March 1, 2024 - From the March, 2024 issue

David White Bringing City of Santa Monica Back Online Post-Pandemic

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced worldwide shutdowns in tourism, retail, dining, and public events, few cities took it harder than Santa Monica, a city which had long utilized its massive dining, retail, and hotel tax revenues to superfund their city budget. Post-pandemic, the city continues to be challenged by COVID related revenue losses, homelessness, crime, as well as pricey court rulings. TPR, in this exclusive interview, spoke with Santa Monica City Manager David White on how the city is successfully recovering from its difficult position and why he maintains a positive outlook on Santa Monica’s future. In the interview, White talks about reviving the 3rd Street Promenade, civic engagement, their novel approaches to homelessness and crime, as well as projects like the Civic Auditorium and the potential Santa Monica Airport park.

David White

“We're definitely going through some lean times. However, we have been a triple A rated city and we continue to be a triple A rated city. We continue to tackle these issues with fiscal prudence and really thoughtful approaches…” - David White

TPR: Let’s begin with a question that all cities and city managers must confront these days: How is your city, Santa Monica, in 2024, combating homelessness and crime?

David White: Those are really THE two biggest issues.

The issue of homelessness has certainly defined this generation of city management in a way that when I first got into government, I didn't honestly think was going to be true. But homelessness has become increasingly more present. I cannot speak to what every city is doing, but I can certainly speak to what Santa Monica is doing. I speak about this with a tremendous amount of pride because what we do here in Santa Monica is really special.

We deploy a comprehensive approach to addressing homelessness. We work hard to balance our efforts on the enforcement end and keep our work oriented from a very compassionate perspective. Firstly, we work very hard to keep people housed. We do this through eviction protection, right to counsel programs, and emergency assistance. We do everything we can to ensure that people do not enter a life of homelessness. But, if they do, right then our work becomes proactive on the streets. We have a variety of resources that connect people to services and housing. There is a dedicated team in our police department called the Homeless Liaison Program Team. They partner with the L.A. County Department of Mental Health, and have a clinician assigned to them, and they work day in and out to enforce laws, while also approaching their work with compassion and connecting people to services and housing whenever possible.

We also have a number of outreach teams, called C3 teams, which are multidisciplinary outreach teams that also connect people to services and housing. We focus and prioritize people who are high users of police and fire services and people who are most likely to die on the streets. The third thing we do, which I think is the real key to addressing homelessness, is focus on increasing the supply of housing. Our housing department is proactive and focused on increasing the supply of both affordable housing and permanent supportive housing. To broaden and deepen our work, we are focusing on developing regional partnerships and collaborations, but also working with new resources that our community has allowed us to utilize through new tax measures that are focused on public safety and homelessness.

We recently announced a partnership with LA County to deploy a Therapeutic Transport Team. It consists of a clinical social worker, an individual with lived experience, and a driver, and they're going to work in partnership with our police and fire departments to respond to calls for service involving people with behavioral health and mental health issues. We think this is really important because when a Police Officer and Firefighter responds to a call, we want them to be able to give the situation the clear and move onto the next call. We want them to be available to our community. This team enables working at an individual level with people who are having behavioral or mental health issues and having the capacity to transport them and connect them to services and housing.

We're also trying to intervene in the criminal justice system, which I want to give specific credit to our City Attorney’s Office for this. We work very hard on the streets to address public safety and criminality. We brought forward our new Homeless Court, which we also call our STEP Court. When an individual is going through the court system, they could have their criminal record expunged if they agreed to receive services and treatment and complete the program. We are bringing this program into our community, and housing it in a city facility, which is a change from how it was done previously. This will make the program more successful because it addresses one of our biggest barriers in previous iterations of the program, which was getting people connected to transportation to the courthouse at LAX.

Santa Monica is also leading the way in committing more city properties to be used exclusively for affordable housing and permanent supportive housing, and we have many of these projects underway.

Lastly, we are elevating our regional collaborations and partnerships. We understand here in Santa Monica that we cannot address this issue alone and we need to bring more people to the table. We are anticipating many new announcements that reflect our deep collaboration with our county and state partners. We work on all ends of the spectrum addressing this issue because we ultimately know that there is no one solution to this issue. Human beings are complex organisms, so we need a variety of responses to be successful.

In 2021, TPR interviewed Dr. Orduña and other city staff in Santa Monica on how best to respond to these challenges. Have the city’s holistic and collaborative approaches to homeless and crime evolved? Is there a model for other like cities with similar issues?

A little bit of both. We lean on best practices specifically in terms of our outreach teams. We also are working innovatively and offering opportunities for people to replicate. Any city can take stock of their land inventory and orient themselves to develop on city-owned land. There are two constraints that we primarily confront in the system. One is the lack of resources. We are investing in our emergency shelter to create capacity for intakes 24/7. This will help our overnight first responders who currently have limited resources for individuals they encounter. I hope we can inspire other jurisdictions around this because it's something that many jurisdictions are truly suffering from.

Returning to crime and safety, how is Santa Monica addressing a countywide surge in property theft?

When I got to Santa Monica, we were dealing with vending issues and property theft in our community. We looked at our deployment patterns to ensure that we were putting people in the right places at the right times to address these issues. We've also increased our police department with new tax money that came in the door. We have grown our Police Department’s capacity in line and respectfully with our issues. Currently, the Homeless Liaison Program Team operates four days a week, and we want to expand it to seven and grow the team that focuses on downtown. We've also partnered with the private sector and have expanded private security services in our community, specifically in parking garages and on the pier.

We are also integrating exciting technology. We’ve deployed our drone as a first responder program. When our first responders get a call, if it's going to take a minute for the police officer to arrive, or we can't get eyes on a scene right away, we will deploy our drone to get to the crime scene before the officer. This drone is helpful for two specific reasons. An easy example of its usefulness was when our drone got to the scene of a fist fight. Our police officers could not immediately get to the area, so we had the drone collect evidence while watching the fight. And then as the suspect fled, the drone followed the suspect and sent their location to the Police Department, which meant the officer could approach the suspect without having to blare their lights while running through the streets. They could come up calm and cool and apprehend the suspect.

I'll give you another example to show the other way the drone has been helpful. Once we received a call about an individual with a gun in their hand walking around a parking lot. The drone was deployed and arrived at the scene and saw the person with the supposed weapon use it to light a cigarette. It wasn’t a real gun; it was a lighter. This information allowed the officers to approach the scene with more accurate information and a level head, knowing they were not putting themselves in a situation that could be harmful, or put the suspect in harm. This is a small example of our pursuits this year, and I want to give a lot of appreciation to our Police Department. They received a significant state grant of $6.2 million and are going to build out a Real Time Crime Center. This will enhance our video camera system and automated license plate reader system, expand our drone as a first responder program to proactively collect information in the community when we get a call saying there is a crime occurring. It allows for better data collection for our City Attorney’s Office and helps us to be a better partner with other public safety agencies. An example of this concept in action occurred in Beverly Hills, when police made an arrest and sent out an alert on a car moving through the county. Beverly Hills had the license plate and an automated license plate reader, and they got pinged when the car hit their city and an arrest was made. We want to be able to do that as well here in Santa Monica because that puts us on the forefront of being able to get to criminals right before they're able to do any type of damage in our city. That's how we're looking at the public safety realm.

How fiscally healthy is Santa Monica today, post COVID? Have the city’s finances recovered?

The tourism industry wasn’t the only industry hit, it was the technology industry and service sector as well. We lost people coming to Santa Monica for recreation and fun as well as commuters. We are still in recovery mode. Our tourism is strongly rebounding, but fewer people are coming into the office, so we are working on how to encourage people to come back to work.

Our recovery trajectory has been interesting: Our hotels started to reinvest in their brands and facilities, and new hotels started to move through the system. We are anticipating the opening of the Regent Hotel, which Forbes has billed it as one of the top 30 new hotels in the world in the coming year. We are also closely working with a local developer on a new hotel at Santa Monica and Ocean Avenue, a Frank Gehry designed hotel mixed-use project that is looking to start construction in 2025 with the hopes of opening before the Olympics.

We are seeing an uptick in residential development. Today in downtown Santa Monica, we have about 800 units of housing under construction, and about five or six different projects are actively moving forward. We’ve seen something really interesting, that with a variety of state laws that have gone into effect, we're seeing more developers increase the density of their projects, and more aggressively move forward on getting their projects approved and ready for construction. Because of the housing crisis and the high quality of life Santa Monica residents have, we see a lot of positive future growth in Santa Monica and anticipate strong residential development for years to come. We don’t see teleworking going away any time soon, so this is important to our continued economic recovery because it brings people into our community who hopefully develop a vested interest in our future and bring in disposable income to help fuel our recovery.

In terms of retail, every time I open the LA Times, I see some food profile and it never surprises me when it's a Santa Monica restaurant. We continue to see new restaurant concepts open in our community. Montana Avenue has been a wonderful retail street that has taken off and Main Street has become ground zero for some wonderful dining opportunities. Our focus now is on the Promenade, this iconic strip of land in Santa Monica that everyone knows about, and we're really bullish about its future. Santa Monica Place, the mall down on Colorado and Fourth is working really hard to position themselves for success in the future. Din Tai Fung is coming to Santa Monica Place, a wonderful restaurant with a tremendous brand. Santa Monica Place also has a South Korean interactive museum concept that has a lot of buzz to it. Barnes and Noble is coming back to the Promenade. We're seeing strong positioning around lifestyle wear and active wear… We see all the seeds being planted for a very robust future.

Santa Monica’s budget before COVID was the envy of most California Cities.  Has the City been able to staff up to deliver public services in response to all the growth that you've been describing?

Staffing increases have been incremental, though we are still far from where we were. While we have seen the recovery, we have not restored services at the level that our community expects or that we strive to deliver. In addition to coming out of COVID, Santa Monica has faced a number of liabilities, including having to address claims of sexual abuse against a former employee. To date we have settled multiple claims that have cost the city over $200 million. And that's had a tremendous financial impact on us.

Secondly, the city has been involved in a years-long lawsuit around a demand to go to district based elections. We've been all the way up to the state Supreme Court. We're going back down to the trial court. Should the city lose, the city would carry a significant liability. As a result of these, we've been more constrained than we would like to be, and we haven't been able to bring back services like libraries fully reopened and after school programs are still not fully restored. Recreation programs also continue to suffer. We have deferred maintenance, we have capital needs, and that's really frustrating, particularly in a community where people are more accustomed to abundance. We're definitely going through some lean times.

However, we have been a triple A rated city and we continue to be a triple A rated city. We continue to tackle these issues with fiscal prudence and really thoughtful approaches, so that as we continue to emerge and get over this difficult time, we'll be poised to accelerate and hire the folks that we need to hire to deliver the services we need to deliver.

This interview began with your pride in the revitalized Promenade. What's the key to that turnaround? Is it greater security?

First, we've expanded uses allowed on the Promenade. We've also simplified the approval process, including removing a lot of the conditional use permit requirements. We've shortened the time frame by which people can open up doors on the Promenade. We've made it easier for pop-up shops and activations. It's also about making sure that we have a safe and clean environment on the Promenade.

You can have the most safe place but if it isn't shiny, you're still not going to want to be there. We have very robust Public Works teams and have spent a lot of time on the Promenade making sure that it is one of the cleanest places in the city. Retail is changing. People are buying fewer goods in stores and they're looking for experiences. We are working on different types of attractions that we can bring into the Promenade area - entertainment and shopping.

We brought forward an opportunity to our council to bring Cirque du Soleil back down to Santa Monica. They were here for many, many years, and we were the launching point. We want to bring them back to our community and hopefully that will anchor people here for a day. We're also looking to expand other entertainment uses. Everyone knows about our famous ice-skating rink. We're looking at bringing roller skating. We’re looking to bring a company called Rooftop Cinema to activate the upper deck of one of our parking structures so that you can enjoy the beautiful views of the beach while you're watching a movie. We also have a wonderful mixed-use project with a museum coming into our community. Those are some of the approaches that we're working on today to really support a thriving Promenade and 2024 and beyond.

Pivoting to the Santa Monica Airport: What is the city asking Sasaki firm to do about converting the airport into a great park?

We are asking them to be incredibly thorough in the community to understand what the variety of needs and interests and desires are to make it a very special place. They're in the very beginning stages of harnessing all the discussions that have occurred over many years. We're not starting from scratch. We now see the opportunity for closure is Jan. 1, 2029. It will take time but their job is to develop the actual concept plans that will lay the foundation for more advanced planning work to actually build that special place.

Turning to Lincoln Boulevard, elaborate on your what you envision; especially re the addition of a couple thousand units on the Boulevard and how that might affect both Downtown and Santa Monica as a whole.

You will see what's happening on Lincoln Boulevard most strongly if you go north of Interstate 10, where there is an incredible amount of mixed-use development. It's either coming online, under construction, or being entitled today. This is our future. We're also seeing this start to take hold at a lower level, south of Lincoln as well. We envision a really strong mixed-use corridor, more residential development and retail uses on the ground floor, but limiting it because we're trying to be careful about the retail that we bring into the community.

Civic Engagement: Santa Monica has been committed seriously to civic engagement for decades. What strategies are you now employing re engaging constituents in re-envisioning both the airport and the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.

It’s a blessing to have such an engaged community. There's a tremendous diversity of opinion, and we need to be engaged to hear what the level of thought is.

The Civic Auditorium has seen engagement occur over many years, and we understand that the community has sought for that facility to be revitalized as an entertainment and cultural facility. Currently, we are trying to see if anyone is willing to take on the financial costs to revitalize and restore that facility.

The airport, however, is completely different. We know the ranging opinions, from a public space perspective, of what could be there based on what the community needs. We'll be going to neighborhood association meetings and farmers markets, and we'll be engaging the community electronically. We are going to get in touch with people in their homes, and we'll be using polling. Diversity, equity, and inclusion practices push you, even in something like traditional outreach, to do things differently and more strategically. Many people aren't engaged in their government daily, so we have to work to get in their face to develop a space that will be representative of the whole community.

Lastly, TPR before your tenure, interviewed staff about your City Hall annex ambitions. That building was touted as the most sustainable, healthy public building in the United States. What’s happened? Has it met expectations?

That building has come to life. It was completed in the most awkward moment of time in history, the moment that we shut down the economy for the pandemic. There was a delay in bringing people into the office and bringing that building to life. But the building has been a wonderful demonstration to state representatives, federal representatives, and to other jurisdictions of what a sustainable building can be and how to do it. We're currently in the performance period of the building, hopefully by the end of 2024 we will have completed this step to receive the Living Building Challenge certification that we anticipate. It’s a hallmark of our commitment to sustainability. In my perspective, Santa Monica is on the path to becoming one of the most sustainable cities in the world.


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