U.S. Reps to FAA: make up your administrative mind

A few weeks ago U.S. Representatives Ted Lieu and Karen Bass organized a meeting in Washington where Santa Monica officials and local residents could express their grievances about Santa Monica Airport to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials. The meeting had no concrete effect because the FAA had declared ahead of time that its representatives would not respond to anything that was said there, but the meeting did result in Reps. Lieu and Bass promising to press the FAA to issue an overdue decision in an administrative proceeding brought against the City by the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) and other aviation interests.

By way of background, the case Lieu and Bass referred to involves a grant of money Santa Monica received from the FAA for airport upgrades under a contract entered into in 1994. The contract obligated the City to assure continued operation of the airport, but for no longer than 20 years, i.e., the City’s obligations under the contract would terminate no later than 2014. This is important because the City was not going to accept any money from the FAA that would tie the City’s hands beyond the expiration of another agreement with the FAA, from 1984, that required the City to operate the airport only to July 1, 2015. (The City’s obligations under the 1994 contract are often referred to as “grant assurances,” and the case is often referred to as the “grant assurances case.”)

In 2003 the 1994 contract was amended to increase the amount of the FAA’s grant by about $240,000 because work contemplated in the 1994 agreement proved to be more expensive than anticipated. The amendment, however, left the remaining terms of the contract, including its 2014 expiration date, unchanged. Nonetheless, last year the NBAA was the lead plaintiff in an FAA administrative law proceeding demanding that the FAA tell the City that it was bound, because of the 2003 amendment, to keep the airport operating until 2023, i.e., 20 years after the increase in the grant.

For months now the grant assurances case has been fully briefed. The delay maintains the status quo at the airport, which must please the aviation parties who brought the action. Santa Monica wants a decision. Any decision (for reasons I’ll discuss below).

Last week Lieu and Bass acted on their promise and sent a letter to the FAA that not only asked the agency to make up its administrative mind, but also forcefully expressed the City’s case why the 2003 amendment did not extend the contract term. (You can read the letter here.)

The decision in the grant assurances case is of tremendous importance—but not, I would argue, for what the decision might be. Whatever the decision is, it will free the City to take drastic action regarding the airport.

More background. Santa Monica has brought its own lawsuit against the FAA to determine whether a 1948 agreement requires the City to operate the airport “in perpetuity.” The case now languishes, on appeal from a procedural decision against the City, in the Ninth Circuit. But the 1948 agreement should not apply to a large parcel of land (known as the “Western Parcel”) that includes 2,000 feet of SMO’s 5,000-foot runway. If the City is not otherwise obligated (such as because of the grant assurances) to keep the airport operating, then regardless of the enforceability of the 1948 agreement the City should be able to close down the Western Parcel and reduce the runway to not more than 3,000 feet. In that event the largest private jets would not be able to use SMO.

(Important parenthetical: the FAA disputes this, and says that the 1948 agreement would be violated if the City terminated aviation on the Western Parcel. But if the FAA does bring an action against the City on this issue, it will be better to litigate first over the Western Parcel than over the airport as a whole.)

But why do I say that the actual decision in the grant assurances case is not important?

What is hamstringing the City from pulling the trigger on the Western Parcel is not whether the FAA might rule that the 2003 amendment extended the grant assurances to 2023, but rather the fact that the case is still pending. The City Council decided over a year ago that if the 2003 increase in the grant did extend the term of the grant assurances, then to resolve the matter the City would repay the FAA the $240,000. While the City has made strong arguments on both procedural and substantive grounds for why the FAA should dismiss the case, in practical terms the only issue is whether the City gets to keep the $240,000.

In a post two weeks ago, I wrote that the City need not make any strategic decisions regarding the airport until it receives the FAA’s decision in the grant assurances case. True enough, but the Lieu/Bass letter focuses the mind. Why? It’s one thing for the City to be patiently waiting for the FAA to announce a decision in the case, but it’s quite another when two members of Congress call the FAA out on their delay.

The FAA’s decision should come soon, but no matter what the decision is, the City’s strategy should be the same: announce a closing date, as soon as practicable, for all aviation operations on the Western Parcel.

Thanks for reading.

An emerging consensus on what to build in Santa Monica?

After six years of communal agonizing over the LUCE and then another five spent on a new zoning code to implement the LUCE, is there finally a working consensus on what projects can be built in Santa Monica?

Based on actions the Planning Commission took last week, the answer may be yes.

Could our long local nightmare be over?

As reported here and here and here, the Planning Commission last week approved two mixed use (retail on the ground floor, housing on the floors above) projects downtown that would together add 163 needed apartments to Santa Monica’s inventory of housing. These are the first significant projects to come before the commission under the LUCE and since approval of the zoning ordinance, and since two new commissioners took office who were recently appointed by the slow(er) growth City Council majority.

One project, on the block of Fifth Street between Santa Monica Boulevard and Broadway, is about 52,500 square feet of development on a double lot (i.e., on 15,000 square feet of land). The other, on the northwest corner of Lincoln and Colorado, is about twice the size, 102,500 square feet, but sits on five lots (37,500 square feet of land). The Fifth Street project has a height of 84 feet, the Lincoln Boulevard project would go up to 60 feet. Both projects require development agreements, and thus final approval will rest with City Council.

Fifth Street project; digital rendering by Michael Folonis, Architect

Fifth Street project; digital rendering by Michael Folonis, Architect

The Planning Commission voted 4-1 to forward the Fifth Street project to City Council (two of the seven commissioners were absent). The no vote came from new member Mario Fonda-Bonardi. His no, however, was a vote on principle against the 84-foot height (he wanted it reduced 10 feet), and otherwise he didn’t have big problems with the project. The vote for the Lincoln Boulevard project was a unanimous 5-0.

It’s significant that the majorities in favor of both projects included commissioners Richard McKinnon and new commissioner Nina Fresco, and the Lincoln Boulevard project received Fonda-Bonardi’s support as well. (Fresco and Fonda-Bonardi were both attending their first commission meetings.) McKinnon is generally identified with the slower-growth side in local politics. The development politics of Fresco are not well known, but the self-described slow-growth majority on the council appointed her to the commission. Fonda-Bonardi is strongly identified with anti-development views because of his being part of the S.M.a.r.t. group that writes for the Daily Press (even though, in a column he wrote, he advocated for the same rate of housing construction forecast in the LUCE, about 250 units a year).

Lincoln/Colorado Project; digital rendering by Killefer/Flammang Architects

Lincoln/Colorado Project; digital rendering by Killefer/Flammang Architects

The votes made it clear that at least certain kinds of projects are going to have support from a broad spectrum of Santa Monica politics. It’s worth looking at what the two projects had in common, beyond the fact that under their development agreements, the developer (NMS in both cases) had agreed to substantial community benefit packages and affordable housing.

Both projects:

  • Are located downtown, i.e., convenient to transit, and are otherwise designed to reduce environmental impacts, with LEED-platinum certifications, solar panels, and mechanisms for reducing water and energy use. Both projects would replace low-slung, suburban-style commercial buildings and surface parking primarily with housing. All the current council members, even those who identify themselves as “slow-growth,” recognize the need to build housing, given the region-wide shortage and market demand that’s pushing rents and housing prices to record highs.
  • Are characterized by good, contemporary design that maximizes public space and avoids “boxiness.” The Fifth Street project, designed by local architect Michael Folonis, creatively re-considered the use of setbacks, and instead of wasting them in a wedding cake design that would leave a monolithic street frontage, used the required cubic feet of the setbacks to widen the sidewalk in the front of the building into a mini-piazza and to create a “donut hole” in the middle of the building that will better open the façade to the street. The Lincoln Boulevard project, designed by local architects Killefer-Flammang, will create a similarly widened sidewalk/plaza area at the important corner of Lincoln and Colorado and a paseo coming off Lincoln.
  • Adhere to the City’s new standards for unit mix, to encourage more two and three bedroom units. Also, by breaking up the buildings with ground and upper floor open space, the architects have been able to give the apartments more light and air. The amount of development in both projects also reflects de facto downzoning downtown, since under the pre-LUCE development standards residential square footage was discounted 50% when determining the amount of development allowed. Perhaps ironically it’s the regional and local housing shortage and the resulting high rents that enable these projects, with their community benefits and reduced size.

Projects like these two mark and are consistent with 60 years of changes that have made Santa Monica a “post-sprawl” city. While there will be battles to come over big projects, while one wonders what’s going to be built on the boulevards, and while Residocracy may float an initiative that would ban nearly all development, nonetheless there are encouraging signs of an emerging consensus on what will work for Santa Monica’s future.

Thanks for reading.

SMO leases: City Council steps off the track to let the train pass by

Sometimes government—not unlike other aspects of life—can be simpler than expected, and anticlimax rules the day. Whimper rather than bang. This was the case with the City Council’s vote last week on leases at Santa Monica Airport (SMO). I wrote about the issue last week, trying to analyze as many angles about a complex question as I could in one column. In retrospect, overdid it. When the leases finally came before council Tuesday night, the council, after hearing a complicated staff report and about 75 speakers, quickly came to a unanimous and sensible decision that appears to have sidestepped controversy.

As has been reported, City Council approved three-year leases for restaurants and a theater, but deferred action on four leases to aviation businesses. What the council notably didn’t do was step into the controversial issue of whether the City is required to maintain aviation businesses while the City’s litigation with the FAA is pending. Instead, council asked staff to hold off on the proposed aviation leases because they all allowed for subleasing, which the council had told staff in March that it didn’t want. The council also directed staff to investigate further what are the appropriate market rates rents.

The decision reminded me of the old t’ai chi strategy about how to avoid being killed if you’re standing on railroad tracks and a train is roaring towards you—namely, step off the tracks.

Stepping off the tracks was not the advice City Council was getting from some anti-airport activists. For months, going back to before the council authorized staff in March to negotiate three-year leases for both aviation and non-aviation uses on some airport land, there’s been a steady drumbeat demanding that the City confront the FAA and the aviation industry head on, by banning aviation businesses, no matter what the consequences—which are manifestly unpredictable—might be.

The demands have mostly taken the form of emails to councilmembers that are cc’d to activists, but Monday, the day before the hearing, the City received a formal “lawyer’s letter” from Jonathan Stein, of Sunset Park Anti-Airport, Inc., warning the councilmembers that if they approved leases with aviation businesses at the rates staff was recommending Stein would do what he could to have them personally prosecuted by the District Attorney for making “gifts of public funds.”

Stein’s group has been sending out mailers for months to residents of Sunset Park and Ocean Park more or less accusing Mayor Kevin McKeown and other council members and staff of conspiring with aviation interests to create a jetport at the airport. Readers may recall that Stein is the attorney who filed the ill-fated suit against the City and aviation lobbying groups in 2014 trying to invalidate the industry’s initiative to preserve the airport before it could be voted on. (The initiative, as Measure D, was, thankfully, overwhelming defeated in the November 2014 election.)

At the council meeting, cooler heads prevailed. Although initially Councilmember Sue Himmelrich made a motion not to give leases to aviation businesses, by the time council had approved its directions to staff to defer approval of the leases use (aviation or non-aviation) was not part of the council’s reasons. The primary reason, as Himmelrich confirmed to City Attorney Marsha Moutrie, was to get subleasing out of the leases. Subleasing is also an issue with non-aviation property at the airport.

So what happens next? City Manager Rick Cole made it clear that it’s going to take time for staff to answer the council’s questions about subleasing and rental rates. During that time the status quo will stay the same at the airport, with the notable change that the City is making considerable money as the direct lessor to some large business tenants at the airport that formerly paid rent to aviation businesses that had master leases, in effect subsidizing aviation operations. That money now goes to the City.

Don’t hold your breath, but by all rights the City should soon get an overdue answer from the FAA on whether the FAA agrees with aviation businesses that the City is required to keep the airport open until 2023 because of federal money the City spent on the airport. There is no reason to make any strategic decisions about the airport until the City receives that decision.

Anecdote department: A week ago Sunday I flew back from my vacation in Italy. At one point in the long flight, while I was hanging around in the back of the plane, I got to talking with a young man who it turned out had moved to Santa Monica a few years ago. One thing led to another, and our discussion turned to local politics. He said he hadn’t paid much attention to last year’s election (let’s put it this way, he didn’t recall that I’d been a candidate), except that he and his wife had made sure to vote to turn the airport into a park. (They have a new baby and they were looking ahead.)

Listening to us talk was another passenger, and at a certain point he asked us if we thought Santa Monica Airport would close. I said yes, ultimately. He nodded, and said that he owned property near Van Nuys Airport, and that recently there had been a lot more interest in properties around that airport . . . from aviation businesses at Santa Monica Airport that were expecting it to close, and were looking for places to move to.

Thanks for reading.

Rights and Remedies at Santa Monica Airport

Time, tide and vacation wait for no man, and as it happened I was traveling the past two weeks when there was big news about Santa Monica Airport. Regrettably I missed “Start the Park,” the celebratory barbecue that the Santa Monica Airport2Park Foundation threw July 1 to note the termination of the 1984 Settlement Agreement and the immediate prospects of turning twelve acres of asphalt used for airplane tie-downs into parkland.

Mayor Kevin McKeown at the "Start the Park" barbecue

Mayor Kevin McKeown at the “Start the Park” barbecue

Then there was a potentially significant meeting in Washington. Under the auspices of U.S. Reps Ted Lieu and Karen Bass, representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) heard from Santa Monica officials and from members of the public about why Santa Monica needs to control the airport land it has owned for almost a century. Because the FAA had made it clear that their representatives would not comment on anything said at the meeting there could never be concessions from the FAA that some airport-impacted residents originally hoped for or even expected, but the meeting might still lead to changes from the agency.

When Bobby Shriver was a member of the City Council he expressed the view that the path to solving the airport problem would run through the political process in Washington if and when local congressional representatives got involved. For decades our congressman, Henry Waxman, took a hands-off approach to the airport; the activism of Lieu and Bass is a notable change. It might not be the only factor that ultimately allows the City to close the airport, but at least in the short-term it appears that Lieu and Bass might at least be able to push the FAA to give the City a quicker FAA ruling on whether the City must operate the airport until 2023 to satisfy so-called “grant assurances.”

But whatever politicians outside Santa Monica do or don’t do about the airport, the biggest issues always end up before the City Council. Tonight the council will have more tough decisions to make, in particular whether to grant three-year leases to aviation businesses. This issue was controversial in March, when the council voted to allow three-year leases on part of the airport provided that the leases included clauses that allowed the City to terminate if the City gained control of the land.

The issue is even more charged now. In March opponents of the three-year leases wanted leases to be given on a month-to-month basis; now many opponents want to go further, and evict all aviation businesses from the airport. They argue that now that the 1984 Agreement has expired, the City has the right to close the airport, and further that even if the City can’t do that during the pendency of current litigation, the City can get rid of any businesses that support aviation and still not be in violation of any obligations to the FAA.

It’s hard to argue with this reasoning, because the substance of the argument is correct. The City, if you look at the documents and the history, acquired, as of July 1, the right to close the airport. In fact, the City based its 2013 lawsuit against the FAA on that right. The FAA must know that it has a terrible case—in 2000 it issued a ruling that after July 1, 2015, the future of the airport would be a “local land use matter.” The agency has in recent years repudiated that decision, declaring that under a 1948 agreement the City must operate the airport in perpetuity, but there’s a reason the FAA has been trying to keep the issue out of federal court.

There’s an adage in law that there’s no right without a remedy, meaning that if you can’t enforce a right, you may as well not have it, and at the moment the City has no remedy to enforce its rights. With litigation and administrative proceedings pending, the City is vulnerable. Based on recent history, it’s reasonable to fear (as the City Attorney does) that if the City made it practically impossible or even difficult to use the airport the FAA would come down on the City like a ton of bricks, those bricks taking the form of an injunction that could freeze the status quo at the airport for years and years.

There may come a day (for instance, if the Ninth Circuit rules that Santa Monica doesn’t have legal standing to get a declaration of its rights in federal court) when the City’s only means of getting a judicial validation of its rights will be to close the airport, but until then the City’s best strategy is a patient one—continue the litigation in federal court to get a declaration of its rights, meanwhile do what it can to reduce the impact of airport operations.

We’ve been through this before. In 2008, after years of trying to deal with the FAA about safety issues associated with large jets, the City banned them from the airport. The FAA immediately struck back and got an injunction. The City’s cause was noble, but the City lost, as the courts affirmed an FAA administrative ruling that the big jet ban violated the City’s grant assurances. In retrospect the ban was a mistake. The case cost the City a lot in money and credibility, and made the City Council and City staff gun-shy. Not only that, but it was during the course of these proceedings that the FAA repudiated its 2000 ruling that after July 1, 2015 the future of the airport would be a local land use matter.

As for the business terms of the leases, I’m no expert in leasing rates or appraisals. It’s troublesome, however, that staff did not find a way to open the bidding process to non-aviation businesses for properties being used now for aviation purposes. This likely would have increased rents—under the proposed leases aviation tenants will be paying less per square foot than office tenants would pay. It does seem, however, that the City is again handcuffed because of the need, out of fear of FAA action, to keep some airport businesses operating while the litigation proceeds.

It’s hard to be patient, but ultimately, I hope in just a few years, the City is going to get control over the airport land. At that point the City will convene a public process not only to design a great park there, but also to determine the future of the aviation buildings.

Thanks for reading.

Start the Park

I’m out of town on vacation and so I’m going to miss the happy event, but a momentous occasion will be celebrated tomorrow, July 1, in Santa Monica, namely the beginning of the creation of a great park on the site of Santa Monica Airport. Today, June 30, 2015, is the termination date of the 1984 Settlement Agreement between the City of Santa Monica and the Federal Aviation Administration. While by all rights the City should be able to close the airport tomorrow, July 1, administrative proceedings and the course of the City’s litigation to establish its right are holding up that inevitable eventuality. However, the 1984 Agreement contained provisions (namely requirements to provide aircraft tie-downs) that unquestionably expire today and the expiration of those requirements frees up for City use about 12 acres of land south of the runway and north of Airport Avenue (in two parcels more or less straddling the existing Airport Park).

Under Measure LC passed by Santa Monica voters last November all land released from aviation use must be used for park and recreation purposes unless voters approve something different. The City Council has duly designated these 12 acres to be turned into a park, and the budget the council recently passed includes funds for an expedited process to plan the conversion of the land (now covered in asphalt) into parkland. These 12 acres will be the first of 170 or so acres of park that the City will ultimately create from the airport land.

With antecedents in the campaign to pass LC (and defeat the aviation industry’s Measure D), a new 501(c)(3) non-profit has been formed, the Santa Monica Airport2Park Foundation, to organize public support for the park conversion. The foundation is hosting a barbecue tomorrow at Airport Park, on land adjacent to the one of the new park parcels, and the public is invited. To view the invitation, and to RSVP, click here. (If you plan to attend, be sure to RSVP so that the organizers know how much food to get.)

Wishing I could be there! (But nonetheless enjoying where I am.)

Thanks for reading.

Multiple Character Disorder

In my last post I wrote that it would take a lot of change in Santa Monica to change the city’s character. Since I wrote that I’ve been wondering what I meant.

I couldn’t have meant that Santa Monica wouldn’t change, because cities evolve and Santa Monica is no exception. Indeed, in the 140 years since its first developers, Messrs. Jones and Baker (enabled by Baker’s wife, the estimable Arcadia Bandini de Baker) subdivided the old rancho and sold their first lots, Santa Monica has changed over and over.

Santa Monica changed not only in actuality, but also in how people have imagined it. Often the reality and the image have had only a tenuous relationship, perhaps because the reality of the city emerged from an amalgam of two fundamentally different visions.

Jones and Baker wanted to make Santa Monica the region’s port, and they developed what became the north side of the city with business in mind. The original street grid between Colorado Avenue and Montana, with its large blocks, good-sized lots, and wide rights-of-way, was designed for development. Banks, office buildings, and stores were built continuously downtown until the crash in 1929. When Jones sold his Los Angeles and Independence Railroad to Collis Huntington, the line became the connection between the Southern Pacific’s Long Wharf and the nation. Along the railroad, industrialists built factories. Ultimately, Donald Douglas built one of the world’s largest industrial plants.

Meanwhile, a different kind of Santa Monica was developing south of downtown—a more sybaritic city. In the early years the magnificent Arcadia Hotel, located near today’s Tongva Park, was the big attraction. Then Abbott Kinney and his partners developed Ocean Park as a resort. The pleasure piers were built, arcades and baths, and little vacation homes.

Today when you hear competing narratives like “Silicon Beach” vs. “laidback beach town” you’re hearing a dialectic that has been fundamental to Santa Monica from the start. The descendants, actual or not, of old Santa Monica families who can’t understand why people are telling them they can’t develop their land, and those residents who can’t understand why anyone would consider desecrating Santa Monica by building anything over two stories, are all true, in their own fashions, to Santa Monica’s history.

When it comes to residential neighborhoods, Santa Monica also has two competing realities that engender different visions. It’s often mentioned that (unusual among well-off American towns) 70 percent of Santa Monica residents are renters. As a housing or neighborhood type, however, apartments don’t define Santa Monica because so much of the city is covered with single-family houses. Approximately 32 percent of all land in Santa Monica, and approximately 47 percent of land that is zoned residential, is zoned R1. Consequently many people conceptualize Santa Monica as a leafy suburb, an extension of Brentwood. You can see how they might believe that apartment buildings violate that suburban character, particularly if a developer proposes to build apartments on a boulevard near an R1 neighborhood.

People can visualize all they want, but the fact remains that 70 percent of Santa Monicans live in apartments, nearly all of which (along with quite a few condominiums) were built by developers. Given that reality, it’s at least incongruous to say that building more apartments and condos (within reason) would destroy the character of Santa Monica.

The flipside is also true—or, rather, untrue. Many residents celebrate the fact that because of its apartments Santa Monica is not a monolithic suburb and hosts a wide range of incomes. Some of these folks argue that allowing the building of luxury condominiums would alter the character of Santa Monica: make it too ritzy. But given the price of those houses in the 32 percent of Santa Monica zoned R1, it’s hard to say with a straight face that a few more rich people would turn Santa Monica into something it isn’t.

In fact, it’s hard to take any talk about the character of a city seriously. Character in this context is always a word that carries an agenda. There are so many characters to choose from, you can take your pick to support whatever point you want to make. Change is going to happen; to the extent we can control change, it’s better to make decisions based on what might be objectively determined to be good change, rather than base our decisions on something as subjective as a city’s character. It is possible to have progress, to improve things.

People don’t talk about a city’s character this way only in Santa Monica. Recently the New York Daily News ran an essay by Glynnis MacNicol about memory and a city—in that case the city being New York (“When I was young, so was New York”). MacNicol’s premise is that one’s view of what a city is depends on one’s first memories of it; as she puts it, “each of us mistakes the city we knew first with the city’s truest version of itself.”

We’d all be happier, I suspect, if whenever we started to talk about the city’s character, we would instead acknowledge that what we really wanted to talk about are our memories, especially the fond ones.

Thanks for reading.

Ideas, Values and Experience: Not a Bad Combination

It has been a few weeks since I’ve written on this blog. I was on vacation: back east for two family events spread out over two weekends. Both events were joyful, but in different ways. The first was joyful prospectively—Memorial Day weekend my niece graduated from Bard College. Everything there was about the future. The event the following weekend was joyful, but retrospectively. It was a celebration in Pittsburgh of the life of my wife’s mother, who died in March. We call these events memorials, because they are about memory and the past, but in this case the memories were of a former future that was very much fulfilled.

Between the weekend events I spent the week in New York City. So, in the span of 10 days my travels took me from small town America (Bard is located on the Hudson River 100 miles north of New York City), to New York, America’s greatest metropolis, and then to Pittsburgh, a midsized former industrial city that’s been remaking itself for a few decades as a center for higher education, research and healthcare.

Here’s a picture of downtown Red Hook, the village near Bard where my niece lived as a student.

Red Hook, New York

Red Hook, New York

And here’s Manhattan, as seen from the new state park on the East River shore in Long Island City, Queens.

Manhattan from Long Island City

Manhattan from Long Island City

Here’s Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh, PA

Pittsburgh, from across the Monongahela River

None of these places look like Santa Monica. Few places do. It’s funny how people here often either express fear or hope that Santa Monica is going to become something it isn’t or change from something it’s never been to something it will never be when it would take an awful lot of change to make Santa Monica something fundamentally different from what it is.

• • •

I may have taken a vacation, but Santa Monica news didn’t. The big news was the hiring of Rick Cole to be Santa Monica’s new city manager. I was surprised and thrilled. The surprise mostly had to do with the apparent unanimity among the City Council members over the choice of Cole, in particular the enthusiasm that emanated from both Mayor Kevin McKown and his immediate predecessor as mayor, Pam O’Connor. The conventional wisdom is that the two of them “couldn’t agree on lunch” (to borrow Abbie Hoffman’s explanation for why the Chicago Seven could never have conspired to disrupt the 1968 Democratic Convention), yet they both seem more than happy with the hiring of Cole.

But that just goes to show how conventional one’s wisdom, including my own, can be, which brings me to the “thrilled” part. Sure, we might, and McKeown and O’Connor themselves might, focus on dramatic disputes over what are in the big scheme of things small differences, but that doesn’t mean that both of them can’t appreciate the manifest talent and abilities of a Rick Cole.

What’s truly remarkable (but I don’t want to call it surprising) about the decision to hire Cole is that the council members must know that they are getting someone who has ideas, and ideas that go beyond balancing budgets and negotiating contracts. In Santa Monica, city councilmembers usually like to be the idea-generators. It’s a good thing that they are open to someone who has that vision thing.

What are those ideas? I can’t predict what Cole will come up with next, but going back to the ’80s, in Pasadena, Cole was one of those who started imagining what a post-sprawl city could and would look like. He was one of those people who didn’t believe that our civilization was inexorably doomed to take the form of freeways and shopping malls. As it happened, at the time there were people thinking the same way in Santa Monica, and the rejuvenations of the Pasadena and Santa Monica downtowns reset the thinking for the future of Southern California.

At the same time, the council’s decision to hire Cole must have been made easier because his values (and as anyone who was spent even a little time with Cole will tell you, values mean a lot to him) are in sync with those of the council members.

What are those values? Simply put, and I’m basing this upon the work he has done in his career, Rick Cole cares about the well being of people. While this includes what is usually included in phrases like “livability” or “quality of life,” Cole extends his caring to those who don’t necessarily have the luxury of merely worrying about the quality of their lives. Social justice and a helping hand to those who need it have been part of Cole’s agenda wherever he has worked in government.

Along with ideas and values, Cole has a level of experience, as a city councilmember and mayor in Pasadena, as a planner, as a city manager in Azusa and Ventura, and most recently as a deputy major in Los Angeles, that isn’t matched by anyone in municipal government in (at least) Southern California.

Cole believes in the potential of government to solve problems, and it’s not surprising that Governing magazine once named him a public official of the year. This doesn’t mean, however, that Cole believes that government solves problems alone, or from the top down. Wherever Cole has worked, he has been known for not only being a great listener, and for getting members of the public to listen to each other, but also for pushing for small-scale actions that residents and volunteer groups can take themselves.

It’s refreshing to know, or to have confirmed, that the members of the Santa Monica City Council, however they may disagree about one thing or another, can agree on Rick Cole.