Historic Belmar Park: gratification and chagrin

I attended on Zoom the on-line inauguration of Historic Belmar Park on Sunday with a mix of gratification and chagrin.

The gratification came easy. Back in 2006 I wrote a Lookout column about the African-American Belmar neighborhood that the City destroyed in the 50s to build the Civic Auditorium. A park was then planned to replace the Civic’s parking lot, and I called for naming it “Belmar Park.” (I’m happy with the addition of “Historic.”) I wrote several more columns about Belmar and I gave talks about its history and its destruction at the Santa Monica History Museum and at Annenberg Beach House.

Welcome to Historic Belmar Park

In 2014, when the City named the affordable apartments built on former Rand land on the other side of Main Street the Belmar Apartments, I was told that until the Lookout published my column, no one (or I suspect no one who was white) in City Hall knew about Belmar or what had happened to it.

Thus, when I consider all that I’ve written about Santa Monica since starting my Lookout column 20 years ago, well, at least I have at least one thing to be proud of.

I’m also thrilled with how the City has commemorated Belmar at the new park, with truly excellent interpretive panels informed by the research of Dr. Alison Jefferson, and a terrific work of public art by artist April Banks.

One of the interpretive panels in the new park.

The work by Ms. Banks, entitled “A Resurrection in Four Stanzas,” evokes elements of the typical houses that the City destroyed to build the Civic.

April Banks’ “A Resurrection in Four Stanzas”

If you wonder what those houses might look like today, if the neighborhood had survived and evolved like Ocean Park, there are still many of them south of Pico in my neighborhood of Ocean Park. Here’s a picture of one on Sixth Street.

The kind of house that the City destroyed in Belmar, 60 years later. Note the multi-unit building next door. Over 60 years the single-family neighborhood evolved into the much-loved and now very expensive Ocean Park neighborhood of today. So much for apartments reducing property values.

Everyone who worked on the commemorative aspects of the new park deserves commendation, particularly Dr. Jefferson and Ms. Banks, but also the volunteers from the public, and city staff, who worked on what was called the Belmar History + Art project.

My chagrin is more complicated. It’s triggered by the fenced-in sports field that is ringed by the commemorative elements of the park.

The high fencing at the park. To keep the people out and the balls in.

My involvement with the site goes back almost 30 years. I first became involved in Santa Monica politics in 1993 when I participated in the public process that resulted in the Civic Center Specific Plan. The City had initiated a planning process in 1988 to establish zoning for the roughly 40 acres of the Civic Center. The Civic Center was a forlorn example of 50s era, modernist utopianism. One staff report I read described the area as being a great place for walking; the only problem was that there were no pedestrians because there was no reason to walk there.

The 1993 plan called for concentrating private development west of Main Street and along Ocean Avenue, where the land was mostly owned by the Rand Corporation. The plan also reintroduced the street grid, with an extension of Olympic Boulevard between 4th Street and Ocean Avenue. Relevant to the new Belmar park, the plan called for a park to replace the Civic Auditorium’s parking lot. (The parking was to be replaced by a parking structure behind the courthouse, which was built.) Here’s a rendering of the plan.

The 1993 Civic Center Specific Plan, approved by voters in June 1994.

The plan was challenged in a referendum on the grounds that it allowed too much development and thus would generate too much traffic, but Santa Monica voters overwhelmingly approved it, 60% to 40%, in June 1994. (I was the treasurer of the campaign to approve the plan.)

Plans are plans and not reality, however. As a result of the 1990s economic downturn, Rand and its development partner couldn’t raise the money needed to develop Rand’s 15 acres. In 1999 Rand sold most of its land to the City. This led to revisions of the plan, which ultimately generated the mixed-use developments, including the Belmar Apartments, that have arisen between Main and Ocean, south of the extension of Olympic Boulevard, and the construction of Tongva Park north of Olympic.

The revisions to the plan, however, resulted in much less development than what the 1993 plan envisioned, as the City Council responded to pleas for “more open space.” Between the fact that Rand built less than it had the right to build, and the elimination of 250,000 square feet of housing, development at the Civic Center was reduced by almost half a million square feet. This is one reason why the Civic Center, including Tongva Park, is nearly as forlorn a place as it was in 1993. There were supposed to be a lot more people walking around.

Along the way, in 2005, City Council agreed to amend the plan further to include a sports field in the park replacing the Civic parking lot. In 2009 the School District released a plan for the Samohi campus that included the addition of a third field in the high school’s campus; if the District had been able to move to construction, that would have obviated the need for the field on the Civic Center site. But that didn’t happen.

The final piece of the Civic Center was the Civic Auditorium. The Civic was a white elephant that drained money each year; not only that, but it was seismically unsound and would require a lot of money to rehab. The City wanted to save the Civic, however, and a lot of people testified about how much they loved the Civic, because of the great rock concerts they had gone to there. When the City still had redevelopment money the City had a plan to rebuild the auditorium in a public-private venture with the Nederlander Organization. That plan fell apart when Gov. Jerry Brown terminated redevelopment. As a result, the City closed the auditorium to the public. (Full disclosure, I opposed the Nederlander/redevelopment plan. And also this if you’re really interested.)

That brings us to what was for me the saddest, most chagrin-producing episode in this long saga, the formation, in 2014, of the Civic Working Group (CWG). I was a member of the CWG, which the City formed with a mandate to figure out how to save the Civic as part of a “mixed use cultural center.” The idea was that the City would leverage some development around the Civic to subsidize the cost of rebuilding it, all with a private sector partner that would take over operations. The CWG’s job was to come up with parameters to send to potential partners.

I never should have joined the CWG, because City Council never gave a clear direction on what it wanted to do about the sports field that had been promised in 2005. It was clear to anyone that a full-sized sports field was inconsistent with the mixed-use cultural center the City said it wanted, but that was never stated clearly up front. The ambiguity was unfair to everyone.

As for the CWG, we worked for 18 months on a plan (or rather, parameters for a future plan) that called for including a publicly accessible park on the site, but our efforts were doomed because when staff presented our work to the City Council, the political weight of the sports field boosters overwhelmed not only the council and City Manager Rick Cole, but also the historic preservation community that had pressed to save the Civic.

The council caved and ultimately came up with $6 million or so to build the field, which is on land worth tens of millions of dollars. The field will operate for the most part as a locked, fenced-off private sports facility. The high school will use it for a couple of hours a day, but only after school hours because there’s no time during the school day for students to cross Fourth Street. The school district had a representative on the CWG, who told us that the district didn’t want the field, and that it still planned to build a third field on the school’s campus. The field will be scheduled, reserved and used primarily by private soccer, lacrosse and rugby leagues. Post-Covid, if the City’s finances improve, it might be possible to have a few hours per week when the facility will be open to the public, but as with all artificial turf fields, all uses must be supervised to preserve the “grass.”

No picnics at this park. No snacks either.

The field the sports people wanted is so big that there wasn’t even room for a jogging track.

Normally I’m a huge booster for sports fields, but this important corner was not the place for a fenced-off park. The site is too important to the neighborhood and its connection to the Civic Center. The blocks coming up from the beach should be a lively stretch of urban geography, open and attractive to all. The street was ruined in the 50s when the Civic Auditorium, with its ugly back turned to the street, replaced Belmar, but reorientating the site back towards the street was possible in the context of a new, mixed-use cultural district.

The back of the Civic, facing the neighborhood, as seen from Pico. A violent act of 50s-era urban vandalism.

My chagrin was multiplied because of what I witnessed as a member of the CWG. I know there are true believers in the sports fields for the sake of sports fields, who worked for the fields back in 2005. I know some of them personally and respect them, even if I disagree with them about this location. It was evident, however, during the CWG planning process that most of the support for the field came from the faction of Santa Monicans that is anti anything new, particularly housing or commercial development. They were able to use the sports fields as leverage against development, and the sports field people were able to use the anti’s to get their field. It was a synergistic relationship.

So, 22 years after Santa Monica voters approved the Civic Center plan 60-40, the opponents of the plan had won.

The final chagrin-producing event came when the sports field had to get final approval at the Coastal Commission. The sports field boosters were worried that the commission might not agree with fencing off public land so close to the beach. They came up with the argument that because the City had used eminent domain to buy the land for public use from the Belmar neighbors in the 50s, and since the sports field was a public use (at least in their view), the commission should approve the field. It was like saying that reparations for slavery, Jim Crow, redlining and everything else that has befallen Black people could be handled by building fields for soccer, lacrosse and rugby.

Imagine how I felt when on the day of the Coastal Commission hearing I got a call from a friend from the preservation community, who was at the hearing, telling me that the sports field boosters were using my articles about Belmar to support their case. Now I know how Bruce Springsteen feels when a right-wing candidate blasts “Born in the USA” at a rally. (By the way, to correct something that the boosters have said since, the CWG made it a key point in our report that whatever would be built, the Belmar neighborhood had to be commemorated.)

The good news was that the Coastal Commission, after hearing from Dr. Jefferson, approved the sports field only on the condition that the City include a commemoration of Belmar. That resulted in the Belmar History + Art project.

The remaining question is what happens to the Civic Auditorium. The sports field has made rehabbing and reopening the Civic as a performance venue impossible because on its own, without subsidy from development of the surrounding land, the Civic, once it’s been rehabbed, is not financially viable. Much like the debacle at 4th and Arizona, the City owns valuable land but is paralyzed because of an inherently contentious public process.

The only solution is for the City to turn over the Civic and the remaining land, including the land on top of the two water retention projects the City is building there, to affordable housing developers to build a mix of low and moderate income affordable housing. The housing could preserve and reuse the Civic’s façade and lobby, which are the most important architectural elements. New construction could be oriented towards and help rejuvenate Pico. Housing could also be built on Main Street, along with a publicly accessible small park, with a playground.

But this will probably have to wait until the last Baby Boomer who saw a concert at the Civic has died.

Thanks for reading.

10 thoughts on “Historic Belmar Park: gratification and chagrin

  1. Pingback: What about the whataboutism? | The Healthy City Local

  2. Nice summary…I so deeply appreciate the careful recreation of this history!  

    Rev. Jim Conn230 Pacific St #108Santa Monica, CA 90405310/392-5056 Associations: CLUE – A Founding Member:  www.cluejustice.org  Climate Action Santa Monica -Advisory Board Asset Based Community Development:  www.abcdinstitute.org/ United Methodist Minister -Retired:  www.calpacUMC.org Former Council Member and Mayor ofSanta Monica  

  3. Aside from rock concerts, the civic hosted many great cultural events including the annual photo la international art show that brought the Los Angeles photo community together. My favorite weekend of the year. Also, a lot of money for the local hotels and restaurants from the dealers, collectors and artists who would fly in.

    Sunday classical music concerts, dog and cat shows, alternative energy auto shows, the Modernism and other antique shows are a few that I can remember attending off the top of my head. The Academy Awards were held there as well but before my time. It was lovely to be able to attend events a short bike ride from my home.

    So no, not just great rock concerts. Wonderful events that brought community together, something lost when Silicon Beach moved into the hood.

    The creation of a private sports field removing the possibility of repairing the community cultural center seems absurd.

    Almost as absurd as turning a small bayside city into such a dense urban environment that it would need a train running through its middle.

  4. How times have changed—we 1970s SamoHi students crossed 4th *regularly* to surf, swim and exercise at the beach for 50 minute PE classes.

  5. Frank this is worthy of the highest accolades for reporting and commentary on city planning. Thank you for helping to resurface the story of Belmar and the repeated failures of vision and plan making that created the civic center dead zone and then did it again while trying not too. As plans for the Civic and the south side of Pico will be revisited at some point, your vision of a more connected Pico corridor is not all lost. In the meantime I hope the City will embrace a policy of scheduling the fields 24/7 to make this a gift to sports leagues from across the region. Keep it’s use diverse, affordable and equitable. A field of dreams.

  6. Frank, fascinating article and congratulation on “Historic Belmar Park.” You brought the past into the light. There’s some comfort in that. I give you ten thumbs up.

  7. Imagine my shock to see a photo of my home as a representative home from the Belmar area. Truth be told, I just learned about history about Belmar and the Civic Center within the past six months. I appreciate the additional background information. What a waste of good intentions.

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