Memo to council: make decisions and the priorities will take care of themselves

Tomorrow the Santa Monica City Council will convene in an extraordinary Sunday session to, in the words of the staff report, identify “which three to five of the many significant things the City is already doing should be the top priorities for the upcoming years.”

Due to prior commitments, including a general commitment to using Sunday mornings to preserve my sanity rather than wreck it, I’m going to miss the retreat, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe it’s a good idea to prioritize. Our municipal government does try to do too much (meaning more than it has capacity for, not that there is too much to do), and even if all this activity is the result of good faith efforts to fix every problem, at some point it’s necessary to step back. When I look at the accomplishments of the City of Santa Monica, my belief in government in strengthened. But when I look at the ambitions, I at least begin to understand where traditional conservative thinking comes from.

The staff report lists twelve suggestions for the council to consider (I could suggest even a few more), and the report mentions in passing that staff has identified 68 high-level departmental goals for themselves. So pruning and prioritizing makes sense. If I were setting the agenda for a council retreat, however, I would prioritize some time for soul-searching. The root of the problem is that the council itself has a hard time making decisions and sticking to them, and is easily distracted by whatever is the crisis of the day, so that it wastes its own time and staff’s time going this way and that.

Take the LUCE, which is listed as one of many past “Strategic Projects and Priorities That Have Shaped Santa Monica.” When City Council in 2004 authorized staff to begin the LUCE process, the expectation was that the project would take two years. It took six and the final product didn’t even cover the crucial areas of downtown and the Bergamot district, which were left to more process to develop specific plans. More that than, the six-year process resulted in a LUCE that was soon gutted by a combination of the Hines Paper Mate fiasco and the zoning that was supposed to implement the LUCE but took five years to finalize.

How can government expect to sustain the vision to make good decisions over an eleven-year process? There were many immediate causes for all the delays, but the underlying cause was that the council was afraid to make decisions. It was always easier to authorize more process, hire more consultants, take more surveys, allow more public venting. The LUCE that resulted is itself a document that enshrines indecision, by making the most important future development decisions discretionary.

The most pernicious impact of the passage of time was that by the time the council voted on the key implementations of the LUCE, on Hines and the zoning ordinance, the focus and priorities, not to mention the membership, of the council had drastically changed from what they had been in 2004 and 2010.

Perhaps I’m thinking about this because last Monday the ultimate insult resulting from the epic failure of the LUCE, namely the “Pen Factory” re-do of the Paper Mate factory, came before the Architectural Review Board. In 2004 it was clear that the focus of future development in Santa Monica would be the old industrial areas around Bergamot, and that the key goal of the LUCE was not to repeat the planning failures of the 1980s, when the council authorized monolithic suburban-style office parks on former industrial properties. The most important piece of property in the area is the Paper Mate site, because of its size but even more important its location between the future Expo stop and the rest of the district to the north and east.

So eleven years later, after so much governmental effort, what role does government have in the redevelopment of this property into . . . monolithic offices? Drum roll . . . government gets to help pick out the paint colors, while it pleads with the new Pen Factory property owners not to hide the building behind a giant hedge. Government can’t even get them to remove a decrepit chain link fence that seals the property off from Olympic Boulevard.

What role did time play in this? For one thing, if the LUCE had been completed in two years, by 2006, when the economy seemed strong, staff and council might have been more confident reducing the amount of office development and increasing the amount of housing. As a result, the developer would have had to design a better project.

As it happened, these decisions were made in 2009 and 2010, during the Great Recession, and we had a City Manager new to Santa Monica who was panicked by the idea of having to provide services to a lot of new residents without offsetting taxes from businesses. We heard a lot about the virtues of “creative offices” and we had a consultant tell us that the purpose of the development there was, in effect, to generate more riders for Expo. Council unanimously passed a LUCE that allowed far too much office development in the Bergamot area.

Then, by the time the actual plans came up for approval, in 2014, times had changed again, and we know what happened then. As a result, we’re getting just what the LUCE was supposed to protect us against.

Santa Monicans have generally elected capable and knowledgeable councilmembers. What the council needs is confidence. They need to make decisions based on what they know and believe, not hide behind endless public process that satisfies no one and exhausts everyone. Then the priorities will take care of themselves.

Thanks for reading.

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