SANTA MONICA, Calif. – Sandwiched between a brake shop, gritty industrial buildings and a few modest storefronts is a little neighborhood that time has seemingly forgotten.
Santa Monica Village Trailer Park is an anachronism, a throwback to another era, one when neighborhoods filled with modest, makeshift houses constructed of tin and perched upon wheels dotted coastal cities like this one from one end of California to the other. Rents were low, sunny days were plentiful and gentle ocean breezes helped ensure that the living was easy.
At Santa Monica Village, where rents on mobile homes still range from $370 to $410 a month (in a city where apartments rent for five or even 10 times that much), the living was easy — until recently.
On Tuesday, the City Council is scheduled to take up a proposal to raze the 3.8-acre park's 47 aging trailers, some of which are just slightly larger than modern SUVs and have been around since the park opened in 1950. They would be replaced by multiple-story buildings containing more than 400 apartments and condominiums, as well as more than 25,000 square feet of office and retail space.
In order to do so, the city must change the property's zoning, which essentially allows only a mobile home park to exist on this almost-hidden, aging piece of paradise that is two miles from the beach and seemingly 50 years away from the upscale coffee bars, clubs and high-end stores that have come to define Santa Monica in recent years.
If the City Council does change the zoning, longtime resident Ralph Meyer is not sure what he'll do, he said as he showed a visitor around his modest home on a recent day.
"It may not look like much," he says of the home so small his bed barely fits inside, "but I've gotten used to it."
He bought the place 30 years ago, moving into what was then mostly a gritty section of aging apartment buildings and rundown warehouses. In the years since, many of those buildings have been replaced with new apartments and also sleek modern office buildings like the ones that house outfits like Yahoo and Viacom just a few blocks away. At noon each day, young hipsters pour out of those places to patronize gourmet food trucks that line up outside.
During those years of change, Meyer has lived to be 86, and that's too old, he says, to move someplace else.
"I could have moved at one time," he adds softly, "but that window has closed."
That's a sentiment expressed by many in the park, where most people are old and many are in declining health.
"When we bought this, I thought we were going to be here forever," said Ray Meeks, who moved in more than 15 years ago with his wife, Geri. The still strapping former cop is 79 and weakened by chemotherapy.
The problem, says Marc Luzzatto, the developer who wants to transform Santa Monica Village into a high-density, upscale neighborhood, is that the area is not a sleepy, modest place anymore.
"We haven't been able to figure out a way to keep a mobile home park operating in that location," he said last week. "It hasn't been viable for many years."
He's been trying to redevelop the property since 2006, facing opposition from residents at pretty much every turn. But time finally may be on his side.
As older folks have died or moved to retirement homes in recent years, their trailers have been removed and spaces left vacant. Where 109 homes once stood, only 47 remain and a handful of those are used only as weekend getaways.
If the park is closed, Luzzatto has offered residents as much as $20,000 to relocate, as well as the opportunity to move into one of the new apartments after they're built. He says he'd subsidize rent for up to five years so they'd pay the same amount as now.
Several people want no part of apartment living. Some in this famously liberal and sometimes eccentric city simply don't believe in it.
"I'm one of those people who didn't quite buy into the Western civilization way of living," said Jack Waddington, a retired computer programmer and self-described "non-violent anarchist."
Relaxing by the pool on a warm, sun-splashed afternoon, Waddington says he believes everyone should eschew material wealth and live simply in mobile homes.
Taking into account such feelings, Luzzatto says he is modifying his proposal.
In addition to offering relocation money and a chance to move into a new apartment, he and his partners will offer to buy new mobile homes for every displaced resident who wants one and put them in what would be the city's last mobile home park, a city-owned operation four blocks away.
Rumors are rampant throughout the park that if the City Council does approve the development people who live on small, fixed incomes, will simply be put out on the street in a city where even a modest condo fetches about a half-million dollars.
"It's absolutely the last home ownership opportunity in Santa Monica for anyone of our income level," says Catherine Eldridge, a 61-year-old social worker who has lived there since 1999. She says she couldn't believe such a place existed when she showed up one day to buy a used refrigerator and bought a mobile home instead.
It was located in a park with a large, sparkling pool, a large recreation room and its own library containing several hundred books. Tropical plants and fruit trees abounded and you could smell the salt air.
Although he's trying to bring an end to that lifestyle, Luzzatto says his first concern has always been to take care of the residents and keep them in Santa Monica if they wish. While some doubt that, others say at heart he's not a bad guy.
"He's a very nice person," says Meyer. "It's not personal with him. He's just got big dollar signs in his eyes."
He adds with a laugh, "If I owned the property, I might do the same thing."