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The Beach Belongs to the People

By Frank J. Gruber

Since I last wrote about the sudden controversy that had befallen the City's previously charmed project to build, with money from the Annenberg Foundation, a public beach club at 415 Pacific Coast Highway, the historic Gold Coast site of Marion Davies' beach estate, both the City Council and the Planning Commission have discussed the issue.

Even though in public workshops the public let the City know that it wanted a beach club with all the facilities that implied, including food and drink, lockers, recreation and social facilities, etc., at the Feb. 28 council meeting City staff, in response to the fears and anxieties of nearby neighbors, asked the council to approve a downsizing and downscoping.

This sensitivity to neighbor complaints is typical in Santa Monica. Typical, too, was the response of the neighbors; even though the City met their fears and anxieties more than halfway, the neighbors refused to approve a deal.

For instance, the neighbors wanted a traffic light on PCH; staff agreed and started talking to CalTrans about one. The neighbors didn't want "loud" parties or alcohol; staff reduced the maximum size of a social event from 200 to 100 people and limited drinks to beer and wine.

The neighbors argued that Prop. S's prohibition on restaurants "and other food service" facilities of more than 2,000 square feet applied to a building that would sometimes be used for banquets; the City Attorney disagreed, but staff reduced the size of the room to less than 2,000 square feet and reduced the kitchen facilities to little more than a warming tray.

The neighbors wanted security; staff agreed to provide security, as the City would have done so anyway, notwithstanding that the most effective enhancement to security in the area will be replacing the ruins that are there now with a vibrant facility.

415 Pacific Coast Highway today (Photo by Frank Gruber)

But these agreements did not seal the deal. Why? Because a deal is not what the neighbors want.

What the neighbors want is control -- or nothing. At the council meeting the president of the Palisades Beach Property Owners Association told the council that the association would litigate unless the City gave it a veto over any changes the City might want to make in the future operations of the facility.

In response, City Attorney Marsha Moutrie told the council that she could never recommend entering into a contract with a private entity for operation of a public facility.

At the March 15 Planning Commission meeting, where the City, as developer, presented its project to the commission for approval of a development permit, the association's newly hired lawyer, George Milstein of Latham & Watkins made the same threat.

Hhe said that if the City didn't allow the association to enforce the conditions of approval itself, then the City could expect delays in the process -- because the association would sue. (You always know people have a weak case when they hire Latham & Watkins to make their threats -- and that's a compliment.)

On what grounds would the association sue? Attorney Milstein said the association would challenge the City's Environmental Impact Report (EIR), and also sue the City under Prop. S.

So you say, what's the big deal? The City gets sued all the time. I can't remember an instance when a Santa Monica EIR was found to be inadequate, and the City could always put an amendment to Prop. S on the ballot that would clarify that it applied to hotels and restaurants only.

No, the big deal is the calendar. The neighbors know that under the City's contract with the Annenberg Foundation, the City needs to open 415 PCH by 2009. A delay could be deadly, if the Foundation holds the City to the schedule.

Attorney Milstein requested that the Planning Commission continue the matter for two weeks to allow settlement negotiations; the commission -- which showed admirable skepticism about the neighbors' claims -- will again take up the matter Wednesday evening.

What's at stake? Perhaps not too much; perhaps a lot.

As for the "perhaps not too much," let me tell you what I want from 415 PCH. I want to de-privatize a little part of the beach. The Mexican government didn't have the right to take the beach from the Indians and give it the Californios and now it's time to get a little back.

What I want is to be able, as a member of the public, to do everything at the public beach club that members of the Jonathan Club can do at their beach club. Meaning, if a member of the Jonathan Club can sit on a deck chair with a sandwich and a beer or even a gin and tonic, I'd like to be able to do the same. If a member of the Jonathan Club can host 175 people for a wedding, I'd like the same privilege.

Even before negotiating with the neighbors, the City compromised a lot. For example, no banquets allowed in the summer months, because of parking conflicts. But currently our beach lots, even in the summer, are not so crowded after about six in the afternoon. Why make these decisions limiting use before we have some real experience with how the facility operates?

Now, after negotiations with the neighbors, it's worse. Now the biggest social function room will only hold 100, effectively limiting the facility to seminars and the like. Why? Most people I know would rather have the chance to have that once-in-a-lifetime family event at 415 PCH than a lifetime of staff retreats.

But maybe I am sweating the small stuff. Even with these self-imposed limitations, the proposal for the facility is wonderful. The estimable Barbara Stinchfield, the City's Director of Cultural and Community Services, and her staff and the architects and consultants the City hired have done terrific work. Obviously, if I had to choose between a project without decent banquet facilities and no project, of course I'd take the downscoped project and have my next big event at the Victorian.

Which brings us to the potentially big stuff that is at stake, and to the Annenberg Foundation.

All hail the Annenberg Foundation! Not just because they are throwing nearly $30 million at our problem, but because they are being so brave about it. Foundations do not typically get involved in the messy business of developing municipal projects. They're more used to giving money to universities and art museums and hospitals and other established institutions that come to them with specific programs to fund.

Foundations don't like controversy, and municipal projects attract controversy, especially in cities like Santa Monica, home of the hyper-aggrieved, where "squeaky" is the default adjective for "wheel."

So all hail the Annenberg Foundation, and don't get me wrong. If the Foundation doesn't want to tough it out while the City deals with the neighbors, as I said, I'll throw my next big bash at the Victorian.

But it might not be so simple as caving in.

Council Member Bobby Shriver expressed the issue nicely at the Feb. 28 Council meeting: he said the Council's "clients" are the people who will use the facility. Because City Council has to make decisions for everyone, it cannot give up control of public facilities.

Nor is it clear the neighbors want a deal. They may want to kill the project -- and let the State of California sell the site as surplus property to be turned into condominiums for neighbors with the same-sized wallets.

One thing I've learned in my life as an entertainment lawyer is that when people hire the likes of Latham & Watkins, and threaten litigation, they are no longer your "neighbors." They are your adversaries, and you don't persuade them by making nice. If they smell weakness, or blood, forget it.

My negotiating strategy would be simple. First, if the neighbors repeat their threat to sue, take all compromises that are on the table off. Second, if they mention Prop. S again, put an amendment on the ballot. Third, if they file a complaint, while the litigation is pending, consider putting a bond issue on the ballot to fund an eminent domain action to acquire the private residences north and south of 415 PCH to expand the public domain.

As I said, the Mexicans had no right.

Joel Brand, of Santa Monica Conservancy, and like-minded Santa Monicans have formed "Friends of 415 PCH" to support the project. For more information, visit their website

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