When someone retires from their nine-to-five to pursue writing or painting, it implies their day job was something lacking the creativity or that perhaps life required them to deviate from their passion.
Sara Lejeune’s story certainly has the foundation for that well-worn trope. Her Los Angeles life began as a performance artist Downtown working amid the HIV/Aids crisis and she’s now looking back on 19 years as a planner with the City of Santa Monica, but her story isn’t one of creativity delayed, rather it’s about creativity, art and social action channeled into a career.
“Santa Monica has always been exciting,” she said. “City making is an art form.”
Lejeune graduated with a degree in art but also studied architecture. She said her first post-graduation plan was to build hospitals but an internship clarified her goals.
“I realized what I wanted to do was make things better for the community and I saw I could do that better as a planner than an architect,” she said.
She moved to Los Angeles where she initially worked as a performance artist Downtown. Both the art and the location came to inform her future work in Santa Monica.
As an artist working with people, she learned the value of communication and community engagement. She said Santa Monica has remained a place where residents want to be active in civic life and she said recent hearings about the Downtown Specific Plan show the value of public input.
“We have a really thoughtful and diligent leadership,” she said. “The community is engaged and they do shape the city. We work on the community priorities and those priorities do change, but we’re always working on the forefront of what the city has asked for.”
Mayor Kevin McKeown acknowledged her public outreach.
“Sarah has been an invaluable asset to our local land use planning process, because she contributed almost two decades of experience and insight,” he said. “We’ll miss Sarah’s perspective on the impacts of changes over time, and her understanding that creating Santa Monica’s future is an ongoing and very public process.”
Working downtown forced her to rely on a car and as an East Coast transplant she said one of her first thoughts about Los Angeles was that the area needed a train. Almost 20 years later, Lejeune helped plan for Expo’s arrival and she said it was incredibly exciting to work on a project that fulfilled a two-decade old desire.
In addition to the Expo stations Lejeune has worked on the Village at Santa Monica, Tongva Park, the Santa Monica Swim Center and Virginia Avenue Park. She concludes her career with the Downtown Specific Plan and said she looks back on her accomplishments with pride.
“Sarah was involved in many important projects and plans during her time as a planner in Santa Monica,” said director of Planning & Community Development, David Martin. “In particular, Sarah’s work in the Civic Center area on the recently completed Village mixed-use housing project helped to transform a previously under developed part of the City into a vibrant new neighborhood with over 300 residential units. Additionally, Sarah has always been a pleasure to work with and her hard work and enthusiasm for the job has resulted in important contributions to the City of Santa Monica.”
While Lejeune’s art may have been the prompt for her career, the work has been a source of ongoing inspiration for her art. She has a piece of public art on display in San Diego at Mission Beach and has maintained active art projects throughout her working life.
In retirement she will begin editing her recently finished novel and will continue with visual art. She said her working life contributed to her personal writing, as she wanted to create something of significance just as the projects she’d worked on influenced the community. The actual work of writing and refining documents also helped with the actual writing of the novel.
Lejeune said she expects to stay involved in planning as a consultant but that she’s confident Santa Monica is in good hands.
“Change happens,” she said. “We have a remarkable community who will do their best to channel positive change. We succeeded at creating positive change. Change is inevitable but the strength of the city is to make it positive.”