Former Speaker of the U.S. House Tip O’Neill coined the phrase, “All politics are Local.” Indeed, he’s correct. Certainly residents of a state as large as ours often feel that each voice is not heard effectively. But what happens when residents feel ignored on a micro scale, in their own neighborhoods and city? Even in Santa Monica, a city whose populace is engaged deeply in civic affairs, it seems that local government can forget to listen to its stakeholders.
The city’s principal stakeholders, its residents, are the employers of each and every employee of our local government. When it appears that the city’s staff isn’t listening, residents rightfully become frustrated and then angry. Many times, their frustration is not about the big picture, such as pending high-rises and large-scale developments — it’s about the little things. Potholes are usually fixed on a timely basis, and the city gets most things right, but little things that aren’t handled effectively cause civic stress. When residents feel they are being ignored and belittled, our highly educated populace rises up in anger.
Let’s look at a couple of the “little” things that cause residents to feel ignored.
Transportation and planning officials, after much public outreach and in conjunction with the Santa Monica-Malibu school district, recently switched Michigan Avenue between Lincoln Boulevard and 7th Street into a one-way westbound street. Simultaneously, 7th Street became a southbound one-way street in front of Santa Monica High School between Michigan and Pico. There were also a host of bicycle improvements. All these changes were designed to funnel the 3,100 students of Samohi and their parents to the corner of 7th and Michigan. Previously, the high school had four entrances to the campus. Due to safety and budgetary reasons, there is now one main entrance to Samohi. The compression to one entrance has caused this traffic nightmare at corner of Michigan and 7th Street. About 750 high school students are dropped off by automobile each weekday morning at Samohi. The switch is recent and it has, at least temporarily, increased congestion and confusion, especially at that corner. The confluence of cars, bicycles and pedestrians has stoked fears of traffic accidents to come.
The residents have asked for a crossing guard, or equivalent, at the crucial intersections, but have been rebuffed by Santa Monica police. The stop sign that has been installed in front of a crosswalk at 7th and Michigan faces northbound towards the new Innovations Building. The sign stands unseen by drivers until they are on top of the crosswalk. If you monitor the Parent Teacher Association online communication chains, you see that parents have been calling our police and planning departments and sending emails to City Council members, to no avail. For the amount of outreach and planning that went into this new street configuration, residents assume that city staff would be nimble and keep the safety of our teenagers paramount. They would hope that city staff might quickly adjust street signage to ensure safety on this heavily congested street.
It also strikes residents as ironic that over 700 high school students are driven to school each morning. It seems that our city is not “walking the walk” when it comes to helping our youth and their parents choose their transit options. Currently, there is a big “push” to have all junior college students in Los Angeles County ride for free on Metro. This effort by local and regional leaders should be applauded. However, we are appalled that the same zeal isn’t being applied to public high school students in our own city. We have a municipal bus system that is finally offering reduced rates for students via a monthly pass of $28. We believe that’s a start. However, it’s not nearly enough. Our city leaders talk continually about net-zero trips, sustainability and traffic demand management plans. Yet we’re not offering substantive alternatives that might reduce the 1,400-plus automobile trips each weekday to our high school. These cars converge on Lincoln one block from the entrance to Interstate 10. More pollution, congestion and frustration for residents occur each day as a result of the lack of alternative modes of transportation offered.
Don’t get us wrong. We’re all for sustainability and thoroughly in favor of teaching our kids that cars should not be the first option in our future Santa Monica. Let’s begin to “modernize” our transportation options for the over 3,000 young men and women who attend class at Samohi. Our city must offer free bus passes for students. We can tailor our bus routes so students would arrive at school on time each morning and make it home each afternoon without extensive waits at a bus stop. City leaders can begin to discuss rebuilding the pedestrian/bicycle bridge that spanned the freeway at 7th Street for decades. This would make it possible for students on the north side of the city to walk or ride their bikes safely to Samohi. Let’s allow our future leaders to see that our current leaders are truly walking that proverbial walk. Our work should include safe streets with effectively designed pedestrian zones, free bus rides for our students on our municipally owned Big Blue Bus, and great bicycle routes.
Our city manager has added several positions to our communications and public affairs department. Why not give this new staff the laudable goal of broadcasting a successful reduction of traffic to and from our high school each day?
Finally, on our list of the “little things,” there is some good news. Members of the Recreation and Parks Commission noticed that the Milken Family Foundation building at 1250 4th St., had a locked courtyard on the west side of the property. Upon investigation, it was found that the courtyard was meant to be public. This was an example of noncompliance with a planning document from 1987. After a cordial conversation with the building owners, we now have a beautiful courtyard open to the public each day during lunch hours. That’s a welcome enhancement. On the same line of thinking, Recreation and Parks commissioners would like to see the “One West Bank” Plaza at the corner of 4th Street and Wilshire Boulevard activated as well. We support that quest. Open public space that becomes an empty barren patch of concrete is not a benefit to our residents. There might be some slightly used Santa Monica bus benches available on the cheap! Perhaps some of them could be installed there. Food carts and a floral cart could enliven that plaza as well. You can envision a lively active space at that corner.
It’s the little accomplishments in a city that matter, and the importance of their impact on our daily lives. It is so important for each resident to be valued … and heard.
Phil Brock, Chair, Recreation and Parks Commission for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)
Ron Goldman FAIA, Thane Roberts AIA, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Bob Taylor AIA, Sam Tolkin Architect, Armen Melkonians Civil & Environmental Engineer, Phil Brock Chair, Recreation & Parks Commission. SMa.r.t. is a group of Santa Monica Architects concerned about the city’s future. For previous articles, see santmonicaarch.wordpress.com/writings.