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Cole a Key Player as “New Urbanism” and Fears of Over-Development Clash in Santa Monica  

Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

Last in a series

March 15, 2017 -- The Santa Monica of 2030 could be a far cry from its days as an eclectic mix of hipsters and tourists lolled into a mellow state of mind by perpetually sunny skies, swaying palm trees and the glittering views and soothing sea breezes of the Pacific Ocean.

Gridlock on the city’s streets -- a by-product of popularity -- was already shattering what was left of the Santa Monica's original vibe when City officials, proud of their leading-edge reputation, started on a quest almost two decades ago to remake Santa Monica into a role model for “new urbanism.”

The concept asks for a dramatic shift in the landscape from SoCal “beach town” to a city of greater density, more development and buildings of a larger scale and potentially far taller heights (up to 22 stories in one case), particularly in its downtown -- Santa Monica’s heart.

Enter City Manager Rick Cole, a new urbanism true-believer whose ideas after three decades in city government mesh nicely with the City’s chosen future.

One of his first key moments came when he delayed a council vote in March 2016 on the proposed -- and bitterly fought -- plan for re-making downtown in the new urbanism mode.

The calming period was meant as a time for finding consensus ("Vote on Santa Monica Downtown Plan Delayed Yet Again," March 31, 2016).

A new iteration of the Downtown Community Plan (DCP) is expected to go the council for a final vote sometime this spring. City planners are adding final touches and the new DCP should publicly resurface any day now ("Stage Set for Final Battle Over Downtown Santa Monica Development Plan," February 23, 2017).

But activists and social media are far from calm.

“More and more techies!!!” are coming as the City tries to institute the changes to its plans, said Danielle Charne in a post about the future on the Facebook page for Residocracy, a grassroots/slow-growth group.

“And Starbucks! and condos -- and 12000 a month apartments -- I do not trust this city.”

Many Santa Monica residents feel they are at ground zero, watching major corridors like Lincoln Boulevard shed their identities as busy commercial thoroughfares to be “re-purposed” as a community for apartment dwellers, complete with streets meant for walking and socializing -- not dodging trucks and cars ("Another Step This Week in Transformation of Santa Monica's Lincoln Boulevard," September 20, 2016).

After suffering a long shortage of housing, the notion of new apartments is basically welcome. But with a string of mixed-use apartment buildings (usually five or more stories) set to go up in the near future, reality is setting in for those at ground zero.

Another post on the Residocracy Facebook site shows a recent photograph of Lincoln, ground to a stand-still by traffic.

“Traffic will be even worse once all those mass apt buildings are finished,” wrote Linda McKie Buckingham. “How ‘livable’ will Santa Monica be then?”

***

Long before heading to Santa Monica, Cole was often cited as an urban policy expert as a member of the Congress for New Urbanism and the Urban Land Institute. Last year, City Lab, a respected Los Angeles publication about innovation and urban planning, named Cole among 25 “Impact-Makers to Watch.”

Promoted as an antidote to sprawl, new urbanism seeks to recreate cities (and towns) as they were before the reign of automobiles: walkable and designed with homes and businesses so close that cars are not a necessity.

Development becomes denser by design, but in Santa Monica's case, that also means new buildings will need to be taller, since the city is already mostly built out.

As a result, fear of too many tall and large-scale developments is a common theme of critics, along with the potential loss of sunlight and sea breezes and the creation of more traffic.

Cole will carry out the City’s development plans upon approval, so community watchdog groups and neighborhood organizations watch him closely.

He is trying to allay their worries.

While downtown apartment buildings “will be taller than what is currently on those properties -- they will be notably LESS tall than many much taller office, hotel and mixed-use buildings that were already built in Downtown in earlier decades,” Cole wrote in an email to The Lookout.

The Downtown Plan, meanwhile, has a 60-foot height limit (or lower) over most of the central business district, he said.

“The only 84 foot buildings will be in the area immediately adjacent to transit. And we have recommended just three sites be given consideration of heights of up to 130’ which is still less than half as tall as Downtown’s tallest existing building.”

Cole notes that Downtown represents only 5 percent of the land area of the City and that the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) and Zoning Code adopted prior to his hiring "will preserve the existing scale of virtually the entire rest of the city."

Among the "very few exceptions" is "the long-ago approved future expansion of St. Johns Hospital campus," he said.

***

Those who have faced Cole as opponents believe he wields great power of persuasion -- and that makes them nervous.

His focus on social media like Twitter for communication is fine -- when the issue is street closings (and if you are accustomed to using social media to begin with), they say.

But it is also a way of controlling what residents do -- or do not -- know, says Diana Gordon of the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City.

Gordon says it was as if SMCLC and other activists had suddenly ceased to exist when Cole blogged on December 30 that "consensus" had been reached on the DCP and that the plan was a “tremendous success.”

The DCP is not yet complete and the council hasn’t voted on it.

"In fact, there is widespread and growing opposition," Gordon said after seeing Cole's comments in "The Long View," his well-read City blog.

Cole later clarified his blog to remove the comments. But it didn't help allay suspicions that his strategy has always been to block voices of dissent.

The enlarged public relations apparatus created since his 2015 arrival was designed “not only to sell Santa Monica to tourists but to manage the residents who object to the City's pro-development policies,” said Tricia Crane, who co-authored Measure LV, which hoped to give voters -- not the City -- power to approve most buildings taller than two stories.

The same suspicion was raised in November, after an eight-month public "outreach" effort proposed by Cole to determine what the community thought of the Downtown Plan ("New Santa Monica Downtown Development Plan Spurs More Worries," November 22, 2016).

Conducted by City planners, the campaign was unprecedented in Santa Monica for the numerous meetings it entailed, as well as an online survey, the use of other internet tools and the presence of staff at popular gathering places, like farmers’ markets, to gauge public opinion.

Still, some who took part said that at times the process felt more like a public relations campaign than a real attempt to take the public's pulse on development.

Take the findings “with a grain of salt,” advised Mary Marlow, who heads the watchdog group Transparency Project and was a participant in the outreach effort.

***

Since the defeat of Measure LV last November, other hot-button issues have come to the fore. Chief among them is the issue of pay and benefits for municipal employees -- among the highest in California ("Santa Monica Municipal Budget Among Highest Per Capita in California," November 16, 2016).

The long-standing issue -- along with post-election bitterness -- has landed on Cole, who has been meeting with community groups since he was hired.

Even the decades-old battle to close the municipal airport includes fear about development.

The City Council and Federal Aviation Administration have agreed to close the century-old airport at the end of 2028 ("City, FAA Agree to Close Santa Monica Airport in 2028," January 28, 2017).

A “Great Park” is now meant to replace the 227-acre facility. But there is plenty of skepticism about the City's willingness to say no to developers.

Cole hears the doubts, but harbors none himself. The “transformative” experience he sees coming for Santa Monica isn’t just about more and taller building, he said.

It also embraces the “conversion of the Airport to parkland, the expansion of Memorial Park, bridging over the Freeway Downtown, the construction of a joint use play field in the Civic Center” and other green space.

Although his bosses are tight-lipped about some of the city manager's outspoken views, Cole has their support.

“If the Council was not happy with how Rick does his job, he would not still have it," Councilmember Kevin McKeown said.

Mayor Ted Winterer also is supportive.

“I think Rick has been very effective as City Manager,” Winterer told the Lookout. “I'm especially pleased with his efforts to focus our energies on five strategic priorities and to make our government more efficient and responsive through better use of performance metrics.”

Cole says he does not "mean to marginalize" activists "but just because they come to meetings, speak up and are organized (on both sides of the most contentious issues in town)” doesn’t mean they should dominate public discourse.

Still, activists see a certain irony in such remarks.

After all, Cole entered the world of governance as a civil rights and anti-Vietnam War activist, spending some of his time in high school as a writer for an underground newspaper called "Iskra,"  named for a paper edited by Lenin.

As Pasadena mayor -- and in front of an international TV audience of 400 million -- Cole caused gasps when he shunned formal attire for the venerated Tournament of Roses Parade in 1993, wearing instead a plain Oxford shirt, with a T-shirt underneath that branded the event the "Tournament of Racists."

He apologized, but the uproar did lead to more racial diversity at the more than century-old organization. During his council tenure, he also helped usher in "smart growth" development and the renaissance of the city's dying downtown.

Moving on to become Azusa City Manager, Cole's  activism got him into trouble again.

In a 2000 incident, Cole was so upset by a local sexually-suggestive billboard related to a sports franchise that he and others (including a city council member) used a City "cherry picker" truck to reach it and paint over the last two words, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The sign on Azusa Avenue said, "On Sunday April 9th, Six Beautiful Women Will Show You Their Panties" -- part of an ad campaign for the debut of the Los Angeles Avengers, an arena football team.

Cole said he was acting on his conscience, as a father and a citizen, but came to have regrets.

"I did not think through the ramifications of a city manager doing this," he said, the Times reported.

County prosecutors launched an investigation of the incident. The council member who joined Cole, Dick Stanford, said he would pay the cost of using the City truck.

Top management posts followed in the cities of Ventura (which he predicted would become the next Portland) and Los Angeles.

Lately, he is juggling his job, his critics and now also spending his weekend time attending community events in Santa Monica, seeking, he says, voices that aren’t always heard.

"I have both a deep belief in the efficacy of democracy and a deep unease about the health of it at the local level (not to mention the national one)," Cole said in an email to the Lookout.

But a "healthy democracy cannot survive constant polarized conflict," he said. "It needs the antidote of citizens looking past their own interests and personal beliefs to seek common ground and common good.

“This is in short supply these days and I hope I can contribute to working toward strengthening our ability to find it together.”

And he has also started posting City information on Residocracy.


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