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Body or Soul?
By Frank J. Gruber
Thursday evening I took in the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City's City Council candidate debate at the new Central Library. It was my first look at this year's crop of hopefuls.
Overall I was impressed and, I hate to say it, surprised. The Coalition's focus is on "overdevelopment" and traffic, and whoever wrote its questions had variously loaded them to either (i) give Santa Monicans Fearful of Change red meat to chew on or (ii) embarrass any candidate who might think that "livability" could have a component other than how fast a motorist can get through an intersection.
But instead of simply giving the Coalition what it wanted, the mainstream candidates of all stripes -- likely without realizing what they were doing collectively -- managed to express a consensus about what should be Santa Monica's goals that was remarkable not only because it was a consensus, but also because it was reasonable.
But first a word about a word -- "livable." In the context of growth politics, "livable" is a word that's undergone an interesting evolution in a just a few years.
About 20 years ago Smart-Growthers and "New Urbanists" opposed to conventional suburban development began to use the word to package more palatably their prescriptions for better life through more urban density and many fewer automobiles. Checkout, for instance the "Livable Cities" website or the San Francisco "Livable City" website.
In Santa Monica, for instance, Smart-Growth adherent Allen Freeman, who now practices what he preached by working for downtown apartment builder Craig Jones, formed a group called "Livable Santa Monica" four or five years ago, before he removed himself from Santa Monica for two years to pursue an M.B.A. Smart-growthers like Freeman used "livable" to distinguish themselves from traditional residents' groups that opposed development because it allegedly created too much traffic or other inconveniences.
The idea was that there is more to living life than getting a good parking space at the mega-mall, that livability encompassed a wide range of experiences that Americans admired when they vacationed in Europe but couldn't achieve at home because of zoning laws and traffic-planning that so heavily favored the automobile and the driver hermetically sealed within.
It must have been successful propaganda: not only have cities and suburbs all over America been embracing Smart Growth principles to remake themselves, but now groups opposed to more density have hijacked the term, and thus we have the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City -- a group that seems (certainly on the basis of the questions it asked candidates last week) to be obsessed with how fast cars can get through intersections.
But maybe that's just one wing of the Coalition; officially, as described by the Coalition's Diana Gordon at the debate, the Coalition stands for "reasonable growth." The question then is what is reasonable?
The candidates, in the aggregate, did a good job answering that question. The Coalition asked pointed questions, based on non-scientific polling from anti-growth neighborhood associations purporting to show Santa Monicans united against growth, designed to get the candidates to take the no growth pledge. But while all the candidates said that they want Santa Monica to remain the city it is, none of them (except perennial gadfly candidate Jonathan Mann) interpreted that desire as being against all development.
As even Council Member Kevin McKeown -- probably the no-growthers' preferred candidate -- said, iterating a basic truth, "Cities can't be frozen in amber." If nothing happens, they don't stay the same, they die.
Notwithstanding the construction of recent years, Santa Monica's population has remained the same for forty. Every year the City's planning department, based on the number of new apartments, estimates that the population has increased, yet every census, we learn that it hasn't. Why?
Consider that each year five hundred or a thousand Santa Monican children graduate from local high schools. Most of them leave for college. How many of them come back?
Except for those who move in with their parents, or win the lottery, probably not many. The biggest changes to the culture of Santa Monica have not come from the amount of traffic congestion, but from a real estate market that has been a financial boon to homeowners, but which is changing the demographics of the city into an upper middle-class to rich monoculture.
What all of the serious candidates at the debate -- the three incumbents (Mr. McKeown, Bob Holbrook and Pam O'Connor) and the three non-gadfly aspirants (Terry O'Day, Gleam Davis and Jenna Lennekens) -- explained was that for Santa Monica to remain what it is, or to retain at least some of the diverse demographics that have characterized it for its entire history, it cannot not change.
We have a choice -- we can either try to keep Santa Monica's physical "body" the same in a vain attempt to reduce traffic congestion that will increase anyway so long as there is development anywhere along 50 miles of the 405, or try to keep Santa Monica's "soul" the same by managing growth to maintain a balanced city that retains the special characteristics that distinguish it from the rest of the megalopolis.
If we want to preserve the look and feel of our existing neighborhoods as well as the greatest possible number of affordable apartments, new housing will have to be built somewhere else, probably in areas currently zoned for manufacturing, and in a different form than the single-family homes that once housed blue collar workers at Douglas Aircraft. But the zoning for those districts will be a blank slate. We can craft new neighborhoods that suit our city's past and future.
The worst result would be to destroy Santa Monica by trying to save it.
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