What about the whataboutism?

When I first wrote for public consumption—which was when I was in high school in the late 60s and I wrote rock reviews for the Distant Drummer, Philadelphia’s underground newspaper—my editor would not let me respond to critical letters to the editor. He said that I had my forum, my reviews, and that I should leave the readers alone.

Following that advice, I don’t usually comment on responses I receive to my posts. I’m going to make an exception, though, to respond to comments opposing the views I expressed in my post about the planning history of Historic Belmar Park. For two reasons: one, because most of the comments I received illustrate a rhetorical phenomenon, known as “whataboutism,” that’s become more common in an era where people argue past each other, and two, because most of the “what about” comments were attacks on the Early Childhood Lab School (ECLS) that the City of Santa Monica and Santa Monica College (SMC) are building just north of the new park.

Entrance on Fourth Street to the ECLS, slated to open later this year.

I’m interested in whataboutism, and the ECLS deserves to be defended.

“Whataboutism” is an old rhetorical device, but it became better known in January, when Republican members of Congress responded to the January 6 insurrection by asking, “but what about [fill in the blank]?” Don’t panic, I’m not equating the situation with the sports field and the ECLS with what happened in Washington (nor the sports field boosters with the Proud Boys), but the form of argument is the same. You see, after I published my post, few of the critical comments I received (which you may not have seen because they were on a Facebook page about Santa Monica politics) disputed the history I laid out. (However, if you want a clear statement of how the sports field boosters see that history, you can find it here.) Instead, the critics said that my criticisms of the sports field didn’t count because the ECLS was worse.

The front of the ECLS from across Fourth Street; the classroom buildings are behind this.

The ECLS is a joint venture between the City of Santa Monica, SMC, and the RAND Corporation. It will provide infant and toddler care, and a preschool, for up to 110 infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, and serve as an instructional facility for SMC’s teacher training program. The daycare and preschool will be operated by The Growing Place, which currently operates facilities on public land in two places in Santa Monica: at Marine Park and on part of the old Washington Elementary School site in Ocean Park. I don’t know how financial aid will be determined, but a minimum of 15 percent of the children will be from low-income households. (Disclosure that I’m not sure is necessary, but why not: in the early 90s my wife and I sent our son to preschool at the Growing Place. That was a long time ago, but it might be more grist for the oppositional mill, since one critic described the Growing Place as “daycare provider to the City’s power elite.”)

The whataboutism came in because the critics said I was hypocritical because I did not, when I criticized the field for being fenced off, “apply the exact same criticism to the ECLS,” which was described as a “private, walled fortress,” providing elite “private day care for City, SMC, and Rand staff.”

A Facebook comment about the ECLS, chiding me for criticizing the limited access to the sports field, but not criticizing the ECLS.

I don’t recall writing about the ECLS, neither in my Lookout columns nor in this blog. It wasn’t controversial enough to warrant a column. However, when I participated on the Civic Working Group (CWG), the task force that the City formed to devise a strategy to save the Civic Auditorium, and the CWG started to hold workshops, I began to hear vitriol about the ECLS coming from sport field boosters (not from all of them, but from the loudest). In turn, they attracted support from the faction in Santa Monica who oppose anything that the City (or anyone else) wants to build.

The ECLS has always been part of planning for the Civic Center. If you still have your Voter Information Pamphlet from the 1994 referendum on the 1993 Civic Center Specific Plan (you don’t?), turn to page 30, where, referring to “Parcel D, Public Building Site” (exactly where the ECLS is today), the plan says, “[a] child care facility shall be provided within this parcel to serve the needs of the Civic Center area. The precise size will be based upon projected resident and employee needs. The facility will be funded through contributions from the City, County, and private development within the Civic Center.”

From the 1994 Voter Information Pamphlet.

In fact, the plan to include childcare in the Civic Center goes back to the task force that the City formed in the late 80s to plan the future of the Civic Center. The sports field boosters complain that they have had to wait 15 years since City Council approved the concept of the field to get it built, but the childcare community has had to wait twice that long, and their center was included in a plan that the voters approved on a 60-40 vote. The sports field wasn’t.

The 1993 plan envisioned a park on the site, and a 55,000 square foot cultural center. A lot of people wanted SMC to build a theater there, but SMC built the Madison site theater (now known as the Broad Stage) instead, and the cultural center idea was later dropped (creating room for the sports field). Here’s a detail from the 1993 plan. (Apparently it was thought that tennis courts could go on top of the cultural center.)

From the 1993 plan Urban Design Concept (p. 15 in the voter pamphlet). The building with the tennis courts on the roof is the cultural center. The building just to the west is the childcare center.

The ECLS, at approximately 18,000 square feet on approximately 60,000 square feet of land, is much smaller than the total development on the site that the voters approved, but the sports field boosters are bothered by the size of the ECLS. They say it’s been “super-sized” with, among other things, “its own giant fire lane.” (Maybe a code requires that?) It’s true that the predicted size of the ECLS has gone up and down over the years (from 10,000 square feet in 1993, to a low of 6,500 in a later iteration, and then to its final 18,000 once the educational program was completed), but it hardly seems outlandish for a facility with room for 110 children of varying ages. Its size obviously did not interfere with building the sports field.

One of the playgrounds at the ECLS.

The sports field boosters say that if I criticize the field for being fenced off from the public, then I should criticize the ECLS for being a “private, walled fortress.” In response, all I can say is, are you kidding? What childcare facility or school is open for the public to walk in and out of?

However, in fairness to the original boosters of the field, they did not intend for it to be fenced off. Twenty years ago, before synthetic fields took over, sports fields were open, as parks. It’s been pointed out to me (by a field booster who I hope still considers me a friend) that back in 2003 I wrote a column supporting the sports field. True, I did, but in that column I supported the field because I thought one would attract people to the Civic Center on weekends. Here’s how the field was depicted in a 2005 version of the Civic Center plan.

From the 2005 urban design concept showing the field as then planned to be part of a park. Note also the (unlabeled) childcare center between the field and the courthouse, and the large parking lot where most of the ECLS is now located.

Notice how much smaller the field is than what was built, and how it was to be part of a park open to the public. But synthetic fields have changed everything. The fields save maintenance costs and can be used year-round, but the public has to be kept out to save the expensive fields from sticky drinks and messy snacks. When the new field is played “crosswise” on smaller fields, there isn’t even sideline space for parents to stand and scream at the referee. It’s not a park that will connect with the neighborhood or attract strollers to the Civic Center.

The sports field boosters often say that they support childcare, but that this location was the wrong place. I get this argument; after all, I support sports fields in general even if I no longer support one at the Civic Center. But they’re wrong. Childcare has been part of the plan from the beginning because it makes sense to put childcare and preschools near where people work. Boosters also made an argument that SMC owns lots of land and could have built the ECLS elsewhere; but haven’t (some of) SMC’s Sunset Park neighbors said for years that they don’t want SMC to expand its campus? And haven’t SMC’s satellite campuses been a good thing? The ECLS is another one.

Another attack on the ECLS is that while it will serve the “elite,” it has been built with public funds and sits on public land. This argument, which reminds me of the arguments that come from people who say that we only need to plan for affordable housing, seems to conflate a big social issue, namely childcare for working people of all classes, with a reverse classism whereby people who are not poor (namely, the kind of people in an affluent town like Santa Monica who play or whose kids play soccer, lacrosse and rugby) say that families who can afford to pay for childcare shouldn’t get it, or shouldn’t have it subsidized, because they are “elites.”

Yes, absolutely, in a better America government would provide free preschool and childcare, as it provides free K-12. In the meantime, that’s not what we have. Just as college graduates who make too much money to qualify for affordable housing still need places to live and raise their families, those families need places to have childcare and preschool, however expensive the fees are. Families with young children, even if the parents are “young professionals,” need help. We applaud private employers who help provide childcare for their employees; shouldn’t we applaud the City and SMC for building childcare facilities and allowing public land to be used for childcare? Government should set an example. (I should also mention that RAND contributed $500,000 to the cost of building the ECLS, and additional funds that are going into scholarships.)

And . . . dare I say, that as an “elite” former Growing Place parent whose son went on to play many years of AYSO soccer, it’s a little rich for the boosters of AYSO soccer, lacrosse and rugby to complain about elites. Attend a weekend tournament for any of these sports and you’ll see parking lots full of shiny SUVs. (Or you can see them now as parents try to drop kids off on Fourth Street at the one entrance to the new field.) These kids in daycare today will be playing sports tomorrow. I suppose then they will no longer be the “lucky offspring of City, Rand, and SMC employees,” as one field booster described them, but the rising proletariat of young soccer, lacrosse and rugby players.

Another irony comes from the fact that the ECLS critics accuse me and presumably the rest of the CWG for supporting private development on the site, alleging that we wanted a “boutique hotel” or other “commercial buildings,” that would turn public land over to profit-seeking developers. For the record, the CWG didn’t recommend anything; it laid out the possibilities and analyzed the financial implications of those possibilities but left it to potential re-developers of the Civic Auditorium to propose what they thought could work. Yet, while decrying the possibility of commercial development, the sports field boosters vociferously object to the ECLS, which is the antithesis of a profit-making entity.

Which gets down to the reality, which is opposition to change. Some people genuinely believe in the power of team sports to foster paradise, and I respect them. The political onslaught for the field and against any plan to save the Civic Auditorium came, however, from people who oppose building anything, whether it’s private or public, profitable or charitable, commercial or residential. If I could get my wish, the rest of the land around the Civic Auditorium, as well as the auditorium itself (save the beautiful lobby), will be included in the City’s inventory for housing sites and ultimately turned over to an affordable housing provider to build housing for low- and moderate-income families and workers, and for the homeless. I wonder how many of the sports field boosters would support that.

Now that the field and the ECLS have been built, there were a couple of comments from sports field boosters saying that okay, now it’s time to “cool it.” This is the final irony, because the sports field boosters were the only participants in the process that weren’t cool. The historic preservation community certainly rolled over. Childcare supporters generally supported the sports field and certainly didn’t oppose it. The attacks on the ECLS were ugly and gratuitous. It was never “either/or” between the field and the ECLS. Maybe the ferocity of the advocacy for the field intimidated any opposition, but for whatever reason all the heat came from one side.  

No, before asking everyone to cool it, the sports field boosters should apologize to the childcare community for the years of insults.

What about it?

Thanks for reading.

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.