Back to the future

Does our City have a vision for its future? Do the current policies of our City Council, as Mr. Cole suggests, “creatively shape the tides of history” for our small beach town. Is it true that we are using “economic, demographic and technological forces… to maximize public wellbeing and minimize the adverse impacts on people and our planet?” Is our City Council’s motto “better to build on enduring values to create a more perfect union?” To me, these sound more like “sound bites” and pipe dreams than reality.

These phrases contain neither vision nor specifics as regards our city’s future. At present, our City’s strategy appears to be no more complicated than “more is better”…and “the sooner the better.” History is littered with forgotten tourist towns that fell into the trap of overbuilding. More is not always better. Too often, the opposite is more likely the case. Overdevelopment is more likely to destroy the allure of a town than provide amenities that compensate for its loss of character. When that happens, it’s “killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.”

At present, our City’s lack of a cohesive vision risks that we could become the victims of our own success. How? Our city is being designed not by planners but by market forces. Developers design projects and the City approves them, often without reference to a larger vision for our city. For example, Santa Monica’s Main Street was left to market forces and leasing agents. The result has been the reduction of unique “Mom and Pop” shops and their replacement with nail salons and drinking establishments. Is this good planning? Is this the vision we had for Main Street? Do we want to repeat this model in our downtown or elsewhere in our city? I would hope not.

When the 3rd Street Promenade was planned, City planners did not pick any retailer but only those that would create an interesting and lucrative mix of tenants at our pedestrian mall. They hired a well-known French sculptor to create topiary centerpieces for each block. They looked at other cities with successful pedestrian environments for inspiration. The economic success of the 3rd Street Promenade is a tribute to their forward thinking, hard work and vision. In Venice, Abbot Kinney was not left to the vagaries of the real estate market. Chain stores were banned and those that could bring value to the street encouraged. The result was one of the top shopping streets in the nation, packed with small and interesting shops instead of name brands. Quality is more important than quantity. In Santa Monica it appears that we are still learning this lesson.

As we all know, our economy is largely dependent upon tourism. We have more than 90 million visitors a years that pour millions of dollars into our economy. This number is around 100 times more than our residents’ population. In other words, for every dollar our residents pay in City taxes, our tourists’ effect on our economy is 100 times greater. This geometric effect is born out in the statistics that show that tourism is the City’s primary source of income. If true, shouldn’t we be doing more to maintain our beach town ambiance that is the pillar of our tourist industry? Might we be treat it with more respect and a “softer touch?”

When one drives up and down the coast, there are many examples of small communities from Carmel to Laguna Beach that have created an image for themselves that is of a small scale yet economically viable. This strategy has enabled them to thrive while maintaining their unique town’s character. There are other examples out of state like Aspen in the Colorado Rockies – a small town that is also dependent on tourism. During the “off season,” that used to be “dead,” they now have a thriving tourist industry built around concerts, food fairs, conferences, and summer sports. They attract a select clientele that appreciate good design, good food, the arts and culture in a beautiful, natural setting. The preservation of their historic buildings is, in large part, due to their success. Why couldn’t Santa Monica also preserve its past and still build upon the arts, recreation and entertainment to create an equally vibrant and attractive environment aboard the sea?

It appears that our City is currently looking for money in all the wrong places. They seem to believe that betting on tall office buildings and large commercial projects is better than doubling down on our unique, seaside ambiance. If left unchecked, Santa Monica will resemble any, of many small, overbuilt urban environments. At that point, we will have lost our identity along with our tourists. This is a losing strategy. Shopping malls, retail and office space also create the greatest strain on our resources and infrastructure. They generate more traffic and waste. Basically, they reduce the convenience and livability cities and, if left unchecked, could forever alter our city’s character. Once gone, it will be too late.

It is time for our City leaders to pause, take a breath, stop and find a vision for our city’s future rather than plowing forward blindly. We should look back to assess the basis for our success and then build upon it going forward? We should be thinking what we want our city to look like in 50, or 100 years. At present, it appears that the City’s actions lack both a long-range vision and strategy to achieve that goal. Their approach seems to be that “more is better” without regard for what “more” is or what its impact will have on what is already here. It’s time to appreciate more of what we have so we can be better stewards of our city, and the planet. At that point, these will no longer be empty words.