As the worst of the pandemic subsides, downtown Santa Monica has become the focal point of a community debate over crime, homelessness, and economic recovery.
There is a coalition of property owners who believe the deteriorating conditions on the boardwalk and in the downtown parking garages and alleys are preventing visitors and businesses from visiting the area.
“If we don’t do something now, visitors will shop elsewhere,” said Janet Morris, a member of the Bayside Property Owners Association, at a city council meeting on September 14th. “How long do you think buyers will keep coming if they feel unsafe in the parking garages? How will elderly people and people with disabilities navigate through the parking garages when the elevators don’t work? “
One property owner, John Alle, has taken his grievances to the point of suing the city over maintenance of the area.
“Business owners here in Santa Monica want you and the Council to focus on the safety of the downtown boardwalk here and now and end the tramps, many of whom are, from taking over our garages, dumpsters, stairwells, elevators and sidewalks.” armed and dangerous, ”Alle said in a letter dated September 17th to Mayor Sue Himmelrich.
Two conversations will soon take place on the future of Downtown and what steps can be taken to address concerns from residents and owners.
The first is a city council discussion on the Promenade Vitality Plan, which Mayor Sue Himmelrich says will take place during the next council meeting (September 28), includes a staff report, and convenes several stakeholders. The vitality plan represents a long-term vision for modernizing the shops and activities on the promenade.
The second discussion is a city hall meeting hosted by Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. (DTSM) that focuses on public safety efforts along Third Street Promenade and the adjacent neighborhood. SMPD officers will present the latest crime statistics and an update on incident levels and crime fighting strategies, while DTSM will share information on its Safety Ambassador program.
The meeting will take place on September 29, 2:00 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Santa Monica Place.
“We are pleased to call this meeting. My CEO has had one-on-one meetings with smaller groups of property owners for the past six weeks, ”said Kathleen Rawson, CEO of DTSM. “The top priority is definitely security, a sense of security and homelessness.”
Rawson said homelessness-related issues increased during the pandemic as accommodation capacities were reduced and the area was largely devoid of visitors. She said anecdotally she saw an additional spike in homelessness along the Venice promenade after the camp was cleaned up in July.
DTSM is currently working to address concerns through its team of ambassadors for safety, hospitality, maintenance and quality of life.
Ambassadors are on call 24/7 and perform a variety of duties including escorting people to and from vehicles and businesses upon request, patrolling the district to resolve undesirable activity, reporting incidents to SMPD, and oversight services for parking garages, public Toilets, alleys and sidewalks provide. Ambassadors are unarmed and have no crime enforcement skills.
SMPD has 12 officers assigned to its Downtown Services Unit and complements that team by patrolling civil service officers and officers in its homeless liaison program.
Both DTSM and SMPD have stated that their resources are currently tight.
According to Rudy Flores, Public Information Officer for the SMPD, one of the biggest challenges the department is facing in addressing the problems in the inner city is the “strong demand for more staff across the city.”
Flores also pointed to an increase in the number of homeless people and changes to the California code that removed jail or bail for certain crimes as challenges.
DTSM has faced significant budget cuts due to the pandemic, has lost around 30 percent of its team and has taken on several tasks that were previously the responsibility of the city. Mackenzie Carter, director of marketing and communications at DTSM, said some of these new responsibilities include maintaining the boardwalk fountains, paying for certain capital improvements on the boardwalk, and locking up garage storage overnight.
Rawson expressed frustration at the amount of vitriol being used against their organization, saying that there is often confusion about what the DTSM’s responsibility to the city is. For example, while DTSM ambassadors help with cleaning downtown garages, the organization is not responsible for maintaining elevators or repairing bathrooms.
“It’s really important to make the distinction that everything we do should contribute to the baseline of city services, but as that baseline got deeper and deeper, we had to fill the gap,” said Rawson.
The city council has expressed a desire to work on these issues and has instructed staff to review security measures in the city center.
“I know the state of downtown and have met with several property owners,” says Himmelrich. “I think we have to make progress and get to this area soon.”
Himmelrich outlined some of the hurdles the city faced in directing downtown efforts, including the lack of a permanent city manager and city attorney, strained resources due to pandemic budget cuts, and the need to respond to issues in other areas of the city as well.