By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. March 21, 2016

In our highly dense City, the need for more public open space is acute. Even if we doubled our current amount tomorrow, we would still be far below the bare minimum recommended for U.S. cities.

In the early-to-mid 1990s this scarcity led to a broad movement uniting the local sports and open space communities, as well as Santa Monica’s neighborhood groups, to strongly advocate for more parks, recreational facilities and open space.

In March 1995 the Santa Monica Youth Athletic Foundation was founded, with a 50 member board uniting leaders from the sports and business communities, youth-serving non-profits, and representatives from the City, School District and College.

They published a landmark document called “A Call to Action: An Assessment of Athletic Facility Needs in Our Community”. At 44 pages, A Call to Action comprehensively identified needs, problems and solutions for a wide range of sports, and helped make addressing them a campaign issue in the 1996 City Council elections.

By summer 1997, the City Council approved an ambitious Open Space Element and a Recreation and Parks Master Plan. The City has made a lot of progress since then, improving existing parks, building great new ones, and implementing the school parks program with the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.

At the same time – especially in Santa Monica, where available land is scarce and expensive – it’s not easy to gain new open space on the scale and pace we’d like, let alone fund its construction, programming, operation and maintenance.

Open space budget set-asides

In response to community calls, the Council put aside $3.5 million for open space acquisition in the FY 1997-1998 budget. This gave the City flexibility to make a key purchase when land became available – which it did at 2101 and 2115 Pico Boulevard (the old Plastic Mart and the building adjacent) next to Virginia Avenue Park. Those buildings were renovated and became part of the Park, and today house approximately 14,600 square feet for youth oriented program activities.

Smaller budget set-asides for open space acquisition were approved by the Council the next two years. Then the practice disappeared, as competing priorities began to take precedent. At the same time, City revenue fell substantially as a result of the recession of 2001 and the effects of September 11th upon tourism. Then the state of California began taking money from cities to balance its own budget, compounding the problem. All of that meant fewer available dollars for discretionary projects and programs, including land acquisition. But the City still had its Redevelopment Agency (RDA) funds, which allowed it to continue to do many great things.

Then in 2011 Governor Jerry Brown took a meat cleaver to the RDA Funds, cutting off a major source of City funding for affordable housing, parks, libraries and earthquake retrofits (of public parking structures) since the late 1990s, after the 1994 Northridge Earthquake led to the creation of a redevelopment area in Santa Monica.

The cost of gentrification

The irony is that what we do in Santa Monica to promote a high quality of life here also raises the cost of land, and therefore makes it more expensive to accomplish many public policy goals. The RDA funds gave Santa Monica a chance to reinvest part of that increased value – generated by public investment and public policy – back into the community.

Now the RDA funds are gone, but the cost of land continues to rise. With the advent of the Expo light rail line, it is even more so – gentrification accelerated by the expenditure of public dollars, but without a tax strategy to recycle that gentrification back for public purposes. (Amending statewide Proposition 13 via a Land Value Tax that would raise the tax on land, and lower it on structures, would address this.)

At the same time, the local election ballot has been crowded with numerous other revenue measures. Since the passage of the Open Space Element in 1997, Santa Monica voters have seen $427 million in local School District bonds, $590 million in Santa Monica College bonds, School District parcel taxes, a $42 million City library bond and a Clean Beaches and Oceans Parcel Tax, along with amending the Transit Occupancy Tax, the Real Estate Transfer Tax and the Transactions and Use Tax. And that doesn’t include the multiple county and state bonds and revenue measures during this time.

So even in a community like Santa Monica, where open space and recreational facility expansion is a high priority, and meaningful resources exists, there are many competing and complicating factors. That’s why two unique opportunities for new open space should be celebrated – the Countywide Parks Needs Assessment, and proposed new urban open space at the 5th/Broadway.

Countywide Parks Needs Assessment 

The County of Los Angeles is conducting a Countywide Parks Needs Assessment. The goal is to inform future open space planning and funding needs countywide. The County is identifying priority projects for 189 study areas. Santa Monica is one of them.

On Tuesday the City Council will vote to transmit Santa Monica’s priority list to the County Department of Parks & Recreation. The Countywide Assessment will go to the Board of Supervisors in May. While the assessment is formally separate and distinct from any future bond measure, there is the expectation that the Supervisors will ultimately place a county wide parks bond on a future ballot.

If passed, the City would get a proportionate share of the revenue. The highest priorities identified in the City Staff Recommendation include three long-standing community goals and plans:

• Expanding Memorial Park to include the 2.91 acre former Fisher Lumber site

• Building a sports field at 4th/Pico (on a portion of the land that currently serves as the Civic Center Parking Lot)

• Expanding Airport Park on 12 acres of non-aviation land (over which the City regained control after the expiration of the 1984 Agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration in July 2015).

Fortunately in all three of these cases, the City already owns the land, and now “only” needs to fund design and construction. The County will be doing a cost estimate, as if all of the projects identified in the report were to be implemented. Then there will be a process to align those desires with a dollar amount the voters would approve. Although there is no guarantee about which, if any, of Santa Monica’s priorities would be funded, the City has a positive record with past County bonds.

In 1992, County Proposition A provided $540 million in funding over a 22-year period for parks and recreation projects countywide, including approximately $10 million for Santa Monica – including $3.9 for Palisades Park improvements, as part of the late 1990s/early 2000s BIG (Beach Improvement Group) Project, which also included renovation of Ocean Front Walk south of the Pier to Marine Street. County funds have also funded improvements for Clover, Euclid, Joslyn, Marine, Ozone and Reed parks. (The County has an online mapping tool parksprojects.lacounty.gov that is searchable by city and can be referenced for grant-funded projects including dollar amounts allocated and a concise summary of what each project entailed.) A supplemental measure to Proposition A passed in 1996 and provided an additional $319 million in funding, and will expire in 2017. So the time to plan the next County bond is now.

Whether the new County bond will fund all or only part of Santa Monica’s priority list, its going to help move some important long-awaited local projects forward, just like it has in the past. This is a critical momentum step for our local open space movement. If you haven’t already made yourself heard, let the City Council know your thoughts via an email to council@smgov.net or come to City Hall on Tuesday night. It is item #8B, following #8A, the Santa Monica Airport Leasing Policy item. So it should be a fascinating night at City Hall.

Urban open space at 5th/Broadway

One way of gaining new open space is acquiring more publicly-owned land. As we’ve seen, that can be expensive. Another is having it included as part of private development. That can be tricky.

While most private projects are built on smaller parcels where open space potential is limited, in a handful of cases in our downtown, there are parcels large enough to provide interesting and relatively sizable open spaces. But that requires the right zoning and two parties willing to negotiate. Can we take advantage of these limited and unique opportunities?

Next week I’ll explore one such opportunity, where an interesting urban open space is proposed for the southeast corner of 5th/Broadway, as part of a project proposed for the Fred Segal site there.


Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004).  He can be reached via Twitter @mikefeinstein

Inside/Outside‘ is a periodic column about civic affairs Feinstein writes for the Daily Press, that takes advantage of his experience inside and outside of government.