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Principles, Politics: Farewell to Suzanne Frick

By Frank Gruber

This will be my farewell column to Planning & Community Development Director Suzanne Frick -- in which the most meaningful thing I can and will say heartily to her is "congratulations." Congratulations for not merely surviving Santa Monica, but for using it as a stepping-stone to a job in Long Beach with the potential for doing good things on a greater scale.

I wouldn't say much more about Ms. Frick's tenure in Santa Monica, because to do so will necessarily mean I will repeat much of what I have already written in many columns past, except that the best way to talk about whom the City should hire to take Ms. Frick's place is to talk about Ms. Frick and her years as head of the City's sprawling and ever expanding Planning and Community Development Department.

I have known Ms. Frick for about ten years. I became active in Santa Monica politics about the same time she became head of the department, and for roughly the first five years I knew her, until 1999, I knew her in my capacity as a Housing and then Planning Commissioner.

I don't know how Ms. Frick will function in Long Beach, but in Santa Monica her strength was her unflappability: a preternatural calm that seemed based both on a lack of a personal agenda or ideology about planning and on a desire not to offend.

Her weaknesses were the flipside of her strengths.

In the 90s when I was on the Planning Commission there wasn't that much development going on, and the Commission and the planners spent a lot of time working on large-scale planning efforts, such as the housing and open space elements of the general plan, the recreation and parks master plan, the beach improvement plans, the downtown street design, the airport park, 415 PCH, the beginnings of an update of the circulation element of the general plan and other integrated public processes.

Ms. Frick's strengths were well suited to these efforts. I never heard her talk "theory" or "vision;" she left that to the various consultants the department hired, and it was easier for them to explain sometimes new ideas to the various publics in Santa Monica than it might have been for a "hired hand" who grew up in the City's employ.

In those days Ms. Frick did an excellent job; the planning the City did was good, and her department ran smoothly enough -- certainly smoother than it did later.

Then between 1998 and 2000 the situation changed. An anti-development majority took control of the City Council and there was a complete turnover on the Planning Commission. The new commissioners, led by Kelly Olsen, were overtly suspicious of planning staff, and they had the support of the council majority.

At the same time, the economy had kicked into gear in the late 90s, and development increased. The new Planning Commission became so involved (and so involved itself) in micro-managing development projects and second-guessing the planners, that the City abandoned comprehensive planning -- including the update to the circulation element.

With respect to the topic of last week's column, the commission's desire to stop development however possible and the planners' desire not to be yelled at or ridiculed caused the planners to give into intellectual blackmail -- going along with preposterous claims of "emergencies" and elevating the complaints of a few malcontents into the will of the public.

The department also stopped "planning" when it came to development. Ms. Frick once said to me it wasn't the department's job to design projects; maybe so, but she had developers clamoring to know what the City wanted. But if she told them, and the Planning Commission later wouldn't go along -- then what?

This was when Ms. Frick's strength became her weakness. Since she had never articulated a vision of the city, and had instead been a consensus person, she did not have the prestige to stand up to the Commission, which tore into her and her department, devastating morale. Experienced planners left and new planners leapt into the breach(es).

The wheels started to fall off, and morale only got worse as, paradoxically, the council kept throwing money at the department to hire enforcement personnel to do the thankless job of getting Santa Monicans to abide by all the laws they've wanted the Council to pass.

It must have been agonizing later for Ms. Frick when the Commission sought to blame her and her department for the wreckage they had made of the planning and permitting process, and the public (and politicians) blamed her staff members for the fiasco of enforcing the hedge laws.

You can't cave into bullying, but it's hard to fight it without ideas; mere principles of good faith and integrity are not enough, one needs intellectual principles, too. Finally, Ms. Frick fought back with her well-remembered rejoinder to the commission in July 2003 ("Planning Director Suzanne Frick's Statement," July 14, 2003), delivered to the Commissioners at their first meeting after the council, scales falling from Mike Feinstein's eyes, had dropped Mr. Olsen. ("Commission Laments Olsen's Loss," July 14, 2003)

But the damage was done.

So my advice to City Manager Susan McCarthy in choosing Ms. Frick's replacement is either to go outside the department and hire someone with prestige and a well articulated vision for what a city should be, or else promote from within but assure the new head of the department that no one in the department will ever have to trim principles to fit politics.

* * *

I have an idea for downtown employers concerned that their low-wage workers can't pay the City's seven dollar a day parking charge. ("Bayside Officials Weigh in on Parking," March 28, 2005)

How about paying them more money? Pay them another buck an hour, and in eight hours they will have the seven bucks (net of FICA). Oh, you say, that would make you uncompetitive. Well, what if you take it up with your landlord? I understand commercial rents on the Promenade are among the highest in the country. Maybe it's not your wages that are too high, but your rent.

Oh, the landlord won't take less rent. Bad luck. That's free enterprise, for you. But if the property owners are making so much money, why can't they build more parking structures themselves?

What if I, as a taxpayer, don't want to subsidize parking with almost 100 million dollars of property taxes that should go to schools and hospitals so property owners can charge rents that are so high they drive everyone but the biggest stores (i.e., most of the aforementioned employers) out of downtown?

And another thing: not to be hard-hearted, but to all you workers making eight dollars an hour who complain about not being able to afford parking, maybe if you can't afford seven bucks to park, that means you're not making enough money to own a car.

And to the City Council -- maybe if you didn't subsidize parking, traffic would be better?

A few months ago I plugged Santa Monica: A History on the Edge, a new history of the city written by Paula Scott. I am happy to give Ms. Scott another plug; she will be giving a lecture and signing books this Sunday at the Historical Society Museum. The Society is jointly sponsoring the lecture with the Santa Monica Conservancy. If you haven't yet bought a copy of the book, Sunday will be an excellent day to do so, because proceeds from sales at the event will benefit the two organizations.

Details: Sunday, April 10, 2:00 to 3:30 p.m., 1539 Euclid Street. For more information, call (310) 485-0399 or email

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