I grew up in the 80’s in Dogtown, where local skater kids took over swimming pools and generally ran amok throughout the neighborhoods of Venice and Santa Monica. It was a cultural flash point that reverberated across the country. It was punk. It was gritty. It was cool.
Those kids were an emblem of an era of decay, a counter cultural response to the lingering remnants of 1950’s America, now in disarray. The pier was in ruins and a fight raged on whether or not to demolish it. What is now the promenade was due for a new transformation, which it would eventually get in Gehry’s Santa Monica Place and the current pedestrian promenade. A city that had been run mostly by the chamber of commerce, was in need of some new ideas, some new blood.
It was time for a new vision.
The 70’s and 80’s in Santa Monica followed years of quick development after World War II. The expanded development led to real changes in our city and how it operated. We were always a tourist town, but we’d also been the home of Douglas aircraft, and slowly after the war the kinds of blue-collar jobs that Douglas brought us were in decline.
The rampant development that had followed soldiers coming home and like now, an acknowledged need for more housing, meant that the city’s housing changed dramatically.
There were years in the 1960’s where apartment complex development outpaced single family development nearly 100 to 1. Small beach bungalows gave way to multifamily buildings and for some there was a loss of the city’s charm and character. By the time the 70’s and 80’s had come, there was a feeling of wanting to protect neighborhoods from further development. What many might deem as NIMBYism thrived.
The building of the 10 freeway, which displaced many of the low-income folks living in the Pico neighborhood and disproportionately affected African American citizens, had brought with it new access to our city and put us at the end of a freeway to Florida. But it also meant that we were trading that access for a loss of blue-collar folks and people of color. In a word, gentrification had come to Santa Monica.
In the midst of this gentrification and rising rents we saw a political movement, SMRR, or Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, that would form in 1979 and fully control the city by 1983. They worked their butts off to change the face of our city, gaining rent control protections and in many ways creating the city we live in now, affectionately deemed the People’s Republic of Santa Monica.
And the pendulum swung — in the last 40 years development permits for multifamily housing seemed to sputter and then stall. For example, from 2014-2018 Santa Monica issued building permits for just 12 multifamily buildings (vs. 1,404 in 1967-68). And it’s no wonder, our building and development restrictions are world famous for being unbelievably difficult. Talk to any contractor and they will tell you that building anything in Santa Monica feels impossible.
So now where are we? It seems that the pendulum has swung back again and due to the state mandates, we are seeing extensive development along Lincoln and elsewhere, creating a new higher density corridor of roughly 16 developments and 4500 units. The city’s face is once more changing and with it will undoubtedly come unforeseen consequences in the form of more traffic and strain on our public services.
We are once more in a governance of reaction instead of vision. We reacted to the overdevelopment of the 1950’s and 60’s with stymied development. Now we are reacting to the stymied development with what I would argue is overdevelopment. Where is the middle ground? Where is the vision?
More than the nuts and bolts of building new housing is the question of where we’re going? I am grateful for SMRR and the hard work they have done for more than 40 years to make our city what it is. But it is time for new voices to enter the conversation. It is time, like the 1970’s for a new vision, a new direction. One that is not in reaction to, but is instead forward thinking and brings with it a clear sense of who we are and who we want to be.
Not slow growth, not lightning growth, but steady growth.
I don’t know what that vision is, and I hope that we will see politicians who bring it forth in our next election. But more than politicians I want to reconsider how we govern — how we run things and who makes the all-important decisions that affect us all.
The existing institutions that make us who we are, deserve their seat at the table, but it is time for a changing of the guard. It’s time for a new vision. It’s time to rethink how we do what we do.
In the next few columns, we will explore what these ideas and questions might look like.
Miles Warner is a Santa Monica parent and resident. His column will explore the emerging and changing identity of our city and stir the pot…just a little bit