By Frank Gruber
April 27, 2009. Last week I expressed doubts whether in the three years that the City of Santa Monica has to take advantage of the best financing available under its Earthquake Redevelopment Project the City could plan and design all the projects that the City's staff propose to fund with redevelopment bonds.
On Saturday I came up against the City's glorious counter-example at the grand public opening of the Annenberg Community Beach House at Santa Monica State Beach.
What a day. For more than two decades Santa Monicans pondered what to do about the site of Marion Davies' famous beach house, but all that pondering has been rewarded with a remarkable public "place" -- one that combines recreational facilities and amenities, excellent (dare I say, "world class"?) architecture, well-thought out and beautifully crafted historic preservation, and public access to facilities for entertaining, conferences and other events.
It's a beach club for the public, as philanthropist Wallis Annenberg, whose family's foundation funded the lion's share of the costs of the project, emphasized in her remarks to the crowd that gathered to celebrate the new gem of the Pacific.
As Mayor Ken Genser put it, although the beach, the City's front porch, has been here since the beginning of time, the City now has a living room.
(Mayor Ken Genser and Wallis Annenberg
At times it seemed as if planning for the project had begun at the beginning of time. In a certain sense, the opening on Saturday was the final comment on Michael McCarty's controversial hotel project, which the City Council approved for the site, but which Santa Monica voters rejected in a 1990 referendum.
Then the 1994 earthquake radically shook up 415 PCH and what could be done with it. In a key move, the City convened a "working group" in 1997 to study the possibilities. The group, which consisted of Mr. Genser and Michael Feinstein from the City Council, Ken Breisch from the Planning Commission, and representatives from the Park and Recreation and Landmarks Commissions and the Architectural Review Board, and which received important consulting services from architect and urban planner Stefanos Polyzoides, spent nine months devising a program for developing the site.
|(Former Mayor, Michael Feinstein)
|USC Historian and former planning commissioner, Ken Breisch)
The City Council approved the working group's proposal in 1999, and this plan, which called for combining recreational facilities with revenue-producing banquet and conference facilities to offset operating costs, is essentially the plan that the City, with the Annenbergs' money, has constructed. Having the plan ready to show the Annenberg Foundation when Wallis Annenberg identified the project as one the foundation might finance, was important in obtaining the donation.
So how is this nearly two-decade long saga a counter-argument to the skepticism I expressed last week? The reason is that once the Annenberg Foundation entered the picture, in late 2004, the City moved fast.
Under the supervision of Barbara Stinchfield, the City's Director of Community and Cultural Services, the City hired an architect (Fred Fisher - kudos to him) and other consultants, conducted public hearings on the plans, ran the plans by the relevant boards and commissions, and City Council approved that plans in May 2006.
There were also other approvals that staff needed -- from the state, which owns the land (the beach house is part of the State Parks system), and which the City wanted to approve a new traffic light on Pacific Coast Highway. It didn't hurt that at the time, Council Member Bobby Shriver was also a member of the State Parks Commission; Wallis Annenberg, in her remarks Saturday, singled out Mr. Shriver as an expert on cutting red tape.
|(Santa Monica Councilman Bobby Shriver)
Remarkably, all those approvals were garnered in about 18 months. Add the nine months of the working group's public process to decide what to build, and you're at 27 months. That's just under the 32 months that remain before the end of 2011, by which time the City needs its projects to be ready to finance.
I spoke to Ms. Stinchfield about how it all worked with the beach club -- and also about how the project was built on schedule and on budget. She said that everyone involved want to respond positively to the Annenbergs' donation; as she put it, "generosity is a great motivator." It didn't hurt that the foundation put deadlines on the City, and that the City Council responded by passing an ordinance that expedited projects that were to be financed with philanthropic contributions.
But not everyone was so motivated. The City Council would have approved the project earlier in 2006 if some neighbors with homes on the beach - who had not participated in the open public process - had not tried to derail it. But in response to that came the "Friends of 415 PCH http://www.friendsof415.org/," which Joel Brand (and friends) organized to show the council that for every whining neighbor there were thousands of residents -- not only in Santa Monica -- who wanted a public beach club.
The lesson in all of this is that the City can plan and deliver projects on a reasonable time frame, but it takes focus. There are many potential distractions, however, and most of them are inherent in a political process. This means that our politicians -- our council members -- need to focus more than anyone else, which means that they can't automatically act as if every comment they hear from every resident came from God.
That goes especially for comments that come from residents after the conclusion of the open public process. "Late hits" from disgruntled residents who ignored the planning and approval process but then say they were "excluded" are a tradition in Santa Monica and one of the reasons it's so difficult to build public projects here on a reasonable schedule.
But there are also positive lessons to learn from the success of the new beach club. The City can look back on this process and recognize the value of hiring talented consultants and contractors. I don't believe Saturday would have been such a happy day without the work of Mr. Polyzoides and Mr. Fisher, and that of the landscape designers, Mia Lehrer & Associates as well as other consultants, not to mention the building contractor, Charles Pankow Builders. One shouldn't be overawed by qualifications, but real expertise is well worth what you pay for it.
So, a message to the City of Santa Monica, its politicians, staff and volunteers, from a humble columnist: I hope in three years I can write about how wrong I was.
Over the years I have written often about 415 Pacific Coast Highway, now the Annenberg Community Beach House; if you're interested in recent history, or opinions about it, here are some links.
"When More Was Okay" - October 20, 2005
"Talk about an Agenda" - February 27, 2006
"The Beach Belongs to the People" - April 3, 2006
"Back to the Beach Again" - May 22, 2006
"Going Coastal" - July 10, 2006
"Off the Top of Your Head Planning" - Sept. 18, 2006
The Santa Monica-Malibu PTA Council Special Education Committee and the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District will be holding a Spring Forum on Special Education issues Saturday, May 2 at John Adams Middle School from 8:30 am to noon. The keynote speakers will be from L.A. Goal - Executive Director Petitite Constantin, and Brad Silverman. L.A. GOAL's educational, vocational and recreational programs provide opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities to increase their independence and employability.