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Unusual Marketing; Politics as Usual; a Busy Week at City Hall

"Have you noticed that downtown Santa Monica smells like urine?" -- From a "public service" message the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce Issues Committee sent thousands of Santa Monicans last week.

By Frank Gruber

My in-laws own a successful chain of furniture stores in western Pennsylvania and Ohio, and I asked my brother-in-law, who runs the business, if he ever considered promoting the business by telling prospective customers that his stores smelled like urine.

Not being up to date on modern west coast marketing techniques, he said no.

You see, about 90 percent of Santa Monicans regularly come downtown, but that's obviously creating too much traffic. So the Chamber of Commerce is cleverly trying to persuade more customers to stay away.

All right enough with the jokes. I'm not a Pollyanna. I do occasionally see men relieve themselves against downtown alley walls (just one more way for Santa Monica to remind me of Italy), but what I smell every morning when I ride my bike in the alley between the Broadway Deli building and the parking structure on Fourth north of Broadway is garbage.

The distinctive odor bacteria create when we allow them to flourish in our waste emanates from overflowing private dumpsters and the liquid that leaks from the private garbage haulers that service the businesses on the Promenade.

Businesses that are, perhaps, members of the Chamber of Commerce?

Typical private dumpster: Where's the Outrage? (Photo by Frank Gruber)

As reported in The Lookout, the mailer I quote from above was the opening volley of the 2004 City Council election. ("Chamber Fires First Volley in Council Race," July 10, 2004) This year, in the absence of a political organization opposing Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, the Chamber of Commerce has formed a political committee and will be endorsing candidates.

The Chamber hopes to unseat SMRR council members the Chamber considers anti-business.

I have often complained in this column about anti-business and anti-development actions council members from SMRR's no-growth wing have taken, and I wouldn't necessarily oppose a little regime change myself.

But if this mailer is evidence of the Chamber's tactics, any candidate who would like to win the election should run as far away from the Chamber Issues Committee as possible, because it's been a long time since this kind of tactic has defeated a SMRR slate.

I suspect that SMRR's political guru Parke Skelton is rubbing his hands, gleeful that once again SMRR will be able to tar its opponents, even the reasonable ones, with the brush of big bad greedy business.

For every Santa Monica voter the Chamber might attract with these tactics, it must alienate at least two. Lighten up. If you want to win, find a positive message that will inspire Santa Monica's largely liberal and happy voters, and then organize around that.

* * *

Next week is going to be a busy one at City Hall.

Monday night, the Landmarks Commission meets, and on the agenda is a proposal by the Commission itself to declare the Sears building on Colorado a landmark.

I'm disappointed most of the time when I read about landmarking in Santa Monica. While over the years the Commission has usually been careful about what it landmarks, most of the structures the Commission considers seem trivial to me -- under consideration not because of their merits, but because their demolition would inconvenience tenants (often greatly) or neighbors (often negligibly). When I think about landmarking, I like to think long-term. When looking at a potential landmark, I ask myself, will people in 200 years care about it?

There aren't many buildings in Santa Monica that pass that test, but the Sears building might. Not only does the building have artistic merit and historical interest, but its preservation could also play a big role in the redevelopment of the surrounding area, and help link downtown with the Civic Center. (If you are interested more, read the staff report.)

* * *

Tuesday night the City Council has several fascinating items on its agenda.

There is even an important item in the consent calendar: approval of a contract with consultants who will manage the process of rewriting the land-use and circulation elements of the General Plan.

Based on the staff report, some top urban planning firms in the country competed for the contract. Staff is recommending a consortium led by Dyett & Bhatia, a San Francisco-based firm that has particular experience in drafting general plans for "built-out" cities with transit issues. You can visit their website.

In the main part of the meeting the council will consider separately two items that are closely related politically and conceptually. In fact, the Council asked staff to schedule them the same night. One is another look at modifications to development standards and review process in multi-family zones. The other is a joint meeting of the Council and the Planning Commission to discuss the Matrix Group's report on the workings of the development permitting process. ("Audit Reveals Ways to Fix Planning Woes," July 8, 2004)

These items are related because with the multi-family standards, the City's planning staff has been trying to get the council to do what it said it wanted to do, i.e., simplify the approval process by clarifying development standards and reducing discretionary review, and because the Matrix audit is a result of the political pressure brought on the City by outraged residents and developers who have been caught up in the planning morass the Council created.

Why do I say the Council created the problem? Isn't this a problem with the Planning Department?

Yes, we do have a dysfunctional permitting and development review process in the Planning Department. But, as I suspect everyone who will be present at the joint meeting with the Planning Commission knows but none of them will say, no crisis developed until the council, after the 1998 elections, dismantled the old Planning Commission.

There was complete turnover in the commission within about a year (for the record, I was one of the commissioners who was turned over), and getting a permit to build anything, from a 500 square foot addition to a 100-unit apartment building, has been agony ever since.

The problem hasn't been competing ideologies of growth, but rather how the commissioners conduct themselves. Meetings are like encounter sessions. Instead of waiting to be recognized by the Chair, commissioners interrupt each other. They argue with witnesses, or ask argumentative and irrelevant questions, and they belittle and argue with staff.

Worst, they often don't make decisions; meetings go on into the wee hours, but matters are still continued, and the Commission has little time to spend on comprehensive and long-range planning.

All of this has led to a demoralized and paralyzed staff.

In fairness, the most recent two appointments the council has made to the commission have been exemplary, and the commissioners themselves now seem interested in reform. We'll see what they say Tuesday in reply to the Matrix report, which contains several pointed suggestions about how the commission might improve its operations and how the council might better supervise it.

(View the entire Matrix report)

* * *

Wednesday evening the Planning Commission will consider the proposed development agreement between the City and Lantana-Hines to redevelop two parcels near Centinela, one on Olympic and one on Exposition Boulevard. These are important projects that will say a lot about how the City balances its (alleged) commitment to economic development and the region's important entertainment industry, with the protections it wants to afford residents against intrusions from the world of commerce.

I have written about these projects before, when the City turned them down in 2002 ("WHAT I SAY: Feel Good Resolutions," March 10, 2003 and "WHAT I SAY: When Less is Less," March 24, 2003). Since this column is growing long, and since regardless what the Planning Commission does Wednesday the City Council will have the final say, I'll defer any further comments until a later date.

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