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Where Angels Fear to Tread

By Frank Gruber

Merry Christmas. The Chamber of Commerce was early by a week, but it gave Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights (SMRR) a big Christmas present -- the Chamber decided to break precedent and endorse candidates for City Council. ("Chamber Votes to Enter Political_Arena," Dec. 19)

The decision is not surprising, as in the past few years more conservative members with more confrontational personalities have become more predominant at the Chamber.

On all sorts of issues, from preferential parking, to the homeless, to the living wage, to development, the Chamber has been willing to take the City to the mat, which means opposing the political initiatives of the SMRR majority on City Council.

The rhetoric is not quite as vehement as that which characterized the battle over rent control, but the anger extends over many more issues.

The Chamber seems to have forgot how the City in the past 20 years, to a great extent under SMRR leadership, promoted the interests of local businesses and property owners, leading to the expansion of Santa Monica's economy, increased property values, more jobs, more retail sales and ... a backlash against development.

To an extent, this amnesia is understandable, as many of SMRR's more recently elected officials and appointed commissioners make it a point to insult business and property owners at every opportunity -- to them, anything a business does is by definition not only motivated by "greed," but also inimical to the interests of "residents."

Particularly for developers, the City is a hard place in which to do business, but the Chamber's rhetoric is overstated. The hard-liners in the Chamber hyperventilate over issues -- particularly the living wage and the homeless -- that involve social issues far beyond the local business environment, while ignoring the nuts and bolts local matters where the City has bent over backwards to accommodate the concerns of local businesses.

For instance, the City is planning to spend a huge sack of money on more parking for downtown, mainly to benefit downtown businesses and property owners. The City has been eager to help the owners of Santa Monica Place to revamp their mall. Even the Transit Mall, which some property owners later sued the City to stop, originated as a response to complaints from downtown businesses.

The City has organized business improvement districts, the City has promoted itself as a tourist destination, and the City has organized major investments in infrastructure and facilities that attract customers.

True, no-growthers SMRR elected in the nineties have managed to make life miserable for anyone who wants to build something, whether it be housing or a post-production facility, but in that context, the business community hardly agrees on what it means to be pro-business.

Arguably the most anti-business decision the Council made in recent years was the 5-2 vote against Target, yet the two votes in favor were SMRR council members -- Pam O'Connor and Ken Genser. The crucial votes against the store were Chamber favorites Herb Katz and Robert Holbrook.

If Katz and Holbrook, who complain these days about how long it takes to get developments approved, including the housing now planned for the Target site, had voted for Target, the store might have opened for this holiday season -- bringing lots of business activity to Fifth Street, drawing pedestrians off the Promenade and sales taxes to the City.

Two of the Chamber's least favorite council members are Michael Feinstein and Ken Genser. But who on Council is leading the effort to develop new zoning for the car dealerships? Feinstein. Who is leading the effort to "de-mall" Santa Monica Place? Genser.

Politics is a subtle art, and the Chamber, particularly under the influence of the hard-liners, doesn't seem to realize that it's a 365-day a year thing -- not just a matter of elections. The Chamber should be working to create a political climate that is favorable to business, to educate the electorate on the importance of continued economic progress.

Instead, the Chamber prefers to "diss" the city at every opportunity, whether it's over the homeless, parking, traffic, or whatever.

Luckily for business, the crowds keep coming -- let's hope the customers don't listen to the Chamber, or else they might decide Santa Monica's not a good place to spend money.

The Chamber's move to endorse candidates will also be self-defeating, because it will play into the hands of the most anti-business elements within SMRR. The hard-liners pushing the Chamber into politics don't seem to understand just how close SMRR came to electing all three council-members this past election -- just 300 votes.

The history of anti-SMRR candidates is that the right-wing elements in town hijack their campaigns, allowing SMRR to attract the great liberal center of Santa Monica. Of course, the Chamber might learn something from the police and firefighter unions. They regularly endorse SMRR candidates, such as Feinstein and Kevin McKeown, notwithstanding views on, for instance, the homeless, that are not an obvious fit. But by backing winners, the unions have benefitted.

Judging by the current rhetoric, however, I wouldn't expect that kind of discernment from the Chamber leadership. They seem hell-bent on an ideological confrontation -- one they will lose.



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Awhile back I wrote a series of columns about design review. One point was how subjective it all is. In the "see what I mean" department, here's a quote from Planning Commissioner Geraldine Moyle from the Commission's December 4 meeting:

"To take as your measuring point what is really an ugly, abysmal, architecturally heinous piece of shit at the end of Wilshire Boulevard and to say that [yours] is only sixteen stories and that people can live there ..."

Moyle was responding to the owners of the Fairmont Miramar Hotel, who were presenting preliminary ideas for further developing their property at the northeast corner of Wilshire and Ocean, and who are seeking to enter into negotiations with the City for a development agreement. One of their ideas is to build a sixteen story residential tower opposite 100 Wilshire, the 20-story office building Commissioner Moyle referred to as "a piece of shit."

Moyle is entitled to her opinion of 100 Wilshire, even if the Chair of the meeting should have asked her to apologize for her vulgarity. People on a dais have enough power without resort to the intimidating value of profanity. However, without agreeing or disagreeing with Moyle's opinion, or expressing any opinion about the new proposal, it's worth noting that the architect of 100 Wilshire was Cesar Pelli.

Pelli is one of the few "world-class" architects (to use a favorite Planning Commission adjective) to have designed a commercial building in Santa Monica.

In fact, 100 Wilshire is one of only seven Santa Monica buildings of all types cited in Los Angeles: The City Observed, the architectural guide written primarily by noted architect Charles Moore. Moore and his fellow authors make the point specifically that the Streamline Moderne skyscraper "recalls the special character of the city."

One hundred years from now Commissioner Moyle's opinion of 100 Wilshire, not architect Moore's, may be the generally accepted one. In the meantime, however, the dispute only underlines the care that the City's design arbiters -- staff, ARB, and Planning Commission -- need to take not to let their personal predilections prejudice them against someone else's architectural vision, assuming that vision can be executed in accordance with objective standards of quality.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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