Yesterday’s dedication of Ken Genser Square in front of City Hall was a beautiful occasion — both because the new plaza is beautiful and because it was a fine gathering of the friends of the former mayor and 21-year council member, and of his co-laborers in the vineyards of Santa Monica activism and politics.
Naturally I thought of my relationship with Ken over the 17 years I knew him, and my recollections of a complicated human being. I never knew Ken on any kind of significant personal level, but we interacted a lot over the years, beginning in 1993 when he as a council member was on the working group for the Civic Center Specific Plan and I was an actively involved resident, and then in 1994 when we worked on the campaign to defeat the initiative Tom Hayden and anti-development groups had put on the ballot to overturn the plan.
What I always thought defined Ken as a politician, at least in the earlier years I knew him (and, yes, even one of Ken’s closest friends, Patricia Hoffman, noted at the dedication ceremony how Ken had mellowed over the years he was in office), was a fascinating combination of fierce partisanship coupled with, when it came to policy, a wonderfully open mind.
Ken’s partisanship most significantly took place in the context of the internal politics of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR). Ken was the primary standard-bearer for the more anti-development faction within SMRR that arose in the ’80s, and was the first council member who explicitly represented that wing when he was elected in 1988. (I say more anti-development because all factions within SMRR advocate regulating development stringently.)
From then and on through the ’90s Ken worked — as I said, “fiercely” — to have SMRR endorse more anti-development candidates. As with politics in any organization of like-minded people, there is a lot of the “narcissism of small differences” and elbows are known to be thrown. Arguably Ken’s greatest political triumph came in 1999 when Richard Bloom, in a special election, won election to the council, creating what was then called a “no growth” majority on the council.
That was Ken the partisan politician. When it came to policy, Ken couldn’t be pigeon-holed, and often broke with his supporters. I mentioned the Civic Center Plan in 1994; there was also the downtown Target in 2001 (Ken and Pam O’Connor were the only council members who voted to approve it), and Ken did not support Measure T, the RIFT initiative, in 2008. These were the three most contentious development issues over past 20 years, and in none of them was Ken on the anti-development side.
It simply was that Ken would examine the reasons he was skeptical in general about development, and when those reasons didn’t apply to the facts at hand, he wouldn’t oppose the project. His analysis of the Target project was telling — he didn’t see that opposing development downtown made much sense, and he saw Target’s benefits (such as providing discount shopping within Santa Monica) outweighing any downside it might have.
While Ken lost the Target vote, his vote in favor of the project foreshadowed the demise of the anti-development majority, since it seemed to free up, ultimately, two other members of the bloc, Bloom and Michael Feinstein, to take more nuanced views about development also.
All of this needs to be seen in the context that development has been tightly controlled in Santa Monica in the decades after the big office parks were approved in the ’80s, a policy success that belonged to Ken as much as to anyone else.
Politically, I had a mixed relationship with Ken. He had two opportunities to vote for me for the Planning Commission, in 1995 and in 1999, and neither time did I get his vote. But we were in agreement when it came to the Civic Center, Target, and Measure T. (There were a lot of other issues we agreed about that didn’t concern development — which was good, because it was always better to have Ken on your side than against you.)
While it’s useless to play the game of “what would Ken do” when it comes to evaluating the issues of today, it is worth recalling some of his last pronouncements on development issues. Ken died about six months before the completed LUCE came before the council, but during its development Ken warned that the document was relying on discretionary review at nearly every level of project size.
Ken’s view was that to the greatest extent possible the City should legislate what the City wanted or would accept from developers, and then let the developers figure out how to make their projects work within those parameters. If they couldn’t work, that was their problem. But trying to balance development with negotiated benefits was always going to create problems, and should be restricted to the biggest projects.
As Santa Monica turns to its new proposed zoning ordinance that seems like good advice.
Thanks for reading.
(To read more what I wrote about Ken, back when I wrote for the Lookout News, click here.)