By Jorge Casuso
August 26, 2009 -- Laurel Roennau, a tireless slow growth activist whose keen analyses of technical documents were used to fight large projects in Santa Monica, has died. Memorial services are currently being planned.
For the past quarter century, Roennau, who did not disclose her age even to her closest friends, was a tall, commanding presence at City and community meetings, where she was a leader of the movement to curb development and fight traffic.
A former member of the Architectural Review Board (ARB), Roennau, who died on August 13, had a thorough knowledge of the facts and figures in the bulky and technical planning reports few read in their entirety.
"She was one of the keenest voices on honest statistics for decision makers," said Sharon Gilpin, a former member of the Planning Commission. "She was able to tell truth to power with her scientific background.
"The pinheads on council never wanted her on the Planning Commission," Gilpin said. "She knew more than the staff."
"She was very up-front and frank about her attitude," said former Planning Commissioner Julie Lopez Dad. "She was very slow growth. Her understanding and her experience exceeded those of other community people."
Roennau made her strongest mark on local politics as a leader of a ballot referendum to defeat a City Council-backed plan to develop the Civic Center. Although the referendum's defeat paved the way for the development of the land then owned by the RAND Corporation, the plan never materialized, and RAND eventually sold the property to the City.
During the battle, Roennau's upstairs apartment in her two-story Ocean Park home was the nerve center of the referendum campaign, recalled former mayor Michael Feinstein.
"I remember the morning before we turned in our signatures, we wanted to get a few hundred more valid signatures to have a safe enough margin to qualify the referendum," he said.
"We went out to hit the markets in the morning and got a few hundred more signatures, then came back and laid out all the petitions in Laurel's kitchen and did all the counts. Then we went to City Hall and turned them in early, so as to outfox the 'no' campaign from RAND that was sending postcards out to people to ask them to rescind their signatures."
Feinstein credits Roennau with helping popularize the notion of balancing jobs and housing
in in the planning process.
"Whenever an important EIR came out," Feinstein said. "Laurel would be the one who got an early copy and went through each meticulously, paying special attention to the traffic numbers and giving the local slow growth movement her analysis."
A bio-astronautics engineering graduate from UC Berkeley, Roennau worked at Douglas Aircraft, RAND, Space Technology Labs and the Community Redevelopment Agency.
In addition to the ARB, she served on the LA County Regional Plan Association, the LA Airports Commission and the board of the Santa Monica Democratic Club. Until recently, she remained involved in local issues, joining the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City and several neighborhood groups.
Roennau -- who was awarded the Lifetime Award from the Society of Women Engineers -- was named Woman of the Year in Science by the Los Angeles Times.
"Laurel was always very passionate and very straightforward about her views," said Mayor Ken Genser, "and I and other people admired her for that."