CITY HALL — As of Friday at 4:30 p.m., eight civic-minded souls had put themselves up for consideration for a single vacancy on the Planning Commission, a role that offers up long hours, little recognition and a huge amount of influence on land use decisions in Santa Monica.
That role is only magnified this year as Santa Monica continues several major planning efforts, including the Downtown Specific Plan, Bergamot Area Master Plan and the zoning ordinance update.
All three will define the kinds of development and uses that occur throughout the city and will be inextricably linked to the coming of the Exposition Light Rail line in 2015.
Land use is one of the main powers that local government holds, said City Manager Rod Gould, and the Planning Commission has a big say in how that plays out in Santa Monica, including permitting processes in which they have the last word.
“In many cases, unless it’s appealed, the Planning Commission decision is final and binding,” Gould said. “It’s not for every casual volunteer. Happily, in Santa Monica there are quite a few people to provide the effort and work to do the job well.”
The spot opened up after former Planning Commissioner Ted Winterer became the top votegetter in the Nov. 6 election and ascended to the City Council, the body that appoints commissioners and the only place to appeal decisions made by the commission.
Contenders include the technically-minded like civil engineer Armen Melkonians and software developer Valerie Griffin and those with extensive planning and land use backgrounds including Leslie Lambert, Kent Smith and Renee Weitzer, who have each spent at least a portion of their career working for municipalities.
Frank Gruber, a former planning commissioner himself, spent over a decade following issues that came before the commission and analyzing them in his weekly column before taking a leave of absence to run for the City Council in November.
Laurence Eubank, a member of the Wilshire-Montana Neighborhood Coalition, and Jodi Summers have each worked in different aspects of the real estate world.
Melkonians was originally inspired to run for City Council in the November election out of concern for new development coming in around the future Exposition Light Rail Line. The Planning Commission would help him serve the same goals, Melkonians said.
“Ultimately, my goal is to try to make Santa Monica a better place to live,” he said.
A civil engineer by trade, Melkonians is concerned not that development is necessarily inappropriate or excessive, but that it’s outpacing expectations built into critical planning documents like the 2010 Land Use and Circulation Element, or LUCE, and that infrastructure will suffer as a result.
“I just think that if we don’t do it in a technically sound manner, we will end up with a city that has a lot of traffic instead of all of the things promised in these picturesque plans,” he said.
Griffin was the first to announce her bid for the Planning Commission spot.
Formerly the chair of the Wilmont neighborhood group, Griffin is a regular at public meetings and is responsible for an analysis of planning assumptions around office space use that revealed potential problems with several environmental impact reports in the city.
She sees herself as a holistic thinker who approaches problems across systems, and also as one of the few applicants who has involved themselves in the local neighborhood groups and worked with City Hall to influence planning through public process.
“It’s a tremendous amount of work, but I want to be participating in this,” Griffin said. “I want to be part of turning the LUCE into more than just a vision.”
If approved, Lambert will be up for round two on the Planning Commission.
Now retired, the 34-year Santa Monica resident served on the commission from 1987 to 1990 after six years spent on the Rent Control Board.
“I’m a glutton for punishment,” she said.
Lambert spent 27 years of her career involved in planning and redevelopment where she worked with the Los Angeles City Council, developers and community stakeholders to create projects that included community benefits agreements.
She hopes that she would be able to make sure that development continues responsibly in Santa Monica, and is an advocate of affordable and workforce housing.
“(Santa Monica) is a really livable city, and I think it should stay as such,” Lambert said.
Smith is no stranger to planning himself.
Now the executive director of the Los Angeles Fashion District, Smith worked as a senior planner in Vancouver, Canada focused on land use plans for neighborhoods surrounding its Skytrain transit stops.
That puts him in a good position to offer up information about the incoming light rail line, he said.
“I think all of us have been looking forward to the arrival of light rail to the city,” Smith said. “The challenge is how to make use of that light rail facility to increase the quality of life in the city.”
Weitzer is also involved in Los Angeles planning as a land use deputy with the city. Her family has also owned a business in Santa Monica, the Woodley Tire Co., for three decades.
She’s worked on large projects in Los Angeles, including The Grove shopping center near Third Street and Fairfax Avenue. As a commissioner, Weitzer says she would pay attention to the neighborhoods and work with people there to extract community benefits from developers.
“They should benefit the people that live there,” Weitzer said.
Like Lambert, Gruber will also be seeking a second term on the Planning Commission. He first served between 1995 and 1999, and is interested in bringing the Land Use and Circulation Element to life.
He’s also taken part in the Design Working Group for Downtown and his local neighborhood group, the Ocean Park Association.
“Above all, my goals would be to use the tools and authority the Planning Commission has to maintain Santa Monica as a city that is a good and healthful, safe, inclusive and vibrant place to live and work …,” Gruber wrote in his application.
Eubank now calls himself a writer, but he spent 35 years self-employed in residential and commercial construction.
His goals include the “intelligent development of a splendid city using my decades of planning, zoning, construction, financial and real estate experience,” he wrote in his application.
Finally, Summers, a realtor for Sotheby’s International Realty has also thrown her hat in the ring.
As a real estate professional, Summers focuses on the look and feel of buildings and ensuring they reach their “highest and best use.”
Her goal is for “Santa Monica to be a well-organized, aesthetically-pleasing, easy-to-navigate, dynamic and fun community for residents, business people and visitors to enjoy and appreciate,” according to her application.
Gould doesn’t envy the City Council their task on Jan. 22 in choosing amongst these and whatever other applicants may enter the fray before the Jan. 15 deadline.
“I don’t know them all, but it’s a strong group of folks ready to step up and take the vacant seat,” Gould said.
Planning commissioners are paid $25 for each of their meetings with a cap of $100 per month, according to the Planning Commission website. That amount can increase based on inflation.