There are two parallel conversations going on in Santa Monica. One is between developers, their attorneys, architects, public relation firms, lobbyists, city staff and certain members of the City Council.
The other is between residents, individually and in groups.
The first conversation is about money — making lots of money, maximizing development to maximize return, creating a larger tax base for the city.
The second conversation is about time. To residents, time is very precious because it’s non-renewable. It can’t be bought. It can’t be borrowed or stretched or replaced. It’s our most important non-renewable resource. We get 24 hours a day. The way we spend it determines the quality of our lives.
The hour you’re forced to spend in gridlock today can never be replaced. The opportunity for spending that hour pleasantly is gone. The 20 minutes you spend looking for a parking place is gone. The 10 minutes it takes you to back out of your driveway is time gone. And if it’s daily, that lost time adds up into days and weeks.
Traffic becomes a robber that steals pieces of your life. It causes frustration, anger, and sometimes serious results — as when you watch a beloved pet die because you can’t reach the vet in time to save it; or if you’re a doctor who can’t get to UCLA in time for a professional meeting; or gridlocked traffic on the way home from Little League means dinner will be late for the whole family; or when you’re transporting someone in pain to a hospital and the traffic is inching. Residents care very much about time.
If you evaluate in dollars, try determining what your time is worth per hour, then value in dollars what it costs you if you’re forced to sit in gridlock. Maybe you’ll start to understand why residents are so angry over the outrageous development being crammed down their throats while their concerns are ignored and belittled.
City staff has produced a sky-high stack of documents in service of facilitating the developers. A new general plan, new specific plans, new zoning ordinances, a slew of development agreements, all adding up to thousands of pages. Residents spend countless hours reading these, but they can’t keep up. They go to the City Council and speak, often 90 or 100 of them at a single council meeting. Their presentations are excellent, well researched, yet routinely ignored.
Meanwhile, lobbyists sit in the back of the council chambers and communicate with city staff and certain council members by texting. I’ve seen one of the Planning Department stalwart’s pass the cell phone around so all the assembled staff could read it. I also notice certain council members sit through public comment totally uninterested, then pull out a pre-written motion during discussion. I’m guessing that the pre-written motion was written by a lobbyist who is carefully orchestrating the discussion from the back of council chambers.
This is a rigged game. Rigged by developer money given in support of certain council members. Rigged by the mutual understanding of mutual benefit between city staff and the developer community. Rigged by the disproportionate time allotment between staff, developers, and residents. The game is to cajole, placate, ignore, manipulate, and nullify residents’ anger and concerns.
Developers and fellow travelers present sleek, attractive drawings that enhance the “benefits” they’re selling with practiced language that avoids the negatives and sells the benefits in honeyed tones and hypnotic voices. The unvarnished truth is not expressed or welcomed. Instead, a parade of toned down “Elmer Gantry” types use every focus group phrase ever invented to sell the project.
The city held a meeting in the east wing of the Civic Center to allow residents to comment on the Downtown Specific Plan before it was finalized. There was an open mic, no time limit. It was scheduled for two and one half hours. It actually went on for four and a half hours. The residents’ rage in that room was stunning, continuous and almost unanimous.
But nothing changed.
The city staff and developer reports and City Council comments remind me of the investment banking stars who sold brokers their deals. Toned down arrogance, selling skills so well honed you hardly noticed how many times your intelligence was insulted. But there are phrases they all used, like an in-house language. One phrase common in Santa Monica is “traffic is a regional problem. It started back in the 1960s.” The silent subtext is, “We can’t do anything about it: therefore, we can stuff as many cars onto our streets as the developers need. Traffic is a regional problem.”
Truth is … in l991 when I moved my business, and in l994 my residence, to Santa Monica, there were no traffic problems.
They started Downtown when the city built the transit mall. Previously you’d drive off the freeway at Fifth Street into a one-way street traveling north. Broadway, Santa Monica Boulevard and Fourth Street were four lane streets. Traffic in Downtown flowed easily.
Then the city made Fifth Street two-way and removed the middle lane from traffic bearing. They removed traffic lanes from Broadway, Santa Monica Boulevard and Fourth Street. Traffic problems started in the Bergamot area with the construction of the Water Garden and Yahoo Center. Santa Monica’s traffic problems are recent, self-created and have increased with recent construction. The traffic management programs have far too many loopholes to be effective.
The residents have listed traffic as their No. 1 concern for about 10 years. A city with a conscience would see that as a problem to solve and would responsibly limit development to avoid exacerbating its number one problem.
But that would be inconvenient for developers and the city seeking maximum dollar returns. So “traffic” is filed under “oh well” and dismissed with the mythical, “It’s a regional problem.”
As the anger rises, keep in mind that all development agreements are subject to referendums. Will we care if the developers are upset? More likely, we’ll dance in the streets.
Ellen Brennan, former stockbroker, and 19-year Santa Monica resident authored this column. Our Town members can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.