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By Frank Gruber
While I haven't yet had to refer myself to Santa Monica's continuum of care, I sometimes fear I'm suffering late onset schizophrenia as I write this column and try to juggle one persona of proud Santa Monican with another of hard-bitten columnist.
This past week, for instance, my chest swelled when I read that Santa Monica officials had proposed to the National Council of Mayors that cities in the undestroyed part of the country pair off with cities in the destroyed part to help them rebuild, and that Santa Monica had pledged to help the fishing port of Bayou La Batre. (full story)
"That's the spirit! That's the Santa Monica I know," thought the proud resident.
But then the columnist whispered in my ear like a malevolent Jiminy Cricket. "Santa Monica," he snickered, "Santa Monica; where it can take a year to get approval to add a room to your house, or three years to get permission to build apartments?"
But what makes me more schizo than anything else is City Council. How can seven intelligent, thoughtful, knowledgeable individuals so often join together to screw things up?
I thought I gained some insight into what makes the council tick watching Tuesday night's meeting on the Opportunities and Challenges Report. (full story)
For the most part, when it came time for their comments, the council members showed how intelligent, thoughtful, and knowledgeable they can be. But the meeting as a whole showed the pressures they operate under -- some of which they put on themselves -- that frequently push them to make shortsighted decisions.
What I'm trying to say is that last week the wheels were really squeaking.
Some of the wheels that were really screeching were those who responded to a flyer sent by supposedly responsible neighborhood groups warning the populace that the "next Council decisions" would "set development levels and the quality of life here forever;" others were there to accuse the Council of being ready to sell out the city for redevelopment dollars; others were sure the Council was about to gut rent control.
You don't have to take my word for this. Council member Ken Genser started his remarks on the Opportunities and Challenges Report by saying that although he applauded those people who "organized the turnout," he had to note that the flyer they used was misleading in how it characterized the report and what the Council was about to do, since the report was "neutral" and the City was far from even drafting a plan for the Council to consider.
Council member Genser also pointed out that while the flyer exhorts people to say "No" to "8,800 - 14,500 more housing units" and implies that the report endorses this by footnoting to a page in the report, if you look at that page (in the introductory summary), the sentence actually says, "Scenarios in Chapter 3 suggest a net increase [over 20 years] of anywhere from 250 to almost 14,550 housing units, with a moderate forecast of 8,800 additional housing units."
As the Council member said, somehow the 250-unit possibility was left off the flyer.
But then Council member Genser said that what truly offended him -- and he said he wasn't easily offended -- was the claim made by several speakers, including at a press conference before the meeting, that what the City was considering in the land use element update was a threat to rent control.
Council member Genser wasn't finished. He pointed out that the fear that the whole plan was a scheme to enrich the City's redevelopment agency was not credible, given the track record of the City Council in restricting development.
So -- do you think that after he caught all these speakers and the people who manipulated them into in some significant falsities and outright fear mongering, Council member Genser might be skeptical about what they had to say?
Not on your life. Notwithstanding these deceptions, and notwithstanding that, according to Council member Genser some in the press will say that the people who spoke were "self-selected, they don't represent the whole city, and surveys show otherwise," he believed "that the sentiment of a huge segment of Santa Monica was represented tonight in saying they're upset about traffic, they don't want to see more growth, and they want to maintain a more historic scale of Santa Monica, a more traditional lower scale."
I guess I'm the guy in the press who is going to say the Santa Monicans Fearful of Change who spoke Tuesday night -- many of them accusing the Council and City Staff of greed, many of them angry, many of them plain ignorant of the fact -- were self-selected (or manipulated by others) and don't represent the whole city. Not because they hate traffic -- everyone hates traffic -- but because most Santa Monicans are not against reasonable growth -- in fact they know the city needs it -- and are not fearful of change.
What does it mean that Council member Genser -- and some of his colleagues -- were willing to say that these speakers "in the aggregate" represented most residents of the city, but didn't give the same credence to more quiet speakers who represented real organizations that had actually done some thinking about what Santa Monica needs -- instead of fantasizing about what it used to be.
Speakers like Shari Davis, of Community for Excellent Public Schools, who said we need housing teachers and families can afford. Or Maria Loya, of the Pico Neighborhood Association, who said we need jobs and economic development. Or Sandy Grant, Chair of the Sustainable City Task Force, which has linked urban density with sustainability.
Or John Zinner of the Santa Monica Conservancy who talked about using historic preservation as an opportunity. Or Joan Charles from the Architectural Review Board who spoke of building new housing along transit corridors. Or Denny Zane of SMRR who talked about converting commercial zoning to residential zoning.
There were other organizations represented there, too, that had done their homework, and had constructive suggestions. It's not that the residents in these organizations don't think traffic is a problem, or that they don't care about Santa Monica's "character." But you can care about those issues and still have a positive view about making (inevitable and necessary) change work to our advantage.
But as usual, the noisiest, angriest, and most fearful called themselves the "people," the "residents," and hardly anyone challenged them.
And let's consider the surveys. The survey the City took in developing the "emerging themes" for the LUCE update showed that only about a quarter of Santa Monicans are against all growth, and the rest of the results were consistent with that. The survey was also consistent with the annual residents' surveys the City has been taking since 2000.
Okay, maybe you don't like surveys. Council member Genser implied that questions could be manipulated, and some speakers said the same thing. But what about elections?
Since the 60 percent vote in favor of the Civic Center plan in 1994, residents have time and again voted against how the no-growthers wanted them to vote. Majorities, usually substantial, have supported the City's building of affordable housing and have supported every bond issue the school district and Santa Monica College have put forward. The only bond issue that lost was the City's bond for the public safety facility -- but even it got more than 60 percent of the vote.
Most indicative are the College bonds. Council member Genser has opposed them. Why is it that a few noisy, misinformed and fear mongering no growthers who yell at the council and accuses City Staff of being in cahoots with developers represent a majority of Santa Monicans, while actual majorities of Santa Monicans who vote in favor of the College's expansion don't?
What I don't get most of all is why Council member Genser still coddles these SMFC's after all these years. He has successfully carried water for them for 20 years, he's usually been the dominant voice on a Council quite skeptical about development, yet they show up at meetings just as angry as always. No gratitude or acknowledgement about how much development has been stopped.
Memo to Council member Genser: they can't be made happy.
The funny thing, and this is where I go schizo again, is that once Council member Genser started talking about substance, most of what he said made a lot of sense. So did what most of the other council members said.
Just to hit a few highlights, Council member Genser talked common sense about traffic, Council member Katz hit the nail on the head when he said we needed housing for the middle-class, Council member Holbrook talked about the importance of getting an affordable retail department store, Council member McKeown was, in his folksy way, brilliant about parking, and Mayor Pam O'Connor just generally great when it came to talking about managing change.
But all in all, my favorite comment was one from Council member Richard Bloom, who, when he was speaking about creating housing opportunities in commercial and industrial districts, made the simple statement that he looked forward to having more people, that more people in a community "isn't necessarily a bad thing," but was "probably a good thing."
How refreshing. It's not only neighborhoods that are good, but neighbors, too. My resident chest swelled again.
Nearly everyone is in favor of "limited growth," "affordable housing," and maintaining Santa Monica's "character." The issues are not these concepts, but how they are defined. Similarly, no one likes traffic -- the issue is how to deal with it as a reality, and how to improve our quality of life notwithstanding traffic.
As the LUCE process continues, there will be plenty of time for everyone to discuss those concepts and their definitions. It will be a lot easier to do so if council members stop encouraging fear and falsities. So we all don't go crazy.
Meeting Notice: The Planning Commission is again hosting an expert to discuss issues relating to the LUCE process. This time the speaker will be Santa Monica's own Jennifer Wolch, a member of the Recreations & Parks Board, who in her professional life is Director of the USC Center for Sustainable Cities and Dean of Graduate Programs. She will be discussing with the Planning Commission concepts of sustainability applied to land use decisions and specific opportunities in Santa Monica to implement policies through the LUCE process. Details: Weds., October 5; 7:00 p.m., City Council Chambers.
views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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