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Some Have Greatness Thrust Upon Them

By Frank Gruber

Over the weekend wife, child and I stopped at Cha Cha Chicken for take-out and then drove up Topanga Canyon to see some Shakespeare at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum.

Weather balmy, road winding, bees pacifistic, show wonderful. Go.

The play was Twelfth-Night, in which Sir Toby Belch and his boon companions provide the low humor.

At one point, addressing the puritanical scold Malvolio, Sir Toby says, "Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?"

I know it indicates I spend far too much mental energy on Santa Monica politics, but when I heard that line, even under the stars in Topanga, I could only think of Planning Commission Chair Kelly Olsen, doing his best to stop Trader Joe's from opening a store at 12th and Wilshire.

"Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more sesame crackers and Chilean wine?"

Lately, Olsen has provoked me much as Malvolio provoked Sir Toby. It's not so much his attempt to write the staff report on Trader Joe's, but his going on in the press about how wonderful he and the Planning Commission are.

In an interview last week in Santa Monica Bay Week headlined "Residents Doing Better with Planning Commission Now," Olsen not only took credit for recruiting half the Commission, but also, from how he talked, you would have thought Washington, Lincoln, et al., had come down from Mount Rushmore to adjudicate our conditional use permits.

"They are bright, they are dedicated, and if I had not been surrounded by these kinds of people, we couldn't have accomplished all the things we have done," said Olsen, modestly.

"Unlike their predecessors, Olsen suggested that the new commissioners think for themselves, working together fluidly in a collegial environment," inscribed the Bay Week interviewer.

This appreciation is reciprocated. Praise of Olsen from Commission member Julie Dad can approach North Korean "Dear Leader" standards. She recently wrote to The Lookout, before the Commission elected Olsen to another term as Chair, "[m]y own hope is that Kelly Olsen will be elected to another term as Chair of the Planning Commission, in order to cement the path which has been carved."

Perhaps self-love and back-scratching harm only the self-deluded, but Olsen does not mince words when it comes to impugning others. In the same interview, Olsen said that when he joined the Planning Commission "it was a rubber stamp for projects and ideas of developers" and that the "opinions of people in the community were not being heard."

It wasn't only the Commission. In those dark days Before Olsen, before the carving of the path, before anyone hoped to cement the path, planning staff did not seriously scrutinize proposed developments, but instead facilitated them to the point that, in Olsen's words, "the law was bent to fit the project."

According to Bay Week, in "Olsen's view, the core problem was that the senior city staff and the planning commission were entirely too cozy with each other, thanks heavily ... to the influence of John Jalili, the former City Manager regarded as pro-development."

Olsen is not the only one singing this tune. In June Council Member Kevin McKeown spoke at a Wilshire/Montana Neighborhood Coalition meeting about how the Council had appointed a "whole new neighborhood-friendly Planning Commission." (By the way, isn't "Coalition" a bit grand for an organization of only, according to its website, "more than 100 members.")

My term on the Commission ended when Olsen's began, in 1999, so the "old commission" Olsen calls a rubber stamp, and which McKeown presumably believes was less "neighborhood friendly," was the one that included me.

I am a bit embarrassed to use this pulpit to defend the old Planning Commission, since I was on it, but I will get over that. None of the other members of the commission have the time, inclination or ego to respond to Olsen, and his public bashing of the City's professional staff is particularly low. He knows they will not defend themselves.

There is nothing wrong with pointing out the differences between the old commission and the new, but it is wrong to accuse people falsely of being rubber stamps, of bending the law, of making decisions behind closed doors. I'd like Olsen to give evidence for any of these charges, or even an alleged example.

Beyond my personal pique, it is important to set the record straight about what happened before Olsen joined the Commission because otherwise people might get the idea that how one properly represents "residents" and "neighborhoods" is to ignore the law and the needs of the community.

A little history.

Michael Feinstein once justified an ordinance restricting development in residential neighborhoods by saying to me that Santa Monica would always be booming. But in the mid 90's, Santa Monica was doing anything but.

Remember riot and recession? Remember real estate prices declining so much that people -- even residents of Santa Monica -- complained they couldn't sell their houses or had negative equity?

Remember the earthquake? The red tags? Much of Santa Monica was in ruins, and the priority that the City Council established was to rebuild the city.

As for the public mood, in 1994 the voters of Santa Monica -- including Kelly Olsen -- overwhelmingly approved a development plan for the Civic Center that opponents had described in apocalyptic terms.

Autres temps, autres mores.

Olsen says the Commission and staff were in cahoots with developers, but, ironically, until the economy started up again in the late 90's, not much private development came before the Commission, and much of that was earthquake related.

The biggest project was the rebuilding of Saint John's Hospital. Commission and staff conducted extensive hearings and caused the hospital to make substantial changes to its plans. At one point the Commission had staff hire an outside architect to evaluate technical issues. Of course, no one could solve every potential problem or allay every fear or anxiety.

The Commission was hardly a rubber stamp, but, more to the point, if it was anti-resident and pro-developer to work with St. Johns so that Santa Monica would have a state of the art hospital for the next 100 years, then I expect everyone on the Commission would plead guilty.

Olsen claims to speak for and listen to the "people in the community," but some of our residents need jobs, or hospital care, or housing, or grocery stores. Many go to restaurants, and some even go to bars. Shopping is the third most popular leisure activity, according to a survey the City conducted in connection with developing the Open Space Element of the General Plan.

There are young people who like to dance, or do whatever else young people do. Residents like to see plays and movies, and listen to concerts. They and their visitors go to amusement parks and the Pier. Santa Monica even has legal and moral obligations to people who live outside its borders.

"Neighborhood," and "resident" are loaded terms -- but no one owns them.

More anon. Next week, Part II.

Meeting advisories:

The Planning Department is conducting a community workshop for the development and design of crosswalks on 26th Street. Thursday, September 13, 7:00 to 9:00 p.m., Franklin School Cafeteria, 2400 Montana Avenue.

The Santa Monica Public Library has invited the public to a community meeting to meet the architects for the Main Library building project and to hear their vision for a new library. Saturday, September 15, 2:00 p.m., in the Main Library Auditorium, 1343 Sixth Street.

Santa Monica College has postponed the previously-scheduled September 19 public meeting on the Madison Site Theater to a date to be determined in October.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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