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A Freeway Runs Through It

By Frank Gruber

Last week I wrote about the 1992 riots. I'm sure it was coincidence, but also about ten years ago was when I started participating in the process to redesign the Civic Center. Since then I have attended nearly every public meeting on the Civic Center Specific Plan and its various iterations. Naturally, I couldn't miss the City Council's hearing two weeks ago when the council adopted a conceptual framework for the latest version.

It's a good plan. Staff, the planners and the politicians did a conscientious job, and anyone who tells you otherwise is looking at it all through his or her own tinted glasses or is blinded by various conflicting fantasies of what the place is and what it could be.

That doesn't mean the plan couldn't be better, and I'll get to that. But above all, the plan represents what the people who participated in the process told the planners to do, to the extent conflicting desires could be accommodated.

"What people," you say. "What about all those people complaining in recent months?" As happy as I am that people complained about the lack of play fields, with the result that the plan now includes one, if those same people had not ignored the planning process last summer, much of the recent sturm und drang would not have been necessary.

But pity Mayor Michael Feinstein. By the luck of the draw, he got the Downtown Parking Task Force, and Ken Genser, Kevin McKeown and Richard Bloom got the Civic Center Working Group.

Feinstein and I both cut our teeth in Santa Monica politics on the 1993 plan, on opposing sides, with the result that he is mayor and I'm writing this column. I suppose we are both having fun, but he would have had more fun had he been on the Civic Center Working Group.

I often don't agree with Feinstein, but usually our disagreements are predictable: I'm for building something, and he's against it.

But in the case of the Civic Center, the roles are reversed. Yes, I have written a lot about how the plan slights housing and that we should build more there, and I am grateful to say that on this point Feinstein and I agree.

Feinstein, however, spent most of his ire and energy at the hearing trying to persuade his Council colleagues to dig big holes and pour many many many cubic yards of concrete for underground parking for off-site uses and a giant cover over the freeway.

Mike Feinstein as Robert Moses? I reel from the thought. Moreover, I don't get it. Feinstein's proposals for the Civic Center are at odds with every environmental -- may I say Green Party -- position one can think of. More parking that attracts cars, more concrete and massive engineering, less nature, less ambiance?

Consider the freeway cover. While it is hard to think of the freeway as anything natural, the arroyo it traverses is the natural feature that more than any other has defined Santa Monica, going back to when the railroad ran through it. Covering it over would destroy a connection to our topography same as grading the palisades.

The freeway does, however, slice through the heart of our city. From an urban design perspective, it would be best to think of it, as the current plan does, as a river, and use multiple bridges to cross it gracefully.

The plan, however, leaves a gap between Fourth Street and the current Main Street bridge, which will become a bridge for pedestrians if and when a new Second Street bridge is constructed. But there is nothing in the plan that could not be changed at a later date to allow locating the terminus of the Expo tram line on a platform straddling the freeway. This dramatic site for the station would provide equal access to both north and south, and would be closer to the Pier than the current suggested location at Fourth and Colorado.

All that being said, it is always a pleasure to agree with someone with whom one usually disagrees, and I had that pleasure when Feinstein made the only arguments -- on a dais with four other SMRR-endorsed council members -- in favor of building more housing. In doing so, Feinstein transcended his usual "open space at all costs" rhetoric (and constituency) and advocated the sensible thing, that the City permit more housing north of the new Olympic Drive, in the parcel that includes Chez Jay and surrounds the Ocean Lodge Motel.

The plan needs more housing not only because the city as a whole needs more housing, but also because the mix of public and private offices, and local serving retail, could use more residents to better animate the neighborhood. Even with the addition of two acres of housing north of Olympic Drive, the Civic Center area would be more than one-third open space. Without more activity, we risk the possibility that areas of the Civic Center will be as barren as they are today.

At the beginning of this process, the members of the Working Group heard from many people, and expressed themselves, the sentiment that the planners should strive to make the Civic Center the equal of great European cities. People used London, Paris, and Barcelona as examples, but then often the same people opposed the amount of development, and even the number of streets, that might have made that European ambiance possible.

People sometimes believe there is a conflict between development and recreation, and that only designated open spaces contribute to the people's enjoyment of the outdoors. Well-designed neighborhoods, however, with trees, humanly scaled buildings, and streets that actually go somewhere, encourage walking (the number one form of recreation in Santa Monica) and, in general, "getting out of the house."

The one issue that the plan neglected entirely was the possibilities for more adaptive re-use of existing buildings, notably the low-lying RAND structures along Main Street. In a city somewhat obsessed with landmarks, this was a surprise.

It would have been worth the effort to have studied the costs of keeping at least part of the structures, adapting them for housing, and how circulation could have been routed around them. However, any plan to retain and reuse the RAND buildings would surely have come up against the constant bleating from no-growthers for unprogrammed open space.

A plan is just a plan and no plan is ever built in its entirety. If we are lucky, this plan will lead to some good things before the next planning process for the Civic Center starts again in ten or fifteen years.


Meeting notices:

Livable Santa Monica, a new group dedicated to making Santa Monica more livable through "smart growth" will meet Sunday, May 12, at 7:00 p.m. at the Wild Oats community room located at Fifth and Wilshire. The meeting is open to the public and the agenda will include discussion of the downtown parking plan, sustainable city goals and indicators, and the upcoming development of the circulation element of Santa Monica's general plan.

The Planning Department will hold a public hearing to receive input on Santa Monica's proposed ordinance for handicapped access to be included in homes ("visitability"). Monday, May 13, 2002, 7:00 p.m., Ken Edwards Community Center, 1527 Fourth Street. For more information, contact Manny Mendizabal at (310) 458-8355.

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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