Santa Monica City Hall (File photo)

If you live or work in Santa Monica, your heart might be feeling more than a bit anxious, concerned and even wounded by all that has happened in our beautiful city these past few months.

The pandemic was bad enough… then just when our shuttered businesses and economy were starting to reopen, throngs of angry people attacked our city, looting and damaging hundreds of businesses, virtually unabated, as we and the world watched it all unfold on our televisions.

Both events have left huge scars… the HEART of our city is wounded… but TONIGHT, your City Council has the chance to make a decision that will help heal and the very heart of our city.

TONIGHT the Council must reject the construction of a huge, 11-story hotel, retail, office, housing complex at 4th, 5th and Arizona ON PUBLIC PROPERTY, and work to create an urban oasis of true, ground-level park space in the HEART of Downtown.

Last Thursday, at a Special Meeting of the Recreation and Parks Commission, our first since the pandemic, the Commission voted unanimously for the third time in four years to urge the Council to:

1) Abandon negotiations with the developer,

2) Build a true public park on public land at the site, and

3) Direct staff to explore ways a public-private partnership might raise the money for a park and the underground parking garage that could help pay for it.

Here’s why:

—The “Plaza Project” is too big for the site and will dwarf everything around it.

—The land this huge hotel would be built on is PUBLIC PROPERTY, paid for by you.

—Most residents will NEVER stay in this hotel or be able to afford the cost of even a single night there.

—The current deal is a bad deal and calls for a 99-year lease for a mega-project on PUBLIC property in exchange for a few million dollars a year in tax revenue.

—The city does NOT have a completed “deal” yet with the developer. What they HAD was an “Exclusive Negotiating Agreement” or “ENA” which expired a year after it was signed several years ago and for good reason: The project was a bad idea then when it and is even worse now. It is NOT a “done” deal, despite what the developer says. A “done deal” is bit like a marriage. An ENA is essentially a “promise ring.” It’s not the same thing. And it expired years ago.

—Tourism revenues have cratered since the pandemic. They’d been flattening for years even before the coronavirus hit. Retailers big and small are leaving our city daily. The promenade is a ghost town. Many businesses are boarded up and will never return. Vacancies were already common along such streets as Main and Montana. So why would our Council vote to continue the same outdated strategies in pursuit of tourism dollars when so many other hotels in the city are hurting? Our reputation as a safe tourist destination was already declining due to rising crime and the negative perceptions of widespread homelessness. Then images of violence and looting circled the world for all to see. Try putting THAT in a “Visit Santa Monica” ad.

—There is not a single acre of park space in the official ‘Downtown’ area bordered by Wilshire Blvd. and the 10 Freeway, Ocean Ave. and Lincoln Blvd. Not one. By any standard of measurement, we are a park-poor city, especially north of Colorado and especially Downtown.

—A new park at 4/5/AZ would be in the very center of our Downtown. Other cities have them. Other cities have created them. Why not us? This may be our only chance for generations to create a central park that will serve generations of people long after we’re gone.

—The project provides very little ground-level “open space” on such a huge site. Even the ice-skating rink area will be smaller. The developer claims there will be ample public space on “plazas” at various levels of the hotel, but they will never be truly public space and will also be used for hotel events.

Our job as Parks Commissioners is to guide and advise Council on matters relating to parks and recreation. We first did this in 2017 when the Downtown Community Plan was being debated. We called for 2/3 of the site to be devoted to ground-level park space, leaving room for affordable housing and/or a smaller hotel.

That same week I wrote an editorial urging Council to consider a park, and buy the old Post Office and turn it into a City Hall Annex, instead of the $140 million dollar building that now sits behind City Hall. A new park in the heart of our city, across the street from a repurposed Post Office City Hall North would have gone a long way toward putting some “community” into the “Downtown Community Plan.”

The Council did not listen.

In 2019 our Commission tried again, advocating for a park as part of the EIR process for the hotel project.

Then came Thursday’s Commission vote. 7-0, for a park, our third such vote in four years. At a meeting city staff at first refused to let us hold. At a meeting we had to lobby hard for to get the item on the agenda.

Our City has made many decisions over the past few years. And I will not debate the merits of the ones already made. But I will say this: The mistakes are starting to add up. And it would be a HUGE MISTAKE to grant a developer a 99-year lease and the right to build a mega-hotel project on PUBLIC LAND in the heart of our city.

Many resident groups and residents will be at tonight’s Council meeting, virtually asking the Council to finally make the right decision and devote public land to the public, instead of some big developer.

Please join us tonight. Send the council your thoughts in a short email. Developers and attorneys will be cued up and ready with talking points, blathering on about how great the project will be for our city.

They are wrong, and the council will be as well if they approve this project.

We can stop it in an election year if enough of us raise our collective voices loud enough. We can finally create a public park in the HEART of our city that people will enjoy long after we’re gone.

It’s the right decision. Your Santa Monica Recreation and Parks Commission has made that right decision and advised the Council three times now.

Urge the Council to make the right one tonight and tell them you won’t vote for them if they don’t.

Maybe they’ll finally listen.

 

John C. Smith,

Former Chair & current member, Santa Monica Recreation and Parks Commission