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Ironies of Redevelopment

By Frank Gruber

January 9, 2012 -- The most significant news affecting Santa Monica in a long time occurred over the holidays when the California Supreme Court upheld Governor Jerry Brown and the Legislature’s actions to terminate redevelopment agencies. (See “Future of Santa Monica Projects Uncertain in Wake of Supreme Court Decision” , January 4, 2012)

As a local columnist, I’m torn. My parochial interest in having parks, libraries, affordable housing, etc., paid for by taxes that would otherwise go to some other public entity than the City of Santa Monica conflicts with my view that Gov. Brown did the right thing in going after redevelopment, which has more often subsidized poorly-thought out urban renewal projects and politically-connected developers than it has revitalized “blighted” districts -- districts that may have done better if left alone.

The history of redevelopment in Santa Monica provides an example. As recounted in Paula Scott’s Santa Monica: A History on the Edge, the City used $14 million in redevelopment money in the 1950s (when $14 million was, as they say, “a lot of money”) to acquire 259 parcels of land along the beach south of Ocean Park Boulevard, displacing 316 families, 502 individuals, and 212 businesses, to build Santa Monica Shores and its “532 nice apartments.”

In connection with the project, the City spent redevelopment money to widen both Fourth Street and Ocean Park Boulevard into four-lane arterials, which included turning the intersection of Fourth and Ocean Park into an ugly overpass that cuts the neighborhood in four. It took about 25 years to realize this was a mistake, and about 20 years ago the City returned Fourth Street to two lanes. Now, with the Ocean Park Green Street project (see
), the City is about to try to mend the rip that the widening of the boulevard made in the fabric of the Ocean Park neighborhood.

So much for planning, 1950s style.

As it happened, the area of the beach tract north of Ocean Park that was excluded from the redevelopment area evolved on its own into one of the more desirable pocket neighborhoods in the city, with some of the highest per-square foot real estate values in the state. There’s no doubt, looking at photographs of the buildings that were destroyed in the redevelopment area (photographs that are available through the Santa Monica Public Library’s online Image Archive), that had they not been destroyed, that area would have become valuable real estate once again.

Demolition for Ocean Park Redevelopment Project on Raymond Avenue at Speedway; photo courtesy Santa Monica Public Library.

But why dwell in the past?

While one can argue about whether it was just for Santa Monica, one of the wealthier cities in the state, to make use of the 1994 earthquake to establish a redevelopment district covering two-thirds of the city, one can’t blame City officials for doing what they had the right to do, and the proceeds of the earthquake redevelopment district have more or less gone to (or are planned for) good purposes -- affordable housing, regional-serving parks, a new library in a poor neighborhood, etc.

Once the City and the State (or, quite likely, the courts) sort out who gets what out of the corpse of the redevelopment agency, the City will have to reevaluate those projects that are left needing money. The City will do what it can to fund projects with wide public benefits, such as the Colorado Esplanade and the new Civic Center park, with grants from available federal, state or county transportation or park funds.

But sooner or later the City will have to go back to the old way of funding capital projects -- through bond issues approved by the voters, or by issuing revenue bonds. The problem, however, is that under Prop. 13 city bond issues need approval by two-thirds of the vote.

A two-thirds majority is hard to get; back in the ’90s I was the treasurer for the committee running the campaign for a bond issue to build the new administration building for the police and fire departments. The City made a strong case that the earthquake had shown that the new building was needed, but we only got something like 64% of the vote. Normally that’s a landslide in American politics, but under Prop. 13 it was “no cigar.” (The City, using its good credit, issued revenue bonds to pay for the building.)

But most cities in California don’t have AAA bond ratings. The moral of this story is that Gov. Brown did the right thing in ending redevelopment, but now he should do the equally right thing and do everything he can to get Prop. 13 amended to give simple majorities of voters the right once again to pass bond issues to provide for the capital needs of their communities.

* * *

Another bit of collateral damage from redevelopment has been the reaction of the public against change and development of any sort. Urban renewal, financed through redevelopment and other governmental programs, was so unjustly used against residents that the response was a whole system of public involvement in the planning process, and a culture of solicitousness towards and acceptance of everyone’s view.

While once people could lose their very homes without hearing or recourse because a planner drew a line here rather than there, now anyone can complain about anything and expect to be taken seriously by decision-makers who fear not only lawsuits but also being branded as arrogant and out-of-touch.

Tomorrow night the Santa Monica City Council will consider plans for a new “universally accessible” playground to take the place of an existing playground and picnic area at the end of the City’s southernmost beach parking lot. A “universally accessible” playground is one that children of all abilities and disabilities can enjoy.

Although I missed the meetings myself, it appears that a schematic design for the playground has taken shape through a delightful and productive public process that exemplifies how a public process should work, where the skills of professionals like the City’s planners and the landscape architects the City hired were enhanced and stimulated by comments from an attentive and informed public (primarily parents and children, able-bodied and disabled).

But then -- someone had to bring into the equation the residents of the Sea Colony condominiums that face the area of the beach where the playground will be built (replacing, as noted above, an existing playground).

At first, according to the staff report, planners met with seven members of the homeowners’ association, and their comments were “mostly positive and enthusiastic,” although there were (typical and reasonable) worries about construction noise, maintenance, etc.

But then staff was “invited to return” to present schematic designs to a group of residents whose units face the beach. Apparently they gave the planners an earful. The staff report -- and staff reports tend to understate the vehemence of comments received from the public -- lists 12 comments the residents made, including gems such as that the new playground would result in “large buses of children coming to the site,” that these children would make more noise than the children make currently in the existing playground, that the playground would attract more homeless people, that the homeless would hang their laundry to dry on the playground’s fences, that the playground would block their views of the beach, etc.

In case you don’t get the idea, when the Recreation and Parks Commission reviewed the schematic, some of these Sea Colony residents appeared and testified that in addition, “disabled playground users would be run over trying to get to the public restrooms,” and that “homeless would urinate in the playground.”

Keep in mind that these residents bought condos that overlook possibly the most heavily used beach in the state, at a spot where the bike path makes a big turn, next to a large parking lot, at the base of Ocean Park Boulevard. Whether they like it or not, they bought the beach -- but that doesn’t mean they own it.

I’m sorry to say that while the commission approved the schematic design, the commission told planning staff to analyze the height of shade structures at the playground so as to avoid a visual blockage, and the commission encouraged staff to continue to meet with the Sea Colony residents.

I doubt that these residents with their fears and irrational demands speak for all or even most of their neighbors. But we live in squeaky wheel society, and they are treated as if they do.

The irony is that the Sea Colony is a redevelopment project. It sits on part of the land the City condemned and acquired in the ’50s, evicting all those residents and small business owners. After political activism arose in Ocean Park in the ’60s, and after the Coastal Act was enacted, the Sea Colony was built instead of more towers.

I’m not saying the residents of Sea Colony today have a moral debt to pay because they’re living on land taken from the displaced; they had nothing to do with that. But the only reason they have a voice today that the City is compelled to listen to is because the City back then did not have to listen to the displaced.

To right that wrong, and many other wrongs around the state and the country, the public demanded to be empowered, and they were. All in all, this has been a good thing. But that doesn’t mean the public, or all of it, is always right.

The City Council should ignore these complaints, and get on with building this marvelous playground.

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If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
The Lookout.

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