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Happy News; or, a Tale of Two Cities

By Frank Gruber

This is going to be a happy column about what's so good about Santa Monica.

Two Saturdays ago, March 13, I attended an architectural "dream team" symposium at the Japan America Theatre in Little Tokyo. A team of developers hoping to get the job of developing four prime sites near the new Disney Hall convened the seminar, in part to show off the team of world-class architects they had assembled for their bid.

The architects (or their firms) represented at the symposium included Frank Gehry, as well as such international stars as Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel, and Harry Cobb, and local (Santa Monica) architect Kevin Daly.

I left the symposium in shock.

You see, the developers and architects were calling for more public involvement in the development process. More public process!

Some context. As has been the history of the "redevelopment" of downtown LA, the latest round of the decision-making process is closed to the public. A Los Angeles City-County joint powers authority (the "Grand Avenue Authority"), consisting of a County Supervisor, a City Council Member, the CEO of the Community Redevelopment Agency, the Chief Administrative Officer of the County and a non-voting representative of the Governor will decide what to do with four large, prime, public-owned lots near Disney Hall.

As if to highlight the exclusion of the public, the Authority will receive advice from the "Grand Avenue Committee," which is co-chaired by ultimate insiders Eli Broad and James Thomas, and which includes Cardinal Mahoney and the president of the Music Center.

The Authority is reviewing proposals for the possibly $1.2 billion project from various developers, and it was in that context that the symposium conveners and their illustrious architects were asking for more public involvement in the decision.

Here in Santa Monica it would be unusual, to say the least, to hear developers and architects asking for more public process.

And I understand that. As often reported here, the result of public process can be "less," and by less I don't mean less in the "less is more" Mies van der Rohe sense, but less in the sense of downsizing both scope of development and architectural ambition.

But after the session, driving up First Street toward Bunker Hill from Little Tokyo, I thought some more. In my mind I compared the recent history of downtown Santa Monica and Santa Monica's civic center to that of downtown L.A. and L.A.'s civic center, and I wondered if perhaps Santa Monica had something to teach L.A.

Think back 20 or 25 years, to 1980, when the downtowns and civic centers of both cities were devoid of urban civility.

Santa Monica's Civic Center was a typical super-block affair of isolated and uncommunicative institutional buildings, and our downtown was an urban dead zone.

It's easy to recall what downtown L.A. was like in 1980 because it hasn't changed much. Except for the vibrant Latino streets centered on Broadway, streets that still get no respect from official L.A., downtown was then and is today a sterile mix of office towers from the sixties and seventies, parking lots that are the detritus of failed urban renewal, and public buildings from the fifties that Mussolini would have admired.

Starting around 1980, both cities began processes to revitalize their downtowns.

The results? As I said, downtown L.A. hasn't changed much for the better, except for the addition of Disney Hall, the only building there that opens (at least partially) to the street. Even the new Cathedral presents blank walls to the public.

While ambitious plans were often approved to revitalize downtown L.A., they were never realized. Despite subsidies from the Community Redevelopment Authority, developers would go bankrupt, or the plans were otherwise infeasible.

In contrast, downtown Santa Monica has become the most vital urban space in Southern California. It is a huge draw for both locals and tourists.

The latest development is the creation of a residential downtown community. Approximately 1,500 units, many of them affordable, and all financed with private money, have been built or are in process.

Our civic center is midway through its redevelopment. Already the City has built a major new public building (the public safety facility) and half of an important new street (Olympic Drive), and RAND is completing construction of its new headquarters. When RAND moves in, land the City bought from RAND will be available for housing, local-serving retail, and parks. The City is about to begin construction of a parking structure that will enable conversion of a parking lot into a park.

Why has little Santa Monica accomplished so much more than Los Angeles?

There are many reasons, but the key to them all is public involvement. Although public involvement in the development process can lead to reduced ambitions, plans that are developed with public input are more likely to be successful.

Consider that the Grand Avenue Authority is asking for bids from developers without having articulated what the future of downtown should be. A cultural corridor? A new and vital public plaza? Housing? Offices? More public buildings? Not only has the Authority not answered these questions, but it can't answer them without knowing what the public wants.

Santa Monica conducted wide-open public processes to plan the futures of both its downtown and the Civic Center. The City hired facilitators and its own urban designers to work with the public to find a consensus as to what the public wanted with respect to what would be built, how much there should be of it, where new streets would go, how wide the sidewalks would be, what the projects would look like, and everything else relating to the public experience.

At all stages developers gave input regarding financial feasibility, and the City hired its own analysts to advise the public on costs and financing.

Many residents brought high-level skills to the table, and the involvement of residents who wanted something better for their city helped persuade even most of the no-growth faction that improved livability was compatible with more development.

Some people believe that if their views don't prevail in a public process, the process was flawed, but of course consensus will always mean compromise. Along with others, I wanted the Civic Center plan to call for higher densities, but the importance of consensus building cannot be overemphasized.

As readers will recall, after our City Council unanimously approved the plan for the Civic Center, opponents gathered enough signatures to put the plan on the ballot. But the plan won with 60 percent of the vote. What's more, when circumstances changed -- i.e., when RAND was unable to develop all of its land, and the City bought most of it -- the City was able to reconvene the public process to amend the plan, confident it had a good basis to work with.

In contrast, downtown L.A. has for decades been the plaything of big commercial and real estate interests, and the politicians and bureaucrats with whom they share a symbiotic relationship. There is no need to imply bad motives on their part, but they have shown monumentally bad judgment about what will work.

Perhaps that's why it's now developers and architects who are calling for more public participation.

My advice to big Los Angeles is to do what little Santa Monica did: Go Public.
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