One more example of how the social engineering agenda of Santa Monica’s most powerful leaders will play out before the Planning Commission this coming Wednesday night beginning at 7 p.m.

A public hearing will be held to consider amending the Civic Center Specific Plan and forward recommendations to City Council concerning increasing the maximum allowable floor area of a proposed Santa Monica College Early Childhood Education Center (ECEC) from 16,000 square feet to 20,000 square feet and increasing the height of an administration building fronting on 4th Street from 25 feet to 40 feet. Current plans call for the administration building with classrooms and two smaller infant/toddler and preschool buildings.

The reason for expansion is to increase program capacity for up to 110 children (from 100 children), provide classrooms for the college’s early childhood education program and provide meeting space for community-based agencies providing resources and services to parents and children. I’m all for early childhood education and the benefit it provides to emerging minds, but this is a bad deal for taxpayers for a number or reasons.

At some time in the next month or two, City Council will review and vote on a long term (possibly up to 100 years) lease on about 1.6 acres of valuable Civic Center land that requires no rent or payment of any kind to the city by the college. The city is also expected to kick in $5.4-million to SMC to help pay for construction costs of a “world class” ECEC estimated at $12-million before the proposed expansion. It’s a bad deal for taxpayers.

SMC will have the exclusive right to hire a private, for-profit operator for the center. There’s no requirement that ECEC clients be Santa Monica residents because it is conceived primarily as a child care perk for the well-paid employees of RAND Corporation, City Hall and the College. Families will be charged market rate for the ECEC’s services although there may be some financial aid available.

Recreation and Parks Commission Chair Phil Brock emailed, “While I’m a firm supporter of early childhood education, the location in the midst of the Civic Center is the wrong location for this center. It does not fit on the civic parking lot and takes away a valuable acre and a half from potential cultural and park resources.”

Over the years, there have been many committees and individuals working on a Civic Center Specific Plan. As various interests were catered to, the whole process became muddled, unfocused and sidetracked. The Civic Center is currently home to City Hall, the Public Safety Building, County Courthouse, a multi-story parking garage, 1,100 car surface parking lot next to a 3,000 seat multi-use Civic Auditorium, a luxury hotel, Rand headquarters, a 318-unit low income apartment/market rate condo project and Tongva Park.

A corner of the surface parking lot has been earmarked for the new ECEC Center.¬† This is not the right place for an ECEC facility because it adds another disparate element to the Civic Center that isn’t compatible with cultural endeavors or an upgraded Civic Auditorium. The ECEC will be another daytime-only operation which does nothing to bring “after dark” activities associated with cultural events such as galleries and other food/drink amenities into the area.

This isn’t the first time a SMC project resulted in one of the City’s major planning disasters. In 1990, SMC entered into a 66-year lease with the school district on the shuttered Madison Elementary School (bounded by Santa Monica Boulevard, Arizona Avenue, 10th and 11th Streets) to expand its educational offerings. Then SMC President Piedad Robertson enlisted former opera singer Dale Franzen to develop plans for a 500 seat showcase theater and arts complex at the Madison site in the middle of a multi-family residential neighborhood.

It’s unfortunate that SMC’s Broad Stage isn’t next to the Civic Auditorium. The Broad, along with an adjoining $12.5-mllion art gallery and performing arts space under construction west of 11th Street, would have provided a strong focus for a renewed Civic Center. Imagine a grouping of performing arts spaces surrounded by art galleries, eateries, and other entertainment and arts related venues in one central location. They would have enhanced each other and provided a purpose to visit the Civic Center especially in the evenings and on weekends when the area is dead and mostly unused.

You’d think that somewhere in the process, the SMC Board of Trustees and City Council (both controlled by the Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights political organization) along with City Hall’s Cultural and Community Affairs and the Planning Departments would have worked together to make the Civic Center a real cultural heart of Santa Monica.

Letting SMC control the land is a mistake, as the college is not bound by city planning rules. SMC owns a large, vacant parcel at Pico Boulevard and 14th Street that is a much better location for this ECEC complex. That neighborhood between the Pico neighborhood and Sunset Park is centralized, easily accessible and much more appropriate.

Bringing this essay fully around, It always seems to boil down to a political social engineering agenda that rules community planning and common sense. In the case of the ECEC’s apparently locked-in location, it’s compounding horrendous planning errors and squanders our city’s cultural opportunities.

Zoning Updates to be finalized

Tomorrow evening, City Council will finalize updates to the city’s zoning codes. Considering the shenanigans that have riddled the updating process and the mindset of some council members, it’s time to pray for Santa Monica.

Bill Bauer can be reached at mr.bilbau@gmail.com.

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