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Top Stories of 2006

By Lookout Staff

January 3 -- In 2006 the worst tragedy in Santa Monica history came to an end -- at least for now -- and a longstanding gang problem persisted, claiming the lives of two young residents. The year saw the City Council continue to tackle the beachside city's entrenched homeless problem, expand the smoking ban and outlaw most take-out food containers.

Last year saw an election with results that seemed anti-climactic, as the voters ushered in less personnel changes than the new city manager did. The result: The same members will sit on the City Council, but virtually every top City department has a new head. So do the School and College districts, after their boards hired new leaders.

Santa Monica Place will look similar after scrapping an ambitious redevelopment plan last year, but 415 PCH will be virtually brand new, the old Marion Davies estate now set to become a public beach club. And Santa Monica has a new public library that’s already logged some 750,000 visits.

1. Guilty: A tragedy that tore at the heart of Santa Monica for more than three years came to a tentative end in November, when a superior court judge reluctantly sentenced George Weller to five years probation and nearly $100,000 in fines.

Despite showing little remorse, the 89-year-old Santa Monica resident did not go to jail for killing 10 people and injuring 63 when his Buick plowed through a crowded Santa Monica farmers market in July 2003.

Although convicted of 10 counts of vehicular homicide October 20 in what is reportedly the worst traffic accident in Santa Monica history, Weller was spared from serving time behind bars by his advanced age and deteriorating health, said Superior Court Judge Michael Johnson. (see story)

The long-awaited sentencing, however, did not put an end to a legal saga. While a Superior court judge in July ruled that the City should not stand trial for the tragic crash, the same judge did not leave the Bayside District Corporation, which runs the Downtown, off the hook, ruling that the agency was in part responsible for the Farmers Market accident. The verdict is also still out in 38 separate civil lawsuits filed as a result of the crash.

2. New Boss Same as the Old Boss: One of the most expensive -- and nastiest -- campaigns in Santa Monica history did nothing to change the makeup of the City Council in the November race for three open seats, likely indicating that voters are by and large happy with how their City is run. (see story)

Council member Kevin McKeown is congratulated by former Mayor Dennis Zane. (Photo by Olin Ericksen)

Council member Kevin McKewown withstood a blitz of negative cable TV ads and mailers to win the top spot, followed by Council member Pam O’Connor and Mayor Bob Holbrook. (see story)

While SMRR retained its one-vote majority on the seven-member council, Planning Commissioner Terry O’Day became a household name, after seeing nearly $400,000 spent on his behalf by SMRR opponents.

But the rift within SMRR became apparent when O’Connor failed to give McKeown the fourth vote needed to become mayor. Instead, she cast the swing vote to split the two-year term between fellow SMRR member Richard Bloom and SMRR foe Herb Katz.(see story)

Despite the internal strife, SMRR not only maintained control of the council, the powerful tenants group swept the races for four seats on the School Board, four seats on the College Board and three seats on the Rent Control Board. (see story)

3. Violent Ends: A longstanding gang problem in the Pico Neighborhood exploded into the public light with the slaying of a popular Samohi student outside a mini mall in February. The fatal shooting of Eddie Lopez, who was not affiliated with gangs, reinvigorated a yearlong effort to address the thorny issue of youth violence.

(Photos by Ann K. Williams)

Increasing youth job fairs and resources for single parents, helping youths recently released from jail, expanding youth sports and arts programs, implementing early intervention and launching a more regional approach to gang violence were among the suggestions made at a community meeting in July.

That the problem is far from over was brought home during the final days of the year, when 22-year-old Santa Monica resident Miguel Martin was gunned down in Virginia Avenue Park, where the City is sponsoring a youth program to help get kids off the street.

4. Homeless in Paradise: The homeless were once again Santa Monica’s top issue in 2006, as the City released the results of a census that counted 1,192 homeless individuals across the beachside city.

City officials last year implemented several strategies to help get the homeless off the streets, including a strategy to tackle the problem on a regional basis. In July, the City moved ahead with a pilot “Community Courts” program that established a separate court for the homeless and mentally ill, providing an alternative to jail and offering services to individuals convicted of petty offenses.

In August, City officials announced an agreement to move indoors the largest groups that for more than a decade have used public land to hand out food to the homeless. (see story)

And in October, the City opened a new 55-bed homeless shelter at Michigan Avenue and Cloverfield Boulevard that offers temporary housing, supportive counseling and day services to a number of mentally ill adult men and women.

5. Beach Club Bash: More than a decade after the old Marion Davies estate at 415 PCH was red-tagged after the Northridge earthquake, the City will turn the dilapidated property into a public beach club, thanks to nearly $30 million from the Annenberg Foundation. (see story)

Rendering of 415 PCH Beach Club courtesy of Douglas Jamieson & Frederick Fisher and Partners

A legal roadblock that threatened to delay construction was lifted in September after the City Council voted to settle a lawsuit filed by four nearby homeowners. The settlement -- which requires separate agreements with the foundation and the California Department of Parks and Recreation -- sets forth conditions relating to operating hours, security, lighting, parking and noise. It also calls for the City to continue to lobby Caltrans to install a stoplight at the beach club entrance on PCH.

The suit was filed after the City Council unanimously denied four appeals by its Gold Coast neighbors who fear the project will pose safety hazards and lower their standard of living.

6. Banned: In a highly publicized vote, the City Council in October expanded Santa Monica’s far-reaching smoking ban to include all outdoor dining areas, farmers markets and the Third Street Promenade.

The law, which went into effect on Thanksgiving Day, also stamped out smoking in outdoor waiting areas -- such as ATMs, bus stops and movie lines -- and areas around public buildings that are within 20 feet of entrances, exits or windows that can open.

The tourism industry -- which pumps an estimated $50 million into the Santa Monica’s economy each year -- worried that the ban could hurt tourism. But City officials argued that that the health benefits will far outweigh any potential economic risks.

Smoking wasn’t the only thing banned in 2006. With the costs to local businesses unclear and a possible lawsuit looming, the City Council in December unanimously passed one of California's broadest bans on Styrofoam and non-recyclable plastic carry-out containers.

The council acted decisively with little to say on the issue after listening to environmentalists who say the products harm marine birds and fish and to plastic industry representatives who argue other products will end up polluting the bay.

With a hardship provision for businesses in place, the ban prohibits restaurants and stores from serving food -- mostly to-go items -- in containers made from blown polystyrene, or Styrofoam, as well as non-recyclable plastic.

7. Posts Filled: New faces filled a slew of top posts at City Hall in 2006, with new department heads coming from as near as Long Beach and as far away as Alexandria, Virginia.

In January, City Manager P. Lamont Ewell took charge of running the City and quickly established himself as a leader who gets things done. The former San Diego city manager acted to eliminate the ground squirrels in Palisades Park, refunded those who paid twice for parking violations and urged voters to give his post more power to hire and fire top officials.

He also hired Eileen P. Fogarty -- a “turn-around specialist” who reformed the planning process in Alexandria -- to head the Planning Department, and Long Beach Deputy Police Chief Timothy Jackman -- who advocates a holistic, open and collaborative approach to law enforcement -- as police chief.

Shortly before Christmas, Ewell tapped Carol O. Swindell -- who has headed administrative and finance departments in two Southern California cities -- as Santa Monica's new finance director.

8. Educated Moves: City Hall wasn’t the only public institution that saw sweeping changes in 2006. Dr. Chui L. Tsang took over Santa Monica College in February after heading San Jose City College for nearly a decade.

Tsang -- whose hiring capped a nearly yearlong search -- will work with a board with three new trustees elected by Santa Monica and Malibu voters in November.

The School District also saw major changes when Dianne Talarico took over from John Deasy as the new superintendent in July.

Talarico -- who as superintendent turned around Canton, Ohio schools and boosted student achievement -- quickly found herself at the center of a brewing controversy when the district’s chief financial officer, Winston Braham, failed to sign off on a raise for teachers.

The public disagreement led to Braham’s departure from a district that saw most of its top posts -- including two School Board seats -- filled with new faces.

9. Back to the Drawing Board: After scrapping an ambitious plan to rebuild Santa Monica Place, the Macerich Company unveiled a proposal in September to remodel the struggling indoor mall.

The proposed open air dining deck (Renderings courtesy of Macerich Company and Jerde Partnership)

The major remodel would make large portions of the center open air and offer a better connection to the Third Street Promenade. There would be an expanded center court and al fresco dining on the third level, where the food court would be relocated.

Floated before community and business groups, the plan seemed to get passing marks, a stark contrast to the original redevelopment plan, which included three 21-story towers, an office building, an apartment building and a rooftop park. Macerich hired a consultant to help determine the kinds of stores that are in demand and will be looking for retail that complements what’s already on the Promenade, company officials said.

When construction starts, the process also promises to be less disruptive than it would have been under the prior plan. Macy's department store could remain open and the two City-owned parking structures at Santa Monica Place will continue to operate, Macerich officials said.

10. Book It: In January, the City opened a new chapter in its cultural legacy, when hundreds of Santa Monicans turned out to join a who’s who of City officials to celebrate the grand opening of the new $57.7 million Main Library Downtown.

(Photo by Ann K. Williams)

Under construction for more than two years, the 104,000-square-foot library -- which opened to the public on January 7 -- showcases cutting-edge sustainable features, as well as an historic mural that has been out of sight for nearly half a century.

The library’s multistory walls of glass, movable walls and operable windows make the most of natural light and air, breaking down the barriers between inside and out, allowing patrons to wander in and out of the garden courtyard where they’ll be able to enjoy a cup of coffee while they browse the latest best seller. Ample parking is available in the 558-space, three-story underground garage.

 

 

 

 

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