Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Failing to learn from the past - SMRR, the LUCE, and the future

"History, with all her volumes vast, hath but one page" — Lord Byron, 1812

By the time you read this, the damage will already be done and our City Council will have approved Santa Monica's plan for real estate development, the Land Use and Circulation Element.

Urgent pleas from young people at the Pico Youth & Family Center and seniors at the Village Trailer Park will be ignored and they will be left at the mercy of any real estate developer with enough cash to hire Harding, Larmore, Kutcher & Kozal to do some lobbying/jawboning.

Before the 1979 founding of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights (SMRR), the council had a history of laying down for developers who "use land" as a money making commodity instead of standing up for those of us who use it to live our lives, raise our families, and support our community. The SMRR-dominated council leaving the most vulnerable Santa Monicans to be sacrificed on the altar of the profit motive shows that in the 30 years since SMRR's founding, the tenant's advocacy group has become the establishment in Santa Monica and forgotten its progressive past.

Words like "land use" and "development" can lose their meaning when repeated as often as they have been through this process. In commercial real estate, land is used for profit, and development is basically how one use is changed to another use to generate more profit. On a small scale, corporations like Starbucks can take X number of square feet (like at a freeway rest area) and turn them into Y number of dollars per year. On a larger scale, corporations like Westfield can turn a fallow city block into a shopping mall that generates millions. But big or small, real estate development is all about using land, the scarcest of all commodities, to make profit.

From the beginning, the city of Santa Monica has done battle with the land users and their lust for money using while preserving the quality of life for everyone who lives within our 8 square miles. When the railroad connected us to the rest of Los Angeles in the late 1890s via the Big Red Cars, we were kind of a West Coast Miami Beach; a city of seniors living in inexpensive little beach bungalows. Black and Mexican railroad workers became as much a part of Santa Monica as the elderly Jews and well-to-do suburbanites who lived here; and like those older residents, weren't well represented in city government. Over the next three decades or so, the land users, including the Chamber of Commerce, blocked a group of black investors from buying the Crystal Plunge (now the Casa Del Mar), promoted a city ordinance to vastly increase apartment construction to replace those bungalows, and basically transformed a retirement community into a full-on bedroom suburb of Los Angeles.

The land users cemented their control of Santa Monica in the 1960s when they got City Hall to designate a community of mostly elderly Jewish residents in Ocean Park (1,400 residential units on 25 acres) and a community of mostly black families in the Pico Neighborhood as "blighted" in order to justify destroying them … excuse me, in order to justify developing them into those giant cement boxes on the beach known as The Shores and the construction of the I-10 freeway.

That was about when rents started to skyrocket and the housing crisis which gave rise to SMRR began. An unlikely progressive coalition that included the Committee for Fair Rents, the Santa Monica Democratic Club, the Santa Monica Fair Housing Alliance, the Santa Monica Tenants' Union, and the local chapter of the Campaign for Economic Democracy banded together to fight City Hall — and won. Fast forward 30 years to today and SMRR is City Hall. Yet, unless I miss my guess, the SMRR-dominated council has thrown its lot in with the money-lusting land users, not the seniors and young people whose families make this city the best place in the world to live.

At last week's LUCE hearing, I realized what the real problem is when I was asked by land-use attorney Chris Harding how long I've lived in Santa Monica. He made it clear that he believes his 50 years as a resident trumps my four, therefore his vision for the future of our city has more merit than mine. As I get to know them as individuals, it seems to me that much of Santa Monica's old guard thinks this city belongs to them — and they, in their magnanimity, tolerate those of us who haven't already lived our lives and raised our families here. They know best, and we should shut up and go along like good little children.

I would remind those former freedom fighters who enjoyed positions of esteem in Sunday's Main Street parade and who may have discovered the comfort of a north of Montana address not to forget about the rent control wars fought out of garages and church basements in Pico and Ocean Park 30 years ago. I hate to imagine what this city would be like if you hadn't stood up then like those young revolutionaries from PYFC stood up to the City Council last week. Santa Monica needs your help to keep from becoming a soulless Beverly Hills West.


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