DOWNTOWN — On May 6, a crowd of over 300 people gathered in the east wing of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.
The atmosphere was charged with emotion as resident after resident spoke without the constraint of the normal three-minute time limit about their fears, concerns and anger with a planning process that they believed would turn the Santa Monica they know and love into just another “Miami Beach.”
“I’m here tonight to tell you that as residents we must take back our city,” Diana Gordon, co-chair of Santa Monicans for a Livable City, told a mostly silent Planning Commission and supporters that night.
Gordon and a group of community leaders had advocated for the meeting to have an open airing of issues with the Downtown Specific Plan, an effort to take the broad outlines of the Land Use and Circulation Element passed in 2010 and fill in detail about how Downtown will develop over the course of the next 17 years.
The forum was seen by some as a chance to grab back the reins of the runaway carriage that the Downtown Specific Plan process had become and reassert the supremacy of residents over commercial interests, particularly with regards to heights and densities envisioned for new buildings and the congestion many fear will result.
The importance of the moment translated into passion, which created a climate that some would later describe as “intimidating” and off putting to those with other opinions about the role that tall, dense development could play in the urban core of Santa Monica.
Many others believe that the dialogue both that night and at recent public meetings has been remarkably civil given the nature of the issues involved, and that attempts to characterize the discussions as vitriolic are the work of those that would marginalize the growing number of Santa Monicans that have taken up the cause of protecting their community.
Either way, the night provided a snapshot of the increasingly heated discourse that has focused on development in recent times, which some believe has hit a new level even for a city with a tradition of engagement like Santa Monica.
New under the sun
Those who have a long view of Santa Monica politics have seen these fights before, although some feel that it’s worse now than ever before.
Seven years ago, a group of residents coalesced into Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, galvanized by a proposal to recreate the Santa Monica Place mall, this time with three, 21-story towers capped with high-priced condominiums.
Prior to that, there had been a period of relative calm that began in 1981 when politicians backed by Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights claimed a majority of spots on the City Council, interrupted only between 1984 and 1988 when SMRR lost the majority position and large office developments were approved, said Denny Zane, a co-founder of SMRR.
Similar to the current discussion about “opportunity sites,” and especially three hotels proposed in Downtown that all include extra height for condominiums, the Macerich proposal to redevelop Santa Monica Place was jarring for community members who felt that there must be some tacit approval by city officials for a developer to bring forward plans so far in excess of normal zoning standards, Zane said.
“The sour taste of mistrust was left among people who were particularly concerned about development,” Zane said.
That suspicion seems to have resurfaced over the course of the Downtown Specific Plan debate, with some speakers repeatedly accusing both city officials and electeds of being in cahoots with developers and deliberately cutting residents out of the process.
Although the circumstances seem familiar, the level of fear in the community feels new, said Patricia Hoffman, a co-chair of SMRR.
“It’s not normal at all. It’s rarely, if ever, this bad,” Hoffman said.
She chalks it up to a confluence of circumstances, particularly the fact that what happens today will have wide-ranging implications in Santa Monica for the next 20 years.
“There’s an intensity because there is a feeling that all could be lost,” Hoffman said.
Looking to the future
That’s what got Steve Duron involved.
In the grand scheme of things, Duron, a six-year resident of Santa Monica, is a relative newcomer to local politics. He mounted an unsuccessful campaign for City Council in the November 2012 election, but remained engaged and joined a growing band of fresh-faced slow-growth activists that have become staples at public meetings.
There are a number of big decisions being made all at once, Duron said, and they will have serious consequences for the future of the city in which he plans to raise his two young children.
“I am still involved because of the effect on my kids,” Duron said.
Duron and his one-time competitor for City Council, John C. Smith, believe that the anger swelling up in community groups stems from a frustration that at such a critical time for Santa Monica, their elected officials are not listening.
“That’s why people feel they need to lash out,” Duron said. “Without that feeling of representation or having your back covered, people feel fed up.”
The sense that city officials just aren’t listening extends past the Downtown Specific Plan to a general sense amongst some frustrated Santa Monicans that business interests come first.
Laura Wilson has lived in Santa Monica for over a decade, but only recently became engaged in local politics. Her gateway issue: The conversion of a building that was once a hotel and apartment complex into a pure hotel, and the problems that have emerged in her quiet neighborhood as a result.
Wilson took to the problem with fervor, researching the history of the space, the applicable municipal codes and even visiting the property now known as Palihouse. A month ago, she received a cease and desist letter from the hotel via Fedex banning her from the lobby of the property.
She feels that she’s found no help within City Hall, despite meetings with officials and appearances at public meetings. She also spoke at the May 6 meeting at the Civic Center, which she discovered after taking her case to the Wilshire Montana Neighborhood Coalition, also called Wilmont.
“Part of it is that you’re reaching out to people that you need help from, and they’re introducing me to other issues,” Wilson said.
Solutions to the problem seem few and far between, although whispers of recalling City Council members have begun popping up in conversation and on social media sites.
Amidst the tension, some are working to forge a separate peace.
Former mayor Michael Feinstein and former columnist Frank Gruber made the opening play at the end of June when they organized a discussion complete with a professional panel to give people a chance to talk through the issues at hand without the formality and lack of back and forth imposed by the public podium.
The new planning process is taking the discussion away from the broad goals and theories in the LUCE — namely a focus on controlling the negative impacts of development by concentrating new building in Downtown, near transit and protecting the sanctity of neighborhoods — and getting down to the nitty-gritty of how such tasks can be accomplished.
“There was a sense of security that was based in generalities,” Feinstein said.
He believes that if people can continue to speak about their differing visions for Santa Monica and how they might be realized, a true consensus can be reached without creating permanent scars.
The fact that he and Gruber put the June event together has its own poetic perfection — the pair were on opposite sides of the Civic Center Specific Plan issue, which ultimately went to voters in a contentious referendum in 1994.
“If one really believes in community, the most important time to keep lines of communication open is when the stakes are highest, and the risk of disappointment seems the greatest,” Feinstein said.