Monday, October 6, 2008

An Intermezzo to discuss the mythology of RIFT

I received a rather angry email today from a political candidate, who after questioning my motives for opposing Proposition T (i.e., because I am an architect and urban designer, I must be in league with the devil), finally got around to the real issue, writing:
"....most residents do not want to make Santa Monica into SF, DC, NY or even WLA or Playa Vista. We don't need out of towners to tell us what our city should be like. We want to keep what's left of our small beach town atmosphere."
Voila, I thought! This the hidden agenda, to preserve "what's left of our our small beach town." This is at the heart of what I call the mythology.

Maybe it's because I am a newcomer (having lived here three years), but I can't quite reconcile how a city that was home to 30,000 air-craft manufacturing jobs could be thought of solely as a small beach town. Clearly, Santa Monica has had another side to itself, a manufacturing town that played a critical role in the machinery of World War II production aircraft. The Santa Monica that I visited, perhaps twenty-some years ago, I guess after Douglas had closed down, was forlorn, and somewhat down on its heels. It was neither funky, nor laid back, but I'm not sure it's the Santa Monica that's remembered with as much fondness.

The comeback of Santa Monica over the last 2 decades is remarkable, clearly a case study for planners across the country. But this selective memory of the city, by at least a few of its long-time inhabitants, seems to be at the heart of almost every land-use debate in Santa Monica, and one, that in the context of RIFT must be addressed head-on.

Proposition T will not preserve what's left of the "small town beach atmosphere." In fact it will kill it. As I've argued previously (see Reason #9), Proposition T will have the effect of substituting housing-only districts for any sort of sustainable mixed-use development. The housing will be of some density (to be negotiated, no doubt) and cause more traffic than the uses that Proposistion T aims to limit. That new housing will bring even more "outsiders" into Santa Monica, who will demand services, shops, nightlife, etc. They will vote, both with their feet and at the ballot box. These new residents are unlikely to share the same concerns as those who would advocate "keeping what's left of the "small town beach community."

In other words, Proposition T will simply not accomplish the existential preservation goal some its proponents have invested in it. The situation reminds me of a prize fighter on his last legs, swinging wildly, hoping to land a lucky punch, but lacking any strategy or tactics to get back in the match.

On election night, if the measure passes, proponents will pop the corks and celebrate. But in five years, this existential preservation issue that seems to haunt this City will reemerge. Who really won that election five years ago the RIFT supporters will wonder, their faith in the myth of this measure dragging. Of course we all will have lost.

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