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New Face on the Council Could Help Shape Downtown

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

January 9 -- Downtown may be in the midst of one of its most significant transformations in years. Hundreds of housing units have gone up or are being constructed; a record number of new stores are opening up, and a major plan to redevelop Santa Monica Place is on the drawing board.

In the next two years, the City Council will face major decisions. How does the City encourage new restaurants on the Promenade? What should be done about the transients who hang out at the popular shopping destination? And what will happen to the proposal to redevelop the struggling indoor mall?

A key figure in these debates will be newly elected Council member Bobby Shriver, who won a seat on the dais with the most votes and by the widest margin in 20 years. Shriver, a member of the Kennedy family and brother-in-law of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, is the first nonincumbent elected to the council since 1999.

In his campaign literature, in candidate forums and questionnaires, and during an interview with The Lookout, Shriver provided a glimpse of his positions on key issues facing Downtown. An attorney and former reporter, Shriver prefaced his answers with a caveat.

“I am a person who intensely studies a problem before I take action,” Shriver said when asked in December about his broad vision for the Downtown. “I’ve only been on the council now for three weeks and need to study the problem before I come to a decision.”

A 20-year resident of Santa Monica, Shriver views the Downtown through the eyes of a local. He bemoans the loss of independent businesses and worries that the Promenade has become primarily a visitor destination that no longer caters to local residents.

“There aren’t many locally owned businesses left on the Promenade,” Shriver said. “It’s hard to develop ‘local’ relationships with so many chain stores. Especially on weekends and in summer, local people know to avoid the traffic and parking problems in the downtown area.

“I miss some of the old stores such as the Midnight Special,” he said, referring to the alternative independent bookstore that closed its doors last year. “Yet I know that change is always going to happen. Look at the buildings along Colorado (near the city’s eastern border). I’m not saying that’s good or bad; it’s just happened.”

While the prospect of chain stores overrunning the Promenade makes Shriver nervous, a greater worry for him is the prospect of increasing building heights. Shriver has been a vocal critic of Macerich’s plan to build three 21-story condo towers as part of the Santa Monica Place redevelopment.

“I’ve only seen it once but I can tell you the towers are way too tall,” said Shriver, who worries that the glass buildings with a total of 300 units could open the door for more high-rises Downtown. “I don’t know how you’re going to stop that kind of thing once you let the genie out of the bottle. There is a lot of demand out there.”

A staunch supporter of encouraging public input in development issues, Shriver favors initiating an informal process between developers and the public, a recommendation made by the Planning Commission last year.

“We should have stringent guidelines to allow for public input, real public input and participation,” Shriver said. “It’s important that they have an opportunity to see the plans.”

But it is the issue of the homeless that was the centerpiece of Shriver’s campaign. “Reducing the number of homeless people living on our streets and in our parks will be my highest priority as your Council member,” he wrote on his campaign Web site.

During his run for the council, Shriver unveiled a plan to tackle what Downtown merchants consider the most pressing problem facing the area. The solution, he said, must be regional.

“Santa Monica cannot do it all,” Shriver wrote. “We tried that; it’s not working. Our police should enforce laws against antisocial behaviors like aggressive panhandling, but mentally ill people and substance abusers need help from cities all over Southern California.

“Over the years neighboring cities have sent homeless people to Santa Monica rather than accept responsibility to help them,” Shriver wrote. “Our city of 83,000 people does not have the resources to deal with all homeless people who come here.”

The City, Shriver contends, has no programs for the chronic homeless, and the police are reluctant to arrest those “who are inebriated in public because of the significant time and expense required to complete the paperwork, only to release them back onto the streets.”

Shriver recommends the City take two immediate steps: Provide a “sober-up” facility in the new Public Safety Building as an alternative to “repeatedly jailing and hospitalizing chronic homeless inebriants” and establish a “permanent supportive housing facility for the chronic homeless,” possibly in one of the vacant buildings at the Veterans’ Administration Hospital in West Los Angeles.

“Santa Monica needs to move in a new direction, one that results in a solution,” Shriver said. “I will work ... to reduce the number of people living on our streets.”

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