Buzz Kill

The road to the hot new silicon beach is paved with good intentions—and way too many drivers

Illustration by Gracia Lam

When did it happen? I looked up and suddenly a whole chunk of Santa Monica, my birthplace, had gone cool—not just from the usual Pacific breezes, but from the invasion of dot-com companies. In my mind, this industry was and would always be a Bay Area fixture. That’s where Steve Jobs and the Jobs wanna-bes clustered in a hypercaffeinated, relatively unostentatious environment that nurtured the cloistered geeks, the driven iconoclasts. It never occurred to me that they would make their way to our sunny shore. But that’s what’s happening. With their electric bikes and iEverythings, the tech masters are burrowing in, co-opting the warehouses and factories whose jobs have long since migrated to L.A.’s larger industrial corridors. A drive along Olympic or Colorado or Centinela reveals a bunch of start-ups nestled among

the older entertainment companies and the postproduction houses. More often than not they are small concerns like BeachMint, which operates Web sites for celebrity-designed products, pulling in $75 million in investor backing. This growing tech presence has earned Santa Monica a catchy nickname: Silicon Beach.

Part of me says, Great. Time to make more jobs—especially for recent college grads for whom the lagging economy has delayed career launches by years. But another part frets: How in the world is this going to work, what with all these added employees coming in and out each day? The 15-acre Yahoo! Center alone holds multiple businesses and has parking for 3,000 cars. That’s just one locale spilling its drivers into the rush hour madness. The jam in Santa Monica is causing traffic snarls that paralyze the Westside between 3 and 7 p.m., the 10 freeway and all the side streets slowing to a crawl. Yes, traffic can be insane throughout L.A., but trying to leave my home turf during the week has got to be at the top of the “I’m-going-to-kill-myself” list. Forget whatever shortcuts we clever locals think we know. They are no better. We shake our heads; it can’t go on this way. Traffic is the grim local Topic A—make that Topics A through Z.

Just as the Santa Monica boom reaches critical mass I see a glimmer of hope: the completion of the Expo Rail Line in 2015. It’s the final westward leg of the 15.2-mile route from downtown to the ocean, a 46-minute ride. There will be three stations in Santa Monica. You can already see the bones of one of the hubs rising next to Bergamot Station at 26th and Olympic. This is no simple undertaking, but rather the beginning of a full-tilt “transit village,” roughly 800,000 square feet of art and retail space and residential units spread among five buildings—sexy social engineering stuff. Another large complex is being built on three acres in the heart of the Civic Center area, an easy walk to the final Expo stop at 4th and Colorado. It will have 160 affordable rental units and 158 luxury condos, plus shops and restaurants, plazas and gardens. It’s estimated that by 2030, 64,000 Angelenos will be making the downtown-to-ocean trip daily. Santa Monica even put in a shiny new Bike Center near the main terminus, providing 360 secure spots for bicycles, along with repair and rental services. The idea is that commuters will be able to pedal from home to their closest Expo stop, hop on the train with their bikes, and then have a safe place to stash their wheels when they get to their destination. In short, it’s a more energetic, complicated way to get around than we are accustomed to.

I wonder if we’re ready for the extra forethought and planning, and for something even deeper. This is a city that lives by the mantra “I drive, therefore I am.” Anyone who grew up here sees driving as the ticket to freedom, a rite of passage. Are we really going to surrender the spontaneity our automobiles afford us, the chance to jump into the car and head up PCH for a lazy lunch or to leave work early and swing by the Getty Center to take in a new show? That’s a lot to give up, the thrill of the moment. Yet in the gridlock of everyday traffic, we are losing that freedom anyway.

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Clearly Santa Monica is spearheading a grand social experiment. How appropriate for this spunky place that was the epicenter of a revolution in the late 1970s, when a group of civic activists took over the government, intending to protect, preserve, and defend a singular quality of life. Only then the city’s nickname was the People’s Republic of Santa Monica.

I call an old pal, Derek Shearer, one of the key players from those days. Shearer was on the planning commission, right in the middle of things, and his then-wife, Ruth Yannatta Goldway, was mayor. It was a heady time, when the Vietnam-era activists, including Santa Monica residents Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda, were involved in the local scene. Their moxie and energy were high. The newly installed renegades were not going to let their seaside gem fall prey to developers. Their plans were big and essentially conservative, in the literal sense of the word, though that was not the view of those on the right, who squawked loudly. It is amusing to remember that the People’s Republic was born just as Ronald Reagan landed in the White House, the yin and yang of the California psyche.

Shearer offers a tour of the town he so visibly loves. It’s a Wednesday, and we walk through the farmers’ market, the granddaddy of them all, and down the 3rd Street Promenade. He tells me that the idea was to give the city a European flavor, keep it manageable—pedestrian and bike friendly—with a lively street life. The first thing he and his cohorts did upon assuming power was to declare a building moratorium. There were dozens of major projects in the pipeline, big ones that would have spiked into the sky overlooking the water. When the skirmishes with the opposition were over and the dust settled, the city had a strict height limit and zoning rules and had exacted quid pro quo arrangements with developers: If they were allowed to build, they had to give back—a park here, affordable housing there. We drive around, passing at one point the old Hayden-Fonda clapboard cottage on Wadsworth in Ocean Park. I was in that house for a function, and I smile at the memory: the long hair, the optimism, the arrogance.

I am struck while glancing around—at the market, the bike paths, the commercial streets that have retained their small-town flavor, even glammed-up Montana Avenue—at how much has been preserved. Yes, the Promenade has one too many chain stores. But the coastline is hardly Miami Beach or any resort town that’s been overrun by tacky condos and apartment houses. Shearer shows a flicker of pride when I say this. He gestures to the lofts atop the restaurants and shops downtown. This was the vision we had, he says, that’s now coming to fruition. He believes there are enough safeguards in place to maintain what he and his co-idealists set in motion decades ago. Read the Santa Monica Land Use and Circulation Element document online and you have to be stirred by its noble mission of “preserving the City’s unique character” while encouraging controlled growth and a “multi-modal transportation system that incentivizes walking, biking and transit.”

Revolution, round two. It feels scary. Whether Santa Monica can manage its popularity so that its streets and freeways aren’t clogged with cars come quitting time will be the trick. I love the place more than any other, and I am hoping that the city planners will honor their word and that I will honor mine when I promise to be first in line when the lightrail comes to town. Bring it on. I think I am ready to get out of my car.