Manhattan Beach’s Conaway finds joy while ‘in the weeds’ of municipal policy
by Ryan McDonald
In explaining why he’s running for Manhattan Beach City Council, Chris Conaway knowingly reaches for a phrase with noble origins, describing it as a “peculiar passion.” Announcing his first-ever run for political office 1832, then 23-year-old Abraham Lincoln said it was his “peculiar ambition” to be “truly esteemed of my fellow men.”
In that 19th-century usage, Honest Abe likely intended “peculiar” to mean “distinct” or “specific,” but Conaway deploys the word in the more modern sense, to mean “strange” or “unusual.” As he acknowledges, his path so far would not seem to inspire a passion for policy.
Conaway, one of eight candidates seeking three available seats on the Council in the upcoming March election, has spent the last six years serving on the city’s Planning Commission. During that time, he has worked on a number of notable projects, including the Downtown Specific Plan and the Village mall renovation. But the job also means tackling a number of issues that at first glance appear dry or dull.
It is precisely these issues, though, and their capacity to surprise, that have pushed him to seek the next level of civil service.
“I have loved every single second of it, including the wonky, in-the-weeds moments, things where at first I think, ‘Oh, this is going to be boring,’” Conaway said in an interview. “You listen to all sides of the story, and you’re using the process, and you really see how everything matters.”
An example of what Conaway is describing can be found in recent developments on second-floor outdoor dining. The issue surfaced as the city edged toward approval of its Downtown Specific Plan. As commissioners worked with staff on the final draft that would head to the City Council, Conaway they realized that there were no existing rules governing second-floor outdoor dining — that any commercially zoned property in the city, including all of downtown, could apply for a permit to begin the practice.
The final draft of the plan presented to the council imposed new permitting requirements, but also included a map of downtown with a relatively large area in which the practice would be permissible, in some cases as coming as little as half a block away from residences. Conaway was one of most skeptical commissioners when it came to the wisdom of this decision. He initially desired a minimum two-block barrier between restaurants with second-floor outdoor dining and residentially zoned property.
In the end, it would not matter: a torrent of resident comments ultimately drove the City Council to scrap the map of permissible locations in favor of a blanket ban on second-floor outdoor dining. Conaway said that the resolution of the controversy over second-story outdoor dining was an example of a situation that was both hard to forecast and decisively swayed by resident input.
Martha Andreani, a former Planning Commissioner and active member of the Downtown Residents Group, said that Conaway has impressed her in his tenure on the commission. She said that Conaway balanced dedicated preparation for meetings with a willingness to let testimony sway his decisions.
“Maybe he had a feeling as to how he thought was going to vote, but he did not come with a made up mind. He listened to staff, and he listened to residents,” Andreani said. “He would be an excellent councilmember for land use issues.”
If elected, Conaway said one of his focuses would be redevelopment of the Sepulveda corridor. The area, he said, “is not serving us,” and expects it will only grow worse over the coming years. Traffic is becoming increasingly choked with commuters heading to jobs in Silicon Beach; he said the architecture firm he works for is handling a project that will house thousands of new employees in the area, and many more are on the horizon. Additionally, many of the most watched pending developments in the city are clustered along the boulevard.
“We’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do. The mall was controversial, Gelson’s is controversial, and I’m sure Skechers will be controversial. And it’s not because of individual projects: it’s because of the Sepulveda corridor,” he said. “I don’t think doing nothing is an option.”
Addressing the corridor, he said, will involve a different kind of listening to residents. The issue is ripe for a resident task force, he said, of the kind he participated in years ago on environmental issues. In addition to saving the city money on having to hire consultants, a resident-led proposal would ensure that the project has the kind of local flavor that developments in the city sometimes lack.
“People here are talented and civically engaged. Obviously I’m a cheerleader for our community, but I’m supremely confident in the abilities of our residents,” Conaway said.