city’s history…”

The funds helped pay for a flood of mailers and postcards, warning about Proposition T “cutting millions from classrooms,” “devastating our schools,” and “jeopardizing our childrens’ future.” The measure was defeated, 55.7% to 44.43%.

It is not surprising that land-use legislation in a place with Santa Monica’s beaches, climate and population can attract large sums in favor or opposition. Everyone understands the stakes. The question is whether this level of financial influence in elections helps or hinders our local democratic process, and the way the community decides on the city’s character. Many people have asked for a way to even the playing field, and try to offset the influence of money on local elections.

Two years earlier, the 2006 elections were the setting for an unprecedented effort to unseat a member of City Council. A hotel owner spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to defeat City Councilmember Kevin McKeown in his reelection campaign. The unsuccessful 2006 effort to defeat McKeown and support Terry O’Day included television advertisements (including an ominous-sounding voiceover that said “Santa Monica cannot afford four more years of Councilman Kevin McKeown”), mailers and advertisements by the hundreds. After the election was over, Mr. McKeown pressed for campaign finance reform, and City Council conducted a number of workshops to explore public financing of elections for candidate races. The city’s staff prepared five different options. A community group, VOTE4SM, developed a proposal of its own in which qualified City Council candidates would receive public funds for their campaigns if they agreed to campaign spending limits, among other requirements.

In October 2007, City Council, led by then-Mayor Richard Bloom, rejected the proposals and refused to direct staff to review changes in the election law. With that, the entire local effort to help support political campaigns with public funds came to an end.
Perhaps now is the time to revive that effort, with some changes to help local initiative measures, if they qualify. The injection of gigantic sums of money into local campaigns has discouraged grass-root challenges and candidates who may speak for real concerns of residents, but are unable to raise enough funds to counter, effectively, the enormous warchests of their super-funded opponents. This is particularly true with independent candidates, and with land-use measures, where the financial stakes are so high that they attract immense contributions.

Vast infusions of money help lock out challengers and grassroots efforts, and the impact extends well beyond the election cycle. Nobody in city government, and certainly not in City Council, will ever forget a cool million-dollar moneybag dropped into the mix. It is difficult to see how this helps make for a better process.
The famed philosopher Marshall McLuhan, in his bestselling book Understanding Media, coined the expression “the medium is the message.” In Santa Monica elections, the medium is cash, and the message is clear to all who care to look.

Daniel Jansenson, Architect for SMa.r.t.

 

When it Rains (Money) it Pours

Campaign Financing

California’s governor just signed a new campaign-finance law authored by Senator Ben Allen, of Santa Monica. The law removes the prohibition on public financing of political campaigns in many places around the state. These places include general law cities such as Malibu, El Segundo and Beverly Hills. General law cities are governed by the state’s general law, which applies to municipal affairs. The new law, SB 1107 removes that prohibition, and those governments are now free to adopt public financing of political campaigns. These systems can be an alternative to private financing of campaigns, and make the playing fields for candidates and measures more even.

Charter cities, such as Santa Monica (which are based on a city’s “constitution” or charter) have always been free to adopt public campaign financing. Some cities in California have them, but not Santa Monica. Senator Allen’s measure has received widespread acclaim, so it is worth asking why Santa Monica, Senator Allen’s hometown, does not have a system for public financing of political campaigns.

Arguments about public financing of political campaigns have raged for many years. But in Santa Monica, one thing is clear: any measure that hits certain hot buttons among residents will pull in large sums of money from large organizations and companies. Land-use measures, especially, attract enormous corporate contributions. The infusion of large sums of money can transform a campaign.

This year we have measures that have attracted a lot of money. Measure GSH, a tax to help build affordable housing and schools, and Measure V, a $345 million bond measure for Santa Monica College have each drawn large sums in support of those measures. But it is Measure LV that has sucked in corporate contributions in vortex-like amounts.
LV is a grassroots initiative that would require voter approval of major development projects, development agreements, and changes to City land use documents. It excludes affordable housing projects, and moderate income and senior housing projects. One attention-grabbing feature requires that voters approve many projects that exceed city-wide base heights of 32-36 feet.

The arguments about this measure have been raging for months. In public forums, on the internet and in newspapers, the measure’s passionate advocates and its equally-passionate opponents have been battling it out in that traditional, messy way of political campaigns. Alliances have been created, monies raised, and volunteers sent into the streets. These are all actions of time-honored, robust American political campaigning.

Into this scene a new player now appears: corporate America, and its very large bank. In the last month or two, commercial interests, developers, real-estate companies and their consultants have contributed nearly a million dollars to fight the measure. For a city of only 94,000 residents, million-dollar political contributions change the basic nature of the contest. Where before this was a battle between residents with opposing views on land-use matters, it now looks more like a struggle between a grassroots citizen effort and corporate behemoths bent on imposing their will. Citizens on both sides of the issue have contributed money, of course. But those sums are dwarfed by the firehose streams of cash delivered to the measure’s opponents by corporations eager to make their mark. A quick look at the numbers, shown in the diagram below, reveals the impact of this money, with large individual contributions by companies, and small contributions by citizens.

diagram-corrected

Land-use struggles are not new in Santa Monica. In 2008, Measure T, which proposed yearly limits on commercial construction, attracted a similar mass of corporate dollars in opposition, and they were effective in defeating the measure. In 2014, a grassroots referendum against a large project by the Hines Corporation got enough signatures to get on the ballot, and the project was cancelled by the City. What gets built, and where, are clearly very important to many residents, and to companies affected by an election’s outcome. These issues have been an on-going source of conflict in the city for two decades or more, and as time passes and elections come and go, it is evident that the City’s efforts to resolve deep tensions caused by conflicts over land uses have been, at best, ineffective.

Next week: why hasn’t City Hall been able to resolve these issues? Do political contributions by commercial interests harm the process? Is this true of other campaign issues or only those linked to land-use measures? Stay tuned.

Daniel Jansenson, for SMa.r.t.

BUSY AS A BEE

City Character, Common Sense

The Busy Bee Hardware and Dry Goods store has been a fixture in our city for longer than any of us can remember. In fact that store, now just called Busy Bee Hardware, moved to its present location in 1922. The wood plank floor has been walked on by generations of Santa Monica residents seeking a washer, a burlap bag, a good hammer…it is, most importantly, that simple shop where everyone knows your name. Busy Bee had begun as the Columbia Grocery and Meat Market around 1912. Since groceries were perishable, owner Mr. Haine wisely adapted his inventory as the store moved from 1347 3rd Street to mid-city. His family still owns the land under the store. In case you’re new to our town, Busy Bee is located at 1521 Santa Monica Blvd. The current owner, Don Kidson, bought the business in 1963. He was a traveling hardware salesman who loved Busy Bee, made a deal and the store became his.

I would wager that almost every resident of Santa Monica has walked into the store at one time or another. Santa Monica’s Glenn Ford worked the aisles while attending Samohi. Ewan MacGregor, Tommy Chong, Zack Galifianakis and Donald Sutherland are customers, and former President Ronald Reagan counted on Busy Bee as his local hardware store. Bill Nye “The Science Guy” has placed his headshot on the wall of celebrity photos, with the inscription “Hardware is a science”. I am just one of the thousands of residents who have traversed the narrow, filled-to-the-brim aisles of this special store. Like many others, I started my journeys to Busy Bee with my grandparents and parents as a small child. The store has hundreds of local house credit accounts, including over twenty with the City Of Santa Monica, four with SMMUSD, and a UCLA Medical Center account.

Busy Bee is the last remaining hardware store in our city. It’s a store that would feel at home in any small town in America. Luckily for us, it’s in Santa Monica. Exceptional customer service has always been the trademark of this legendary business. Now it’s threatened. UCLA owns the land directly east of Busy Bee and is using it as a parking lot for their medical facilities. They have offered to buy the small parcel of land that Busy Bee occupies, in order to add about a dozen valet parking spaces. UCLA has told the Haine family (property owners) that a key provision of this sale would be the closing of Busy Bee Hardware. That’s right. Ninety-four years of continuous business in one location in our city would be wiped out by UCLA’s need for more parking. To insure victory, my friends at UCLA (yes, I’m a Bruin), have sued the property owner and Busy Bee for encroaching on their property. Evidently the east retaining wall stands – “wait for it” – three inches into UCLA’s property. That wall has been there for at least a half-century. For three inches and a dozen parking spaces, UCLA would wipe out the oldest existing business in Santa Monica. Think about that for a minute. Generations of Santa Monican’s have shopped in what we all consider OUR hardware store. It’s the last of its species – an endangered gem in a city bursting at the seams. It was never landmarked, yet it’s certainly our cultural landmark, our oldest store. For ninety-four years, customers have walked in and out of Busy Bee all day long. It’s not failing, even though former Mayor Bob Holbrook told me that one of his many purchases was for under a dollar. There is an extraordinary continuity in the ownership and dedication from the employees, to this relic of a simpler time. The weight scale in the back room dates to 1911. The walls (even the 3” encroaching one) have stories, thousands of stories to tell.

SMart has written about the retention of our city’s character, our distinct personality and the values of our intimate beachside atmosphere. We’re not against progress and certainly the Haine family has the absolute right to sell their property to whomever they wish. But shouldn’t UCLA, a public institution that owns a hospital and medical facilities in our town have some respect for our history? Shouldn’t they recognize the value of the businesses that existed here before their purchase of Santa Monica Hospital? William S. Mortensen, the co-founder of that hospital in 1926, shopped at Busy Bee and respected the surrounding businesses. It’s astounding that Busy Bee Hardware, that bright little store on Santa Monica Blvd could be done in, not by age, not by lack of leadership but by a corporate, institutional behemoth that has sadly lost its soul.

One dozen jobs could be lost. Our city’s oldest business may be demolished. Busy Bee is a living treasure to generations of Westsiders. City Planners are fond of saying that there has to be a “there” for a street or neighborhood to be valued. Busy Bee is certainly a “there” in mid-town Santa Monica. We have a choice – let UCLA create a few more parking spaces… and that parking lot will surely give way to a high-rise medical tower within a decade. We can choose the drive to a big box store like Home Depot for our nuts & bolts. Or we can let UCLA know that our Busy Bee Hardware store is iconic. Busy Bee is part and parcel of our city’s history and can survive with your support.

We suggest that you write or call John C Mazziota, the Vice Chancellor of Health Services at UCLA, (jmazziotta@mednet.ucla.net (310) 825-6373) and let him know that we, the residents, value Busy Bee.

This is one David vs Goliath story we must win.

Phil Brock for SMa.r.t.