DOWNTOWN — Mayor Ken Genser, a champion of renters’ rights who dedicated 30 years to serving the residents of Santa Monica, died Saturday, city officials said. Genser, 59, had been ill since October.

Genser, who had served on the City Council since 1988, is regarded as one of the city by the sea’s greatest civic leaders who fought tirelessly for the preservation of Santa Monica’s neighborhoods, the protection of tenant rights and the environment, as well as the creation of affordable housing and youth programs.

In addition to serving on the council, Genser was a member of the Planning Commission and was involved in the restoration of the Santa Monica Pier. He was a founding member of the city’s largest affordable housing developer, Community Corp. of Santa Monica, serving on the board from 1982 to 1988.

“It is with deep sadness that we mourn the loss of our Mayor Ken Genser, an indefatigable champion for quality of life in Santa Monica,” Mayor Pro Tem Pam O’Connor said in a prepared statement from City Hall. “Ken distinguished himself with a fierce intellect, passion for progressive social policy and compassion for people. He served the Santa Monica community throughout his lifetime and will be greatly missed.”

O’Connor said she will never forget Genser’s joy for life. Despite dealing with health problems in recent years, O’Connor said she never heard Genser whine or complain. And when it came to city business, Genser was dedicated.

“He was a fighter,” she said. “He was rigorous and analytical about the issues, analyzing them in terms of their human impacts.”

Councilmember Kevin McKeown said Genser’s loss is “incomprehensible” given that Genser, who was elected mayor three times by his colleagues on the dais, served on the council for over a third of the 64 years the body has been in existence.

“If you sleep safe in a rent-controlled apartment, or your family enjoys the security of affordable housing, or you earn the dignity of a living wage, Ken touched your life directly,” McKeown said. “He shared with us all a brilliant intellect, a bulldog’s tenacity, a compassionate spirit and the heart of a mensch. At just over five feet tall, Ken was a giant.”

Genser, who last attended a council meeting on Oct. 27, 2009, was brought to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center roughly 10 weeks ago complaining of severe back pain and a shortness of breath. Friends said Genser was suffering from pneumonia and was on blood thinners. He had a kidney transplant in 2006.

Genser “passed away peacefully with family and close friends by his side,” city officials said in a statement released by the city manager’s office.

This is the second death to a sitting council member in 12 months. Councilman Herb Katz lost a long battle with cancer in January, 2009.

Those who knew Genser, who graduated from Berkeley in 1972 with a degree in architecture and attended the Southern California Institute of Architecture, said he was a loyal friend who loved jazz, good design, playing poker with friends and Fosselman’s ice cream. He was also a bit of a prankster, keeping friends and colleagues on their toes.

In recent years he became increasingly concerned about gang violence and development, wanting to create more programs for youth while getting residents involved in the update to the Land Use and Circulation Element, a planning document that dictates development. He was also concerned about parking in Downtown and City Hall’s efforts to address homelessness.

“He was very dedicated to keeping this city livable for the residents, keeping development within reasonable bounds by not being overly zealous, but by being zealous,” said Michael Tarbet, an organizer with Santa Monicans For Renters’ Rights who first met Genser when he was organizing tenants of the Sea Castle Apartments against a planned eviction.

“Ken made good, tough decisions about development by not making rules that would make good developments impossible,” Tarbet said. “I really miss him. He knew everything there was to know about the city. He was so mature in making decisions and being fair, looking at all sides to do the right thing. He was my leader.”

Those who didn’t agree with Genser’s decisions still had respect for him because he gave respect back, willing to hear all arguments before coming to a conclusion. He was seen as being pragmatic but passionate, always moving the agenda forward.

“His leadership is something that will be missed,” said City Manager Lamont Ewell, who remembers having monthly meetings with Genser at Izzy’s Deli on Wilshire Boulevard, one of Genser’s favorite spots.

“We would spend an hour or an hour and a half talking about virtually everything, but it always ended with him going into his pocket and taking out a list of things he wanted me to take a look at,” Ewell said. “At the next [council] meeting I would bring the list back with what I found and sure enough, in true Ken fashion, he would pull out a new list.

“The lists never had anything that affected him personally or politically. It was always about someone else he had heard about who needed help or had some issue that was not being reviewed properly,” Ewell added. “I always admired him for his compassion for those who were in need. He was just an incredible person.”

Genser grew up in Ladera Heights and attended Inglewood High School where he first showed signs of activism, joining a student group promoting peace, said longtime friend Bruce Shragg, who met Genser in the fifth grade.

“He was just always interested in the community and he thought Santa Monica was a wonderful city,” Shragg said.

Four generations of Genser’s family have lived in Santa Monica. In 1943, his parents, both immigrants, were married in his grandmother’s apartment in Ocean Park. As a boy, his father worked on the old Ocean Park Pier. His grandfather was the contractor who built the Aero Theatre on Montana Avenue. Genser’s father was the first doorman.

Genser began his career in public service when he was appointed to the City Task Force for the Revision of the Housing Element and was chair of the Goals and Policies subcommittee from 1980 to 1982. That was after he helped create a tenants group to fight the Sea Castle evictions. In the late ‘80s he got involved in the fight against large, traffic-generating development in the eastside of town where the Water Garden and Yahoo Center stand today. He was also opposed to building luxury hotels along the beach.

Last year, when receiving the Church in Ocean Park’s Communitas Award, he said he never thought he would sit on the dais.

“My friends told me I should run for City Council,” Genser said as he accepted his award. “I never could imagine myself as someone who could be elected to office.”

On his Web site for his 2008 council campaign, Genser said he didn’t have all the answers, but he was committed to making Santa Monica great.

“Santa Monica is truly an amazing, inspiring, sometimes whacky but always wonderful town,” Genser wrote on the site. “I am blessed to live here, and truly honored to be entrusted to help manage our city.”

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to the Ocean Park Community Center.

A memorial service is being planned. No date has been set.

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