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New Wilmont Chair Weighs in on Santa Monica's Largest Neighborhood


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By Jorge Casuso

October 5, 2017 -- Reinhard Kargl was elected chair of the Wilmont Montana Neighborhood Coalition (“Wilmont”) on Tuesday. A freelance science and tech writer for European publications, Kargl has lived in the neighborhood -- which is the City's largest with 20,000 residents -- for 25 years.

The day after his election, Kargl shared his thoughts about the current state of Wilmont and the future it faces as the neighborhood closest to Downtown. Wilmont stretches from Pacific Coast Hwy to 21st Street and Wilshire Boulevard to Montana Avenue. This is the first of a series of interviews with Santa Monica leaders and stakeholders.

What are the issues Wilmont is most concerned about?

As one of our most important tasks, we are sending an extensive community survey to every household in our neighborhood each year. And ever since I’ve been on the board, the results have been overwhelming and consistent: the primary concerns of our residents, by huge margins, are over-crowding and overdevelopment, traffic congestion, parking and safety. Everything else is almost insignificant by comparison. I strongly feel that our main task as board members is to send City Hall this message loud and clear: our residents are fed up. We don’t want any more well-crafted campaign speeches and endless assurances. It’s all been said. Now we want to see results. Measurable, verifiable results.

Many people complain about traffic and parking in your neighborhood. How bad is it and what can be done?

So bad that we regularly have our people killed or severely injured by cars racing past our homes, because the main boulevards are clogged. So bad that our seniors are afraid to cross the road. So bad that parents are scared to let their kids ride bikes or walk to school. So bad that we have families who can’t come and go from their homes during the day, because if they leave, they won’t find parking when they return. So bad that many people don’t know how to carry their groceries in, because they had to park several blocks away.

The irony is that Wilmont has enough parking for its residents, and even more than enough during the day. But we are bordering on the downtown tourist district and Wilshire Boulevard, which City Hall intends to build up even denser and higher with businesses providing insufficient parking for customers and employees. City Hall’s idea of addressing these issues has been to turn parking into a hugely profitable revenue stream and charging increasing amounts for it. The effect is that drivers then swarm our neighborhood in search of less costly parking. Ask yourself: would you rather park on a residential street, or pay to park in a dingy garage several floors underground? Or pay $10 or more for valet parking on Wilshire Boulevard? Most drivers try to park in the neighborhood first.

So now we have time limits and preferential permit parking on many streets, but this of course creates other hassles and problems. Such as business employees shuffling their cars around every few hours.

City officials say there is a critical shortage of affordable housing that needs to be addressed and that building more housing near public transit Downtown is the best way to address the shortage. What do you think?

In the boom years after WW-II, California promoters had this mantra: People create markets -- and markets attract people. This positive feedback loop continues today. The more housing we build, the more demand for it is created as new people are attracted. I think we all agree on this: we live in the world’s most pleasant climate and near one of the world’s most beautiful beaches. Hundreds of millions of people around the world wish they could live here -- if they could only afford it. There is no limit to the demand for housing. If building more height could make housing more affordable, then Hong Kong, Tokyo or Manhattan would be affordable places to live -- but everybody knows that the opposite is true.

Communal mass transit doesn’t solve our traffic and pollution woes. For one, it is extremely expensive. First, taxpayers -- even those who don’t want or need mass transit -- are compelled to fork out billions to create the infrastructure. And then each Metro ticket sold still needs to be subsidized by over 50 percent of its face value just to meet running operating costs. These enormous amounts of tax money are missing from other areas in desperate need of funding.

Despite all the money heaped upon it, Metro ridership systemwide has been in steady decline for years. And there’s another problem people often forget: traffic isn’t just people moving about. What about goods? Nothing of what people and businesses buy, sell or need for daily life arrives in Santa Monica on the train. It arrives on trucks! And each truck causes a lot more traffic congestion than several passenger cars. So, every additional person arriving on the train or by bus also brings more truck traffic, road congestion and air pollution.

The area considered Downtown has been expanding. Is that a good or bad thing?

The steady encroachment of commercial development and activity into residential Wilmont is one of our major points of contention. It should not come as a surprise to anyone that residents who pay a lot of money to live here get rather upset if there is a nonstop cacophony of noise and traffic from employees, business patrons, restaurant diners, hotel guests and business deliveries literally next to where people live, play with their kids, eat and try to sleep. Especially when very few of these businesses are owned by residents or benefit our local residents in any way.

Do you feel City officials are heeding the concerns of Wilmont residents?

What we hear from residents, and what we have personally experienced as board members, is that City Hall is superbly skilled in making people feel that they are being listened to. But at the end of the day, it’s business as usual and City Hall does what fits the confluence of financial considerations and personal, ideological ambitions of City Council members and City staff. Having served on the board for several years, I have seen this perceived disconnect getting worse. In the past years, perhaps most residents still felt that they could influence things by giving “public input” through begging, pleading, writing emails and attending endless meetings, town halls and focus groups. This hasn’t really accomplished much. I think the sentiment is now changing. More and more residents are beginning to realize that messages to City Hall shouldn’t go into the mailbox, but into the ballot box.

What is your vision for the Wilmont neighborhood?

My vision for Wilmont is quite simple: we must return to basics. We are simply a residents rights organization, not social justice warriors or keyboard slacktivists. We can’t solve global warming, social injustice, the regional economy and national issues such as drug addiction, mental illness and homelessness. I am striving for realism. What we can do is demand that given one of the highest per-capita municipal budgets in California and very generously paid staff, our streets, alleys and public facilities should be impeccably clean, our trash bins should be emptied, our trees should be beautiful, our parks safe for all. All our residents, all our public places and homes should be well protected by effective law enforcement and emergency responders. The beauty and character of our neighborhood, and the historic housing stock and green spaces that makes our neighborhood special, must be preserved. Those are the primary functions we expect City Hall to attend to. The bottom line is that we want our quality of life secured.

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