The Christmas tree on the Third Street Promenade, shown here during the 2009 lighting ceremony, may be a thing of the past. (Brandon Wise brandonw@smdp.com)

DOWNTOWN — A Christmas tree that has stood on the Third Street Promenade for over 15 years during the holiday season may be illegal under a city ordinance banning unattended displays on public property,  officials say.
Each year, the tree goes up just before the Thanksgiving holiday and remains outside continuously through the Christmas season, despite the fact that City Hall has had an ordinance on the books since 2003 banning unattended displays on public property.
It never came up, said Kathleen Rawson, executive director of Downtown Santa Monica Inc., a public-private agency that manages  Downtown for City Hall.
“We never had this discussion, not in 15 years,” Rawson said.
Now, the organization is in a “holding pattern” until city officials make a final decision about the fate of the tree, she said.
Two other regular features of the Downtown Christmas decorations may also face additional hurdles. Both are menorahs, symbols of the Jewish holiday of Hanukah.
Downtown Santa Monica Inc. puts one of them out each year and holds a lighting ceremony. The candles represent a miracle in which a small amount of olive oil burned for eight days instead of one, allowing the Jewish people to rededicate a temple after their successful revolt in the second century BCE.
The organization will still hold the lighting a few nights on the promenade and a few nights at the Santa Monica Place mall, Rawson said.
The ban on unattended displays may represent more of a hurdle for the second menorah, put up by the Chabad House in Santa Monica. The organization has additional restrictions on how to treat their menorah because of their strict adherence to kosher law, Rawson said.
For its part, City Hall is tight-lipped about the situation in Downtown.
Assistant City Manager Elaine Polachek acknowledged that the situation is “still a bit up in the air,” although she would not say why.
“There will be a tree at Santa Monica Place and (Downtown Santa Monica Inc.) and Santa Monica Place are doing a tree-lighting ceremony,” Polachek wrote in an e-mail. “Like years past, (Downtown Santa Monica Inc.) will make the promenade very festive for the holidays. And the city does have pending litigation.”
In October, a group called the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee filed suit against City Hall in an attempt to bring back a 57-year tradition of erecting 14 dioramas depicting the birth story of Jesus Christ in Palisades Park.
The City Council voted to end that practice in June by closing a loophole built into an existing law that allowed unattended winter displays only in Palisades Park and only for a period of weeks during the winter holidays.
They did so because for the first time there were more applications for the 21 spaces in Palisades Park than there were spaces to award in 2011, primarily because a number of atheists decided to ask for spots that year.
In an effort to keep the system fair and content neutral, city officials created a lottery system that allowed each applicant to request up to nine spaces. Atheists won all but three of the 21 spaces.
Two went to the nativity scenes, and the last went to a menorah put up by the Chabad House.
The creation and administration of the lottery system took up 245 hours of staff time in the Community and Cultural Services Department alone, according to a court statement given by Wendy Pietrzak, a senior administrative analyst with City Hall.
That included regular correspondence with the applicants, review of the applications, conducting the lottery and responding to questions from the general public, among other duties.
In that time, staff responded to roughly 120 comments and inquiries. According to Pietrzak’s statement, “many were hostile, and some were threats to their personal safety.”
Pietrzak went on to say that staff anticipated that interest in the program would only increase in 2012, as would the hours spent administering it.
Rather than continue with the controversy, which by that point had attracted national attention, the City Council chose to end the practice altogether.
The plaintiffs in the case have sought an injunction that would allow the displays to go up this year.
“The pending litigation regarding the prohibition on unattended displays in parks is a reminder that we need to be sure that public space is shared in the manner that our laws require,” Polachek wrote.
As for the Downtown tree, the future is still uncertain.
“It’s challenging because city staff is doing what they need to do to protect the city, and I get that,” Rawson said.
There will still be a tree-lighting in conjunction with Santa Monica Place, festive decorations and the ice rink on Fifth Street and Arizona Avenue, which will open Nov. 2, according to the Downtown Santa Monica Inc. website.
The joint-tree lighting was negotiated months before the questions over the tree arose, largely because officials believed it did not make sense to have two tree lighting ceremonies in the same district, Rawson said.
Whether or not the tree is in place, Downtown will still get up for the holidays.
“Traditions are so important, and people hold them dear,” Rawson said. “The wonderful thing about Santa Monica is that we have been able to create new traditions.”

ashley@smdp.com

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