123112 _ best of 2012CITYWIDE — Who you are is a function of what you do rather than what high-minded ideals you profess to the world.

In the past 12 months, Santa Monicans have come to question their city’s identity as many were forced to confront in a real way its evolution from sleepy beach town to Silicon Beach and put the actions of its leadership next to their own values for comparison.

The ledger is mixed.

Massive developments began popping up in larger quantities than ever before, forcing even city staff to cry uncle and ask to throw on the brakes.

A beloved Christmas tradition was rejected by the City Council and federal courts, putting an end to nearly 60 years of celebration a la Norman Rockwell, and a community of the elderly and infirm seems on the road to being replaced with a modern mix of condominiums, affordable apartments and the young professionals that want them.

Even as Santa Monica seemed to be losing itself, the electoral process made it clear that some ideologies put down deep roots.

When its 90,000 inhabitants stood once more to choose their elected officials, some were stunned to see that residents had embraced the familiar, sending local powerhouse Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights home not just with a win, but a clean sweep as every politician backed and measure supported by the city’s most powerful political force won the day.

There was one event, however, that put a deep mark into Santa Monica’s psyche, forcing it not only to reevaluate its approach to the present, but indelibly shaping its future — the loss of redevelopment funding.

The Daily Press nominates Gov. Jerry Brown’s resolution to kill redevelopment agencies across the state as the most consequential policy impact on Santa Monica in 2012.

 

End of an era

 

The loss of Santa Monica’s Redevelopment Agency hit the city by the sea and all other municipalities in the Golden State where it hurt — their wallets.

Redevelopment money, used to reform blighted areas throughout California, funded capital improvement projects, new buildings and, perhaps most consequentially, affordable housing production in a state where high property values turned a lack of housing into a humanitarian crisis.

However, the term “blight” was poorly defined, and many reformers — and some who just wanted to use the money to plug holes in the state’s sieve-like budget — pointed to abuses of the system, like cash spent on a luxury golf course in Palm Desert and money shortchanged to local schools during an education funding crisis.

In February, state officials got their way and a long, complicated process began by which roughly $1.7 billion held by California’s 400 redevelopment agencies was supposed to return to the state.

That cash was trapped in a bureaucratic process as the Department of Finance and city officials wrangled over which projects needed to go forward with redevelopment funds, and which would have to be stopped, in some cases mid-stream.

In Santa Monica, redevelopment funds were meant to pay for improvements to Santa Monica High School’s 100-year-old campus and the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.

That money also supported 75 percent of the affordable housing production, leaving city officials scrambling to find ways to fill in the gaps and ensure that it could continue a tradition of creating and preserving homes for the less fortunate.

The Affordable Housing Production Program is being revisited to increase the amount of extremely low-income housing available and officials are exploring a fee for commercial development to pay for new housing.

The Civic Auditorium, however, will be mothballed, and likely closed entirely by the end of June.

 

‘Tis the season … for a lawsuit

 

It felt a little less like Christmas in Santa Monica this December, the first winter season after the City Council chose to end the long-standing tradition of erecting nativity scene displays in one of the city’s most visible parks.

The trouble actually began in 2011, when a loosely-connected group of atheists staged a coup d’état, snagging 18 of 21 spots in Palisades Park normally used by a coalition of 13 local churches and the union representing police officers. Instead of the traditional — some would say ugly — nativity displays, the groups put up signs alternately wishing passersby a happy solstice and comparing biblical characters to Santa Claus.

Many of the spaces were left completely blank.

Controversy ensued, forcing the City Council to close a loophole in an existing law that allowed the crèches in the first place. The Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee lawyered up and brought City Hall to federal court in an attempt to reinstate the scenes, but Judge Audrey Collins was not receptive.

“The atheists won and they will always win unless we get courts to understand how the game is played, and this is a game that was played very successfully and they knew it,” said William Becker, an attorney for the committee after an initial injunction was denied that kept the displays out of the park in 2012.

Becker has vowed to appeal the dismissal of the case.

In an unexpected twist, the nativity scenes weren’t the only holiday decorations impacted by the new ban.

A Christmas tree that appeared every year on the Third Street Promenade also disappeared this year, moving the annual tree lighting ceremony to the nearby Santa Monica Place, which happens to be on private property.

City officials would not confirm at the time that the loss of the promenade tree was the result of the council’s change in the public display law, citing pending litigation.

 

Innocence, by any other name

 

Cougars aren’t unheard of in Santa Monica, but mountain lions are.

Local police made headlines in May when they were forced to shoot down a young cougar that had wandered into Santa Monica from the mountains north of the 101 Freeway.

The cat, posthumously named “Innocence” by angry protesters, was sighted walking down Arizona Avenue just past 5 a.m. on May 22. It eventually took refuge in the courtyard in front of the Santa Monica College Emeritus building on Second Street as an early-morning exercise class went on inside.

Attempts to sedate the animal failed, and the proximity of a group of interested bystanders as well as a preschool across the street forced law enforcement’s hand.

The incident created a backlash throughout the community that led to a round of negotiations wherein police committed to a number of new policies to capture wild animals and notify a local network of experts to provide assistance in the event of a future incursion.

 

Welcome back 

 

A trailblazer returned to Santa Monica in 2012 to once again go where no woman has gone before — the chief’s office at the Santa Monica Police Department.

Jacqueline Seabrooks won the position of top cop after an extensive head hunting process that attracted dozens of applicants from across the country. It was a homecoming for Seabrooks, who had served with the SMPD for 25 years before leaving for Inglewood to take up the mantle of chief under former police chief and now Inglewood Mayor Jim Butts.

Seabrooks broke new ground in the SMPD, becoming the first woman to attain the rank of sergeant, lieutenant and then captain. She helped guide the department in its response to gang violence and involved herself in the community through the Police Activities League and as a volunteer tutor with the Santa Monica Library.

Since she started the job, Seabrooks has already made changes, finding new tasks for officers that used to be assigned to specific neighborhoods and realigning others to help combat a spike in crime in Downtown.

Seabrooks approached the reconfiguration of the Neighborhood Resource Officers with characteristic pragmatism.

“We don’t want to eliminate it because it has value, and it resonates with the community,” Seabrooks told the Daily Press. “Equally, so does a low crime rate.”

 

Pass the pepper spray 

 

Santa Monica College is known for its quality education and ability to place students in top notch four-year universities, but in 2012 it joined a less prestigious list — a campus that had unleashed pepper spray on protesting students.

School officials scrambled to control the damage after dozens of people — and one young child — were exposed to the painful spray while rushing a Board of Trustees meeting to speak against a proposal that would have allowed students to pay the full cost of some summer classes. Some felt the proposal would create a two-tier system and eventually lead to the end of affordable options for those working toward a degree.

In September, an internal report leaked to the Los Angeles Times revealed that campus police blamed the administration for the pepper spray incident. Officials denied a police request made in March to move what officers believed would be a contentious meeting to a larger room to accommodate more students, according to the report.

A final report created by a review panel composed of SMC insiders like Campus Counsel Robert Myers and Trustee Nancy Greenstein has not yet been released.

That proposal was ultimately scrapped by the administration. It had also drawn criticism from the Community College Chancellor’s Office and the state attorney general, where officials believed that requiring students to pay the full cost of even optional classes violated the Education Code.

 

Sweeping up

 

In many ways, 2012 resembled 2008 — Barack Obama won the presidency, the New York Giants defeated the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl and Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights dominated politics in the city by the sea, despite the best attempts of outside monied interests.

This was an exciting and unusual electoral season in Santa Monica, with two incumbents — Bobby Shriver and Richard Bloom — deciding to step down from their seats on the City Council, leaving incumbents Gleam Davis and Terry O’Day to run with two open spots and a large and qualified field of hopefuls.

Bloom, who abandoned his spot on the council for the 50th State Assembly seat race, ultimately defeated his incumbent opponent Betsy Butler despite her superior fundraising capacity and strong establishment backing.

The picture back in Santa Monica was more complex.

The usual suspects gathered in the eaves, but first-time candidates like education advocate Shari Davis and columnist Frank Gruber, as well as three-time City Council candidate and Planning Commissioner Ted Winterer and former City Councilmember Tony Vazquez, also gravitated toward the open seats.

Add to that potent brew two new groups in the form of developer-backed Santa Monicans United for a Responsible Future and Santa Monicans for Responsible Growth, an ostensibly local anti-development group that many rumored to be a front for the Huntley Hotel in its cold war with the Fairmont Miramar, and the race was on.

Ultimately, O’Day, Davis, Winterer and Vazquez won the day, leaving the disgruntled to lick their wounds with an eye to the future — after all, 2014 is just around the corner.

 

Home is where the heart was

 

Conversations about smoking, nativity scenes and landmarks dominated the public conversation in 2012, but none was so contentious as the fate of the Village Trailer Park, a low-income community slated to become a mixed-use complex that looks more like an elaborate game of tug-of-war.

In the most recent episode of the almost seven-year saga, a post-election City Council with its two new members bounced back a development agreement with developer Marc Luzzatto on the grounds that the East Village development did not include enough affordable housing to meet code requirements.

The vote came only two weeks after the development agreement won approval from the previous council to move forward with the project.

Other members believe that the delays put a lucrative package of relocation benefits promised to existing residents of the park on the line, including the purchase of brand new trailers and possible placement in either the city-owned Mountain View Mobile Home Park or a collection of 10 trailer pads that Luzzatto agreed to reserve on site near the new development.

Residents of the park have been fighting since 2006 to prevent the closure, both through city processes and in the courts. Their struggles have succeeded in forcing the developer into reducing the size of the project and retaining the 10 pads, and it’s still unclear how the developer will deal with Loretta Newman, a resident of the park whose trailer is in the center of the proposed development with a court ruling that says she cannot be moved.

As Michael Tarbet, longtime member of SMRR, declared at the last council meeting: “Let the lawsuits begin.”

 

Thou shalt not …

 

Sorry party animals, Santa Monica has your number.

As of this year, new residents can no longer light up (anything) in their apartments, epic house parties are a thing of the past and marijuana dispensaries are personas non grata.

In some ways, it was the year of the ban in Santa Monica beginning with a ban on smoking that led some to muse, “Where exactly CAN you smoke a cigarette in this town?”

By the end of January, landlords will have to begin conducting a survey of their residents asking them to declare their units smoking or non-smoking as part of a citywide initiative meant to protect new residents from the dangers of secondhand smoke.

Those who moved in after Nov. 22 will be banned from smoking in their condominiums or apartments entirely with only one exception — if a doctor’s note says they can light up marijuana due to an illness or disability.

Good luck trying to get the herb, though.

The City Council approved a moratorium on pot dispensaries after a blind entrepreneur tried to start up a marijuana testing facility in town that would have accepted samples from other dispensaries and analyzed them to determine the properties of the plant and whether or not it was contaminated with dangerous pesticides.

A legal battle forced Richard McDonald to try another course of action — setting up a dispensary, which is allowed under state law. A recent crackdown in Los Angeles has put hundreds of the shops out of business and Santa Monica staff asked for and were granted a 10-month moratorium so that they could study where to put such a facility.

No matter that such a report exists from 2007.

Finally, the City Council took on party houses after the “House of Rock” opened its doors in one of the swankiest neighborhoods in Santa Monica.

The establishment belonged to songstress Kathryn Grayson until her death in 2010 when it was bought by a pair of business people looking to redesign the residence and flip it for a tidy profit. Part of the marketing plan was a series of lavish house parties, each benefiting a charitable organization.

Angry neighbors took the matter to the council, which eventually chose to ban the practice and put severe restrictions on any party with over 150 people.

 

A nod to history

 

Santa Monicans stood up for their history in 2012, fighting to preserve physical manifestations of the city’s progressive past for what they hope will be a similar future.

Some of those tussles were more successful than others.

Unless at least $10 million is found in a New Year’s Eve popper, Santa Monicans will have to bid adieu to the landmarked Civic Auditorium, a facility in dire need of basic seismic and safety repairs and a fresh infusion of capital to bring it back to relevance.

The Civic is now known for its cat shows, but in its heyday it played host to the Academy Awards. It had since begun to hemorrhage red ink, equating to a subsidy of $2 million per year.

Almost $50 million in redevelopment money was slated to bring the dilapidated structure back to life and events management company Nederlander had almost signed its name to a contract to coordinate attractions for the space.

When the money disappeared, so did Nederlander, and in October the City Council voted to mothball the site and try to find other positions for the employees that had worked there.

The jury is still out on the matter of “Chain Reaction,” a 26-foot tall mushroom cloud sculpture on the Civic Center lawn that city officials declared structurally unsound and recommended it be removed from Santa Monica’s public art collection.

Anti-nuclear activists came out of the woodwork to fight for the piece originally conceived by three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Paul Conrad. They succeeded in securing the sculpture landmark status, which gives the sculpture additional protections against being moved or destroyed.

It doesn’t solve the problem of the structural work that must be done to keep the artwork whole. That price tag could be anywhere between $270,000 and $475,000, according to a recent estimate by the company that originally manufactured the work for Conrad.

Supporters of “Chain Reaction” had until November to raise the money, but they complain they were hampered in their efforts by city officials who failed to get them estimates on the cost until shortly before their deadline.

The matter was supposed to go back to the Arts Commission for a report, but supporters of the piece got the item bumped to a future meeting.

The year was not a total loss for preservationists, however.

In the “win” column is Chez Jay, a relic of Santa Monica’s Hollywood past. Varied songsters like Frank Sinatra and action star Steve McQueen were said to have dined there, and rumor has it that Daniel Ellsberg, then an employee at the RAND Corporation, passed the Pentagon Papers to eager New York Times reporters at the establishment’s infamous “Table 10.”

The restaurant’s lease came up for a bid in 2012, and officials made it clear that they wanted a restaurant that would match up better with the $47 million park that abuts the restaurant. The Chez Jay team is working on an application and revamp the grungier aspects of the eatery, but they also took steps to preserve what they could, ultimately winning landmark status for some interior and exterior bits.

 

Fatal collisions

 

Santa Monica was plagued by a rash of hit-and-run traffic collisions in 2012 that killed or seriously injured three people in as many weeks.

All remain unsolved.

The first took place in June, when cartoon producer Roger Slifer was crossing Colorado Avenue at Fifth Street at 1 a.m. on his way back from an evening with friends at Rusty’s Surf Ranch.

Slifer was struck while in the crosswalk. He was transported to a local hospital and fell into a coma.

Police announced that they were looking for a white sedan from either the 1990s or early 2000s in connection with the case.

The second collision took the life of a young female bicyclist as she was traveling up Pacific Coast Highway on July 10. Erin Galligan, 30, was struck by a pickup truck at 11:15 p.m. after swerving into a lane on her bicycle. The driver fled the scene heading east on Interstate 10 in a 1990 Chevy Silverado 1500 or GMC Sierra, police said.

Just six days after Galligan was struck and killed, a woman named Claire Rudd Ross lost her life while crossing Wilshire Boulevard at 21st Street. She had just celebrated her 30th birthday, according to accounts.

Police are still looking for a black 2009 or 2010 Toyota Corolla in connection with the case.

Three others died in traffic accidents in Santa Monica in 2012 but the drivers of the cars involved stayed at the scene.

In early February, Santa Monica College student Frank Gauthier, 22, slammed his Yamaha street bike into the side of a Ford Expedition that was making a u-turn on Pico Boulevard at 20th Street. He was traveling at 50 mph when he struck the SUV.

Deborah Arellano, 54, was hit on July 1 by a 65-year-old driver who was making a left turn at the corner of Lincoln Boulevard and Ashland Avenue at 10:30 p.m. She was taken to a local hospital where she succumbed to her injuries.

Finally, a family of Australian tourists was struck in August by a 26-year-old Westchester resident that police suspect was driving under the influence of alcohol. Gary Mara, 50, was killed in the collision and his 8-year-old daughter was also injured.

The driver was arrested and booked for vehicular manslaughter and felony DUI.

All told, 115 pedestrians and 120 bicyclists were involved in accidents in Santa Monica by mid-December of 2012 compared to 114 and 130, respectively, for all of 2011, said Sgt. Richard Lewis, a spokesperson for the Santa Monica Police Department.

 

Honorable mention

 

There’s always an event or issue that didn’t quite merit inclusion in a “top stories” list, but we just couldn’t let go without a mention.

This year the title of “honorable mention” goes to AIDS Project Los Angeles’ media war against the city of Santa Monica after City Hall ended a long-standing practice of carrying advertisements for the charity fundraiser on the sides of its municipal buses.

AIDS Walk Los Angeles is a charity event organized by AIDS Project Los Angeles that raises money to support care for individuals impacted by HIV or AIDS, and organizers like 29-year Santa Monica resident Craig Miller ran advertisements on the sides of Santa Monica’s Big Blue Buses for six years.

This year was a different story.

Big Blue Bus officials realized that the ads violated a 2001 ban on noncommercial speech that effectively allows for-profit businesses like McDonald’s and British Petroleum to buy ad space, but not nonprofits. The policy was meant to protect City Hall from a situation like one that occurred in San Francisco where anti-Islamic messages were taken out on Muni buses.

Miller was not happy with the change, and purchased full-page advertisements in a local newspaper in protest, targeting individual City Council members who also happened to be running for reelection at the time.

City Hall stood firm.

 

ashley@smdp.com

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