October 25, 2015 - From the October/November, 2015 issue

Rick Cole: Santa Monica's City Manager Champions Innovation & Real Planning

The City of Los Angeles lost a champion for government reform earlier this year when Rick Cole, former deputy mayor for budget and Innovation, was recruited by Santa Monica to be their city manager. It gave Cole the opportunity to take a direct role in pursuing goals he’s long promoted: smart growth and creating great places. Now he steps into Santa Monica, where the landmark Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) of the General Plan was adopted back in 2010 but where recent development proposals have generated controversy. The group that spearheaded a referendum effort that killed the massive Hines Project near an Expo Line station is advocating an initiative to drastically limit nearly all development in Santa Monica. Cole shared his perspective on these challenges and laid out his priorities for TPR.

Rick Cole

"Future projects along our transit corridors will be subject to consistent standards, not subjective negotiations. That’s 'real planning.'" -Rick Cole

In three cities, you’ve used the General Plan process to find common ground on divisive planning issues. How will you tackle what might be an even more polarized situation in Santa Monica?

Rick Cole: We’re not the only community where development battles are currently raging. Here in Santa Monica, I think my unanimous selection by the City Council sent a signal that finding common ground is both desirable and possible. This city clearly has an opportunity to do what former LA Planning Director Gail Goldberg calls “real planning.”

More than most cities, Santa Monica has aggressively pursued project-by-project negotiations with developers. The intent was to extract maximum community benefits from each project: onsite affordable housing, transportation mitigations, and contributions toward social and cultural priorities. But the adoption of the LUCE should have led to a transparent and consistent set of development standards. Instead, a rush of proposed developments, some of them ludicrously out of scale, were proposed for individual “development agreements.” Neighborhood activists became increasingly alarmed—and increasingly suspicious of all development.

In June, just before I began my tenure, the Council unanimously adopted a zoning code for the entire city, except Downtown. That means future projects along our transit corridors will be subject to consistent standards, not subjective negotiations. That’s “real planning.”

Unfortunately, our draft Downtown Specific Plan was stalled for 18 months. In October, our Council unanimously approved the recommendation that Planning Director David Martin and I made to defer processing most pending Downtown development applications until the Downtown Plan is completed next June. Only a handful of housing projects were exempted (which all include affordable housing) along with preliminary reviews of two projects on city-owned land where final review will be under the adopted Downtown Plan. 

Does unanimity on the Council on these actions signal greater consensus in the community?

In the long run, I hope so. “Real planning” involves the whole community, not just the Planning Commission and the City Council. Plans should embody shared values and shared strategies, reflecting an inclusive range of community voices and interests. Ultimately, we all seek to make great places. Santa Monica has successfully created iconic landscapes, including the Third Street Promenade, and fostered great neighborhoods of widely varying character and densities. That legacy should inspire us to reinvigorate community collaboration.

Growth isn’t the only contentious issue in Santa Monica. The long-running controversy over the Santa Monica Airport crosses borders and goes all the way to Washington DC.

It’s both a great challenge and an opportunity. After three months on the job, I am not as versed in the history and complexity as those who’ve been fighting this battle for three decades. But one thing is clear: This tiny airport dating to 1919 is an unsafe and unhealthy venue for corporate and personal jet traffic. It’s surrounded on four sides by close-in residential neighborhoods. Some homes are just 300 feet beyond the runway.

Last fall, Santa Monica voters repudiated a clumsy attempt by aviation interests to block the Council from exercising local control. Instead, by a decisive 60-40 margin, they supported a rival measure aimed at protecting safety and health. So our Council is demanding the FAA stop stalling and issue an administrative ruling on our claim to local control. The FAA has delayed a decision four times.

This isn’t a parochial issue. Quality of life on the Westside would be significantly improved if airport facilities were eventually converted to a combination of parkland and repurposed “creative tech” spaces.

In Los Angeles, you were a champion of government reform. Will Santa Monica pursue similar innovation?


I believe the entire public sector must adapt to a rapidly changing world. Newspapers are just one example of a sector that waited too long to recognize the threat of disruptive technology. It’s delusional to think government is exempt from the forces of change.

Santa Monica actually has greater resources than the City of LA to pursue innovation. People are astonished to learn that Santa Monica’s General Fund reserves exceed those of Los Angeles, which has more than 40 times our population. That puts special responsibility on us to be champions of constructive change.

Let me point to a common challenge faced by both cities: homelessness. Last year, our Fire Department responded to more homeless distress calls than actual fires. It’s probably true in Los Angeles, as well. Who would design a system to treat the chronic health problems of homeless people by dispatching fire trucks manned by four firefighters? Santa Monica retooled our law enforcement approach with our Homeless Liaison Program (the Help Team that works directly with homeless service agencies to connect individuals with appropriate services). Now we’re funding a pilot Street Team of medical and service professionals to deploy instead of emergency vehicles that get 2.5 miles to a gallon of gas.

Santa Monica will also be a leader in data-driven governance. Our internationally recognized Wellbeing Index pioneers broader and more meaningful metrics of community and resident health than just crime rates or property values. The next task is to apply rigorous metrics to how we do our jobs—and how, in some cases, we redefine the jobs we should be doing.

With planning, the airport, and performance metrics on the agenda, that’s an ambitious set of goals. What are the other major priorities on the horizon?

When I arrived, I discovered that Santa Monica had about 15 projects that were considered Top Three priorities. While indicative of a progressive community committed to laudable goals, that’s obviously not sustainable. So I asked the Council to prioritize what really mattered most. Not surprisingly, affordability and mobility topped the list. No one on our Council wants to see Santa Monica transformed by market forces into “Beverly Hills by the Sea.” They’re dedicated to maintaining a diverse and inclusive community. Affordable housing strategies must be rethought, given the abolition of redevelopment and gaping loopholes in rent control imposed by Sacramento. Beyond seeking innovative approaches to housing affordability, we’re joining the City and County of LA to raise the wages of working people—another avenue for advancing affordability.

On mobility, the extension of the Expo Line is a local and regional game-changer. Over the past 20 years, 87 miles of rail have been constructed in LA County. Another 32 miles are coming online. The Gold Line and Expo extensions aren’t just more track. They mark a tipping point toward what LA Times writer Chris Hawthorne calls the “Third Los Angeles”: a city of new possibilities, symbolized by CicLAvia, that offers multiple choices for getting around. Great streets can be the norm, not the rare exception. Santa Monica is investing heavily in that future with the evolution of our Big Blue Bus, the debut of our first-in-the region Breeze Bikeshare, and extensive pedestrian improvements citywide.

We certainly want to play a constructive regional role in the countywide homeless crisis. We’ve done a good job inside our 8.3 square miles. But we have to be better partners with our neighbors in LA and coordinate with the county to unite behind what we all know works: housing first.

We’re also emphasizing education as a cornerstone of what makes Santa Monica unique. In partnership with the school district and community college, our “cradle to career” initiative focuses all our community resources to achieve measurable positive outcomes in the lives of young people, particularly disadvantaged ones. That includes a more active role for our library system in lifelong learning.

It’s an exciting time to be in Santa Monica. By pursuing innovative approaches, we aim to be a model of a city that works for everyone and a pacesetter for the LA region.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.