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Residents Begin Molding the City’s Future

By Gene Williams
Special to The Lookout

January 24 -- Although Saturday's General Plan workshop was the first step in helping shape a new vision for Santa Monica, it sometimes looked more like an arts-and-crafts class or a group therapy session.

You wouldn’t know it by the festive atmosphere, but the 170 residents gathered in the John Adams Middle School cafeteria were taking part in a serious two-year process to update the Land Use and Circulation Elements of the General Plan, which will dictate development for decades to come.

The residents, many of them new faces at a public meeting, drew pictures, colored maps, posted sticky notes on message boards and played with play-dough -- just some of the methods the City used to find out what people want.

"I think today's meeting was probably the healthiest, most fun I've seen in a long time," City Council member Herb Katz said after the three-hour session.

Photo by Frank Gruber

Former Mayor Paul Rosenstein was also pleased. "It's very heartening when so many people care about the future of their community," Rosenstein said.

The time is critical, he added, because "there are tremendous pressures to overdevelop the city and ruin the human scale we've developed here."

Saturday’s “Shape the Future 2005 Community Workshop” was part of the Planning Department’s ongoing effort to gather public input, an effort that will include other community meetings, as well as phone and internet surveys.

“We are going out into the community and going to small groups and finding out what their ideas are,” said Suzanne Frick, the City’s director of Planning and Community Development.

“We're taking all that information, and everything we do then is presented to the Planning Commission and the council for them to make decisions, so nothing is going to happen behind closed doors," Frick said.

Council member Kevin McKeown agreed. "This is the first really open workshop, and we're trying today to be as open ended as we can," he said. "We really want to hear what people are interested in rather than present them with a list of predetermined options."

After looking at display boards and posting their thoughts, the attendees broke into small groups and then presented their findings to the whole assembly, where many shared similar concerns about “high rises,” “big box stores” and too much traffic in the seaside community.

"We wanted a Santa Barbara look as opposed to Miami Beach," said Ocean Park resident Tia Skulski, who was applauded when she displayed her group's drawing of trees and cottages.

"I thought it was really exciting to see how many of the tables agreed about a lot of the main points,” resident Clare Salstrom said after the meeting. “We want to keep Santa Monica with the small town feel.

“We want it to have smaller, unique stores that really support the local businesses and keep the chain stores farther away,” she said. “We all agree that there's a traffic situation that really needs to be sorted out."

The groups not only provided a general vision, the also proposed specific solutions -- including taxing cars that drive through Downtown and carving out more bicycle routes.

But City planning staff and its consultants seemed wary of drawing any conclusions so soon in the game.

"We need to go back and look at what people have said,” Rajeev Bhatia, principal consultant on the Land Use Element, said. “I think it's a little premature for me to say what people have to say,” he added when asked if any common themes had emerged.

Bhatia’s caution was echoed by other planning officials. “It’s way to early to determine what are the common themes or the issues that people have with respect to growth in Santa Monica,” Frick said.

Planning Commissioner Darrell Clarke, however, was less reticent to draw conclusions.

"So far it feels like a lot of consensus, that many people see the city the same way,” said Clarke, vice chair of the commission. "I want that to be embodied in a plan that goes forward.”

But Clarke cautioned, “It's a big leap from visions of the city to how do we turn that into a General Plan, Land Use Element and zoning ordinance."

Sunset Park resident, Dick Dickinson, liked much of what he heard, but warned that "the devil is in the details."

"We all have visions of a green, nice, diverse, affordable housing and sustainable city -- which are all great buzzwords," said Dickinson. "But I suspect, if we all sat down and wrote down the details of what our vision is in terms of a sustainable city, they're not going to be similar."

After the crowd dispersed, former Mayor Michael Feinstein lingered with a few others.

"I think what we found today is that when you put the faith and the power in people… they get it," said Feinstein, who was wearing a Green Party sweatshirt.

"Council members should be bold, because I heard residents wanting to be bold today," he said.

The process of updating the General Plan began in last October. The Planning Commission and Staff will continue gathering information before it begins to discuss its findings in May.

Work on drafts begins in late November, with a finished document expected to come out in October 2006. This will then be translated into zoning ordinances that will give the plan its teeth.

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