By Lookout Staff
December 29, 2014 -- 2014 could prove to be a transitional year for Santa Monica. On the political front, slow-growth advocates took control of City Hall, Bob Holbrook stepped down after a record 24 years on the City Council and the ouster of Santa Monica’s newly hired communications officer set off a legal and public relations battle that will resonate into the new year.
In 2014, the City stepped up preparations for the arrival of the first train in more than six decades, the Promenade turned 25 after helping put Santa Monica on the international map and the worst drought in a century gripped the beachside city, forcing some hard choices. Oh, and Pony rides will no longer be a part of Sundays on Main Street.
Here are the Lookout’s picks for the top stories of 2014.
Slow-growth Advocates Gain Control of Council, McKeown Elected Mayor
Santa Monica voters tilted the balance of power on the City Council November 4, when they elected slow growth advocates Kevin McKeown and Sue Himmelrich by large margins. The election – which saw slow-growth foe Pam O’Connor manage to hold on to her seat – was still a major victory for residents who claim overdevelopment is jeopardizing what is left of Santa Monica’s beach-town character. The newly seated council sent a strong signal when McKeown was finally elected mayor after 16 years on the Council. The slow-growth council majority will likely have a marked impact on some of the major developments currently making their way through the City’s planning pipeline, including the redevelopment of two Downtown hotels and the building of a third, and major developments proposed near future light rail stations. (“Slow-growth Advocates Gain Control of City Council,” November 6, 2014)
Major Project Blocked
The second reading of a City Council item usually amounts to no more than a rubber stamp. That was far from the case when it came to a 765,000-square-foot project in the City’s industrial corridor. Residents had packed previous council meetings and staged rallies at City Hall to stop the project, but the majority on the council had voted to enter into a development agreement for the abandoned Papermate factory site. On May 13 -- after opponents gathered some 13,500 signatures, more than twice the amount needed to put the question before voters -- Council member Gleam Davis changed her vote, and the project was rescinded on second reading. The dramatic reversal signaled the rise of a movement that six months later would help elect a slow-growth majority to the City Council.("Council Repeals Approval of Controversial Development, "May 14, 2014)
For Auld Land Syne
Bob Holbrook – who campaigned as “the voice of reason” – teared up as he sat on the dais for the last time in his record breaking 24-year career on the City Council. Holbrook, who was twice elected mayor by his colleagues, was elected six times without the backing of the City’s powerful tenants group, Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR), which has held a steady council majority for three decades. The only Santa Monica native on the dais, Holbrook was widely viewed as an independent voice whose down-to-earth demeanor grounded a council sometimes prone to ideological pronouncements. In the mid-1990s, Holbrook led a successful effort to crack down on aggressive panhandling and sleeping in public parks, and pushed for better accounting of City-funded homeless services. (“Santa Monica Bids Bob Holbrook a Fond Farewell,” November 27, 2014)
In the end, it wasn’t even close – opponents of Santa Monica Airport trounced an industry backed measure that would have prevented the City Council from making any adjustments to the City owned airport property without voter approval. Opponents also won a landslide victory with a rival proposal they hope will pave the way for a park on the 227 acres of airport land. Days after the election, Airport2Park announced it would begin planning a park on airport property, this despite several warning signs. In February, a federal judge dismissed Santa Monica’s lawsuit against the FAA that would have given City Hall control over the airport’s future. And in August City Attorney Marsha Moutrie cautioned the Council that closure of the airport would happen only after a long legal battle, and nothing can be done to reduce the length. (“Opinions Vary on Reasons for Lopsided Ballot Measure Results,” November 6, 2014)
Riel Fired/Gould Resigns
It was Santa Monica’s mini version of Watergate. Elizabeth Riel, the City’s newly hired public information officer saw her contract rescinded before she started her job. At the heart of the matter was the single biggest pressing issue in Santa Monica -- development. In 2006, Riel had penned a column criticizing the City’s failure to release public documents concerning a major development project, and she had contributed $1,000 to a mailer from a slow-growth group attacking Council member Pam O’Connor. Riel countered with a suit charging the City violated her first amendment rights. In July, City Manager Rod Gould announced he would be leaving his post January 1. Stay tuned. ("Federal Court Denies Santa Monica's Motion.", September 24, 2014)
Promenade Turns 25
In September, 25 years after community leaders transformed a decaying shopping strip into one of the most profitable outdoor shopping malls in the world, Santa Monica officials celebrated the Promenade's 25th anniversary. During the past quarter century, the Promenade became a world renowned destination and Santa Monica’s main economic engine. A successful cross between an old-fashioned central plaza and a modern commercial strip, it has become a model other cities have tried to emulate, with only limited success. (“The Ingredients for Success,” September 15, 2014)
Water Rates to Rise Amidst Epic Drought
By summer, the statewide drought had become so severe that the signature dinosaurs on the Promenade stopped spouting water. It was a fitting sign of Santa Monica’s efforts to conserve water amidst the worst dry spell in a century. In December, the Council laid the groundwork for a plan that would jack up rates, impose a “water use allowance” for each customer and set residential water conservation thresholds and drought surcharges. The measures are a way to reach the goals outlined in the City’s Sustainable Water Master Plan. Approved in October, the plan is expected to reduce water use by 20 percent during the drought and make the City water sufficient by 2020. (“City Staff Again Recommends Water Hike,” December 12, 2014)
Santa Monica Politicians Move to Higher Office
In November, for the first time, two former Santa Monica elected officials took the oath of office at the State Capitol in Sacramento. Former School Board member Ben Allen began his first term as senator after handily defeating Sandra Fluke in a nationally watched election, while former Mayor Richard Bloom began his second term in the Assembly. With Santa Monica resident Sheila Kuehl beginning her stint on the powerful County Board of Supervisors, Santa Monica had three residents holding major political posts. Kuehl beat another Santa Monica resident, former Mayor Bobby Shriver. (“Santa Monica Elected Officials Make History,” December 5, 2014)
Final Stop for Expo Coming Up
Santa Monica made final preparations in 2014 for the arrival of the Expo light rail line, which will connect the beachside City to Downtown LA by rail for the first time since the last Pacific Electric Rad Car was pulled from the rails in 1950. In November, workers laid down the electrical components to the tracks that end just a few blocks from the iconic entrance to the Santa Monica Pier. The Big Blue Bus eliminated routes and adjusted others to better integrate its service with the train. And the Council revised the design of a key component to the Colorado Esplanade that will greet riders, and it sent back to the drawing board an $8 million temporary bus transfer station near the end of the line. When service starts next year, as many as 400 passengers are expected to get on and off the trains every five minutes during peak hours. (“Santa Monica’s Colorado Esplanade Project to Get Upgrade,” September 10, 2014)
For the first time in two decades, come spring pony rides will not be a staple at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market on Main Street. In September, City Council members sided with opponents of the popular pony rides and petting zoo, issuing a request for proposals to replace the attraction with other non-animal-related “children's-oriented activities.” Opponents of the rides had accused Tawnis Ponies and Petting Farm, Inc of animal abuse. The City found no evidence to support the charges. Angel and her husband Jason Nester, who own the company, fired back with a lawsuit charging animal rights activists Marcy Winograd and Danielle Charney of libel and “intentional infliction of emotional distress,” among other charges. ("Pony Rides to be Replaced at Santa Monica Farmers Market", September 11, 2014)