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New City Manager Gives His Take on Planning

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

February 7 -- As City officials continue to hammer out a plan that will dictate how Santa Monica will look for decades to come, they will do so without the input of a permanent planning director and several other key senior planners, according to the new city manager.

While hiring a new planning director will be "a top priority" he hopes will happen within six months, City Manager Lamont Ewell said he will not halt the ongoing process to update Santa Monica's general plan, which influences everything from growth, density and building heights to traffic and historic preservation.

"I've had people suggest to me that placing the (general plan) update on hold would be the best thing to do," said Ewell, who began settling into his new post last month after resigning as San Diego's city manager. "However, I think that some of the larger elements of the plan need to continue on and we can do it without a planning director."

"The general plan, at this point, is really a reflection of the community desires," he said, "and I think there's already been enough information gathered from the extensive outreach to plan the larger elements."

Plotting Santa Monica's future without a permanent director steering the process does have it drawbacks, Ewell acknowledged.

"We may miss out on some great ideas," he said. "He or she could introduce a level of expertise, of experience that we may not otherwise have.

"However right now we're really just looking at the broader plans... The planning director won't question what a community wants, which is what we're doing right now."

"But," he added, "if on a particular element the director could suggest a better way to do it, he or she would have to go back out and get more community input."

In his short tenure, Ewell has already learned that in Santa Monica there are several sides competing for different visions of the city's future, Ewell said.

"We've got a great deal of disagreement in the community over how the City is shaped over the next 20 years," he said.

Overcoming that disagreement, Ewell said, will weigh heavily in his mind when choosing a new planning director to replace Suzanne Frick, who resigned last year to head Long Beach's planning department. Interim Planning Director Andy Agle has been in charge while the City Council hired a new City Manger, who, in turn, will pick a permanent planning director.

"We need to look for someone that understands we need community input," Ewell said. "We want to make sure to hire someone who will do outreach... and interact with all aspects of the community."

Excellent communication skills, a clear vision and strong leadership are all qualities Ewell expects from candidates, who will be drawn from a nationwide search.

Those qualities will also be needed to shape up a planning department that has long been criticized for inefficiencies, slack response times on permits and a high turn-over rate, he said.

"We need a strong leader, period," Ewell said.

It will be up to the new director to put the house in order, filling key posts, including a new uban designer to replace Stephanie Reich, who resigned to follow Frick to Long Beach.

In shaping the general plan, Santa Monica faces the same concerns as other communities, including disagreements on density and building heights and worries that neighborhoods are losing their unique qualities, said Ewell.

However, Santa Monica is a bit different, the former Oakland fire chief has come to learn.

"I think there's much more discourse here than in other areas," he said. "However I think I can assist in eliminating some of what can be perceived as personal attacks and move away from the discord and get everyone engaged."

That discord was on display last year after the owners of Santa Monica Place, the owners of the struggling indoor mall Downtown, unveiled a redevelopment plan that included three 21-story condo towers. Several community groups and civic leaders spoke out against the proposal, accusing Macerich Company of hijacking public input and the City's planning department of working with Macerich to push through the proposal.

The proposal was withdrawn and now any renovation plans are on hold until Macerich finds a new tenant to take over the anchor space long occupied by Robinsons-May, which is expected to close shop soon.

The next step in the search for Frick's replacement will be to hire a firm to conduct the search and bring the best candidates possible to Santa Monica, Ewell said.

"We want the right person, with the right vision and willingness to go out into the community," he said. "I recognize that in Santa Monica, the whole issue of planning is of the highest priority."

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