Inside the towering Cold War structure just southeast of the Santa Monica Pier, key events in modern culture and politics have taken shape.

It was here at the headquarters of the RAND Corp. (the acronym stands for Research and Development) that e-mail was developed, one of the first computers built and the U.S. space program launched. And it was inside the think tank that researcher Daniel Ellsberg photocopied the Pentagon Papers, walked across the street to the pier and handed the classified documents to a New York Times reporter, hastening the end of the Vietnam War.

But if RAND has changed the course of international affairs, the 1,000-member nonprofit firm — created in 1946 as the research arm of the Army Air Corps (later the Air Force) — also has quietly contributed to the civic and political fabric of this beach town of 94,000. “As staff, a lot of times when we embarked on nontraditional types of projects, we turned to RAND,” said John Jalili, who retired last year after serving as Santa Monica’s city manager for 15 years. “I really think their impact was immeasurable.”

Now, after a half-century as a conservative bastion in a town long known for its restrictive rent-control laws and liberal social policies, RAND faces an uncertain future. After selling 11.3 acres of its 15-acre site to the city for $53 million in April, the think tank finds itself trapped in a land deal as seemingly covert as some of the missions it has embarked on over the years.

“Santa Monica has been our home for more than 50 years,” RAND‘s executive vice president, Michael Rich, said. “Our strong hope is that we will call Santa Monica home for another 50 years.”

If RAND is to stay, its mission appears simple — relocate its proposed six-story headquarters from one end of the land it once owned to the small, odd-shaped parcel it retained at the other end. But the think tank’s efforts are being challenged by a staunch anti-growth city government and restricted by a development plan that likely will be scrapped once the city decides what to do with its new property across from City Hall.

Whether RAND stays or leaves, there likely won‘t be a trace of the building where events that shaped the world unfolded. As part of the purchase agreement, RAND must demolish its existing buildings, one of which is potentially eligible for national, state and local landmark status.

The building, designed by Los Angeles architect H. Roy Kelley, was constructed between 1953 and 1957, and is hailed in the city’s draft environmental report as “an excellent example of the Corporate International Style of architecture or postwar modernism.” But despite the city‘s newfound preservationist fervor — two years ago the council blocked the demolition of a 100-year-old, uninhabitable shotgun cottage — the City Council is expected to authorize the building’s demise, but not before it gets an earful from preservationists.

“It‘s a potentially really significant building,” said former Planning Commission chair Ken Breisch, who is the director of a historic-preservation program at USC’s School of Architecture. “It has national significance just because of everything that went on in there. It played a central role in the whole unfolding of the Cold War.

”To me it represents an early part of modernism,“ Breisch said of the design. ”We‘ve only now begun to look at postwar buildings. This building may be breaking new ground because it is a newer building and it’s important to look at [it] before it‘s just dismissed.“

Last month, after a two-day, 11-hour hearing, Santa Monica’s new Planning Commission voted to recommend that RAND make a series of design changes to its proposed 308,869-square-foot headquarters. The commission, whose members all were appointed within the past year, argued that the 700-foot-long elliptical design of the building was too massive and bucked a pedestrian-friendly development plan for the city‘s civic-center area.

In their first big test, the commissioners also denied RAND’s request to broaden the scope of what is acceptable on the 3.86-acre parcel. Currently the land, nestled in the curve on Main Street across from the county courthouse, is limited to a single tenant and restricted to institutional research and development. RAND officials want the use broadened to general institutional use to make way for a future tenant if the think tank needs to downsize or move.

”We don‘t mean it [the proposed change in use] to signal that we don’t intend to stay,“ said RAND spokeswoman Iao Katagiri. ”It‘s trying to demonstrate to our governing board that we are going about this in a businesslike manner, that we are covering our bases.“

City officials have balked at the zoning change, fearing that it gives RAND a way out and paves the way for a large company or companies that will likely increase traffic and add to the downtown congestion. Said Mayor Ken Genser, ”This sounds like they just want to go for real estate development. I think that’s inappropriate.“

If RAND decides to move its headquarters, a number of cities are expected to welcome it. When RAND began looking for a new research site — it has offices in New York City; Arlington, Virginia; and the Netherlands — it was lobbied by Minnesota Governor Jesse ”The Body“ Ventura (who paid a personal visit), as well as officials from Atlanta and Miami. In the end, RAND opted for Pittsburgh, opening offices there in March.

RAND‘s future in Santa Monica, officials say, hinges on the city’s approval of a building design uniquely shaped to fit the think tank‘s needs, a building where hallways are continuous, increasing the chances for employees to bump into each other in the hallway and share ideas. The environmentally friendly building also is designed to include two libraries (one of them ”classified“), computer-modeling-simulation workrooms, a shredding room, a cafeteria, and a 30,000-foot courtyard kept private for security reasons.

”We’re a unique institution, and the new building has to meet our functional requirements,“ said RAND executive Rich. ”If the City Council imposes conditions on its approval that mean that we can‘t meet those requirements, we will have to abandon the project and find a new home.“

RAND’s departure from Santa Monica would be a severe blow to the city. After more than half a century, RAND and its 1,100 employees have become an integral thread in the community fabric, especially as the think tank‘s focus turns increasingly to domestic issues.

Established at the close of World War II, the institution became independent in 1948 but retained its strong ties to the military establishment, evaluating weapon systems and developing anti-Soviet strategy throughout the Cold War. Even with the demise of the Soviet Union, 55 percent of RAND’s business stems from issues of national security, including studies on the threat of cyber-terrorism and improving the Army‘s supply chain.

But RAND’s work on domestic issues, which began in the 1950s, has expanded since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The institution — which had revenues of $144 million in 1999 — has taken on such varied policy issues as injured-worker compensation, classroom achievement, the drug wars, health issues and criminal justice.

The firm, which funds some of its research with money from its $85 million endowment, also has produced the most recent demographic profile of the city, recommended ways to increase public involvement and provided models for funding neighborhood projects. City officials also turned to the company that created the basic infrastructure for the Internet to help Santa Monica become the first city in the country to go online. One of the top 10 employers in Santa Monica, RAND has a number of staff members who sit on commissions helping shape everything from airport policy to models for overhauling the school district‘s financial performance.

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