Note: The SMa.r.t. guest author this week is longtime Santa Monica resident Richard Orton. He is concerned about the direction our beach town is taking and has been actively engaged in our community for decades.
I moved to Ocean Park in January 1970 when I was going to UCLA and I’ve lived and rented in this wonderful seaside neighborhood ever since.
But when I moved in, it was the slum of Santa Monica. It was the honky tonk part of town, a leftover from the decaying pier that burned down regularly over the next couple of years. Main Street, always the heart and soul of Ocean Park, was a collection of dive bars that served alcoholics and the Bible Way Mission was a flop house, ready to pick up the pieces after last call.
But even then, there was a hint of the future.
At the southern end of Main Street was The Oar House, started by Western Airlines Pilot, Al Ehringer in 1964. This popular spot was the destination for every college student in a 50 mile radius. It made a fortune for Ehringer, who came to be called Mr. Main Street, and his partners enabling them to buy up a lot of property along Main Street and improve it.
I think they were gifted developers, sensitive to the old buildings, keeping the low profile, neighborhood friendly walking street as it was. By 1980 Main Street was fashionable, prosperous, full of fine restaurants, bars and upscale shops and services. Property values in the adjacent neighborhood increased accordingly. Everybody was happy.
Then the city got involved.
Main Street merchants had complained that the parking lot to the west was always full, keeping shoppers away from their stores. The city’s answer was to suggest buildiing a two-story parking structure on the existing parking lot, west of Main Street.
Then somebody at city hall got the bright idea that affordable housing could be built on top of this structure. Soon it grew like a wedding cake with two levels of affordable housing and two more levels of parking for the people that lived there. This mammoth monster would be two blocks long, four stories tall, dominating the neighborhood and blocking ocean views up the hill. It was a bad idea.
This is when I got interested in local politics, joining forces with my local neighborhood association and many Main Street merchants opposed to this monstrosity. We pointed out to the city a very simple solution they hadn’t figured out on their own.
Beach goers filled up that parking lot because there was, at that time, no alternative to the all-day flat rate price charged at the nearby beach parking lot. Going to the beach for just a couple hours, people put money in the meters of the lot that served Main Street, went to the beach and came back a couple hours later, saving lots of money. Our group told the city that if there was short-term parking at the beach, the demand for the Main Street lot would diminish and there would be no need for a structure and everything that went with it.
So the city spent $50,000 on parking studies with happy results. The city council rejected the parking structure, short-term parking was implemented at the beach, and the lot west of Main Street was re-striped to accommodate even more cars.
The lesson here is that the city doesn’t always know best. And that continues to be the case.
In Ocean Park today, life is good and the sea breezes are gentle, but there are two issues everybody is concerned about, traffic and development. The two issues go hand in hand and communicating with City Hall about it is an ongoing frustration. Bob Taylor said it best in a Facebook post recently:
“… that Santa Monica has morphed into a situation where residents needs are subservient to commercial/tourist serving issues is why there is so much dissension in the community.”
The commercial development approved by the city council in the last 20 years has been explosive. Our 90,000 nighttime population swells to an estimated 250,000 during the day. The biggest consequence of this is that our roads become parking lots over extended rush hours. And in spite of this expanded need for road space, the city makes the totally illogical decision to narrow Ocean Park Blvd., east of Lincoln, from two lanes to one. It can sometimes take 20 minutes to get from the beach to Centinela using this route. Pointing this out to city officials is, just like in the 1980s, met with deaf ears. “The city knows best” attitude continues to rule at city hall and it is very frustrating.
What can be done about it? Who really calls the shots at City Hall? I don’t know, but if you haven’t been on a personal bus tour conducted by the city staff of all the primo development sites all over town, you can be sure it isn’t you.
For generations, Santa Monicans have asked city leaders to moderate the greed of developers. No matter who is elected, city council, and city staff, always seem to side with developer interests. Huge projects in the pipeline for approval paint an even bleaker future for our city. We need to stop it.
Richard Orton for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)