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Carrying On  

By Frank Gruber

January 4, 2010 -- There's a coincidence for me about this new decade thing, which is that I began writing this column in 2000, and so looking back at the '00s is the same as looking back at a decade of writing about things local (and not so local) from a POV in Santa Monica.

One image from the decade keeps coming back to me as a moment that showed the connection between the local and the global. It was a hearing of the Santa Monica zoning administrator, perhaps the most mundane of all civic events. The issue was a neighbor's request for a variance and she wanted me to testify as someone familiar with the property. I wasn't even there to cover it for the column.

The hearing was scheduled for the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

A call from a friend woke us up that morning -- if she hadn't called I don't know when I would have learned about the attacks, since back then we didn't listen to the radio or watch the morning news, and we certainly didn't, as I've done every day since 9/11, check a news website first thing in the morning.

Like everyone else, we watched the towers come down.

Then I don't remember if I called City Hall or if someone called me, but I found out that the hearing was on as scheduled. City Hall was open. City Manager Susan McCarthy had decided no terrorists were going to close down the government of Santa Monica. Santa Monica would "carry on."

It was oddly soothing to attend the hearing in the wood-paneled City Council Chambers.

Not much has been the same since.

* * *

What this column mostly covers is local politics, and while I have been writing it the big change in Santa Monica politics has been the decline of squeaky wheel government.

At the turn of the Millennium just about anyone who said that he or she represented "residents" could appear before the City Council or the Planning Commission and complain about something in our little paradise, and the council members or the commissioners -- along with staff -- would react in panic.

The City enacted emergency ordinances based on the flimsiest of emergencies. The work list for the Planning Department was impossibly long, and the council was continually rearranging the department's priorities to take into account the latest complaint. The council hired zealous and expensive staff to enforce codes and the conditions of permits. Then when they enforced the codes too zealously, as with fences and hedges, arousing a new round of complaints, the council would panic all over again.

But then the members of the City Council began to realize that since the complainers continued complaining, only now adding the complaint that the council and the staff never listened to them, the council members might just as well, for all the good it was going to do them, listen to the complainers less, or at least listen to them more judiciously.

Now when some residents complain about something the members of the City Council (and this goes for the Planning Commission as well), or at least most of them, don't panic. They listen to the complaints, and they tell the staff to investigate and work on a solution. They don't automatically agree that the complaints are 100 percent valid.

The defeat last year of Measure T, the "Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic," a ballot measure promoted by self-appointed resident representatives who complain bitterly that the City never listens to them, didn't make the squeaky wheels any more credible.

But it's worth reflecting on how the culture of squeaky wheel government became the norm in Santa Monica, because there are important lessons.

When Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) came to power in the '80s it had a balanced agenda of both controlling rampant growth and revitalizing Santa Monica and its economy, which was changing from industrial to something different. The new management did accomplish many good things, but, without going deeply into who was responsible (it wasn't only SMRR, but it wasn't "not SMRR" either), by the end of the decade the City had effectively stopped the building of housing while allowing formerly industrial sites to be replaced by millions of square feet of offices.

A million square feet of offices provides space for about 3,000 jobs.

The developments were part of a larger trend that, starting in the '60s with Century City, made the Westside the second-largest concentration of jobs in the region. Ultimately the building of offices spread up and down the 405 Freeway. Meanwhile, the no-growth movement made it difficult to build much housing on the Westside.

For the ten years I've been writing this column, I've fulminated against NIMBYism, and "Santa Monicans Fearful of Change," but not because the fears can't have a rational basis. My problem with fear of change is that it typically results in bad decisions.

But bad decisions can arise from many sources, including good intentions. Santa Monica is about to make a whole series of decisions when the City adopts new land use and circulation elements to its general plan. The amounts of development proposed in the draft plan are reasonable -- but not if the allowed square footage, or substantial fractions of it, is developed as offices, production facilities, or other primarily job-creating uses (as opposed to other commercial uses, such as retail, hotels, and medical facilities, which serve other functions).

If many more millions of square feet of offices rise in Santa Monica, the squeaky wheels will be back.

Frank J. Gruber is the author of Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, available at Hennessey + Ingalls and Angel City books in Santa Monica, at City Image Press, and on

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