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Civic and Papermate, And What Would Jane Jacobs Do?
By Frank Gruber
March 21, 2011 --I received a variety of responses to last week’s column critical of the City’s plans to revive the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium through a management deal with the Nederlander Organization. One comment that I should respond to is that it was a copout for me to criticize the City’s proposal without suggesting an alternative fix for the Civic’s woes. I.e., I shouldn’t throw bombs at people who are trying to find solutions, even if I don’t believe, or especially if I don’t believe, that their solutions will work.
Fair enough, but first I’ll reiterate my opinion that the City’s proposed solution will not work or in any case that it’s too risky. According to the description of the Nederlander deal in the staff report, the City will spend at least $25 million ($45 million is the estimated cost) to rehab the Civic to entice the Nederlanders to take over operations. The Nederlanders wouldn’t invest a dime in capital costs, and they can walk away after five years. In fact, there are no penalties, other than the City’s right to cancel the contract, if the Nederlanders don’t perform up to expectations even during the first five years.
The City would spend $45 million -- an amount that City Council Member Bobby Shriver trenchantly characterized as “enormous” for Santa Monica -- with no guarantees. The contract would be what entertainment lawyers call “illusory;” think the kind of deal the proverbial Orange County dentists get when they invest in a film.
From the start the Civic was a bad idea. It was designed to be “all-purpose” -- an all-in-one theater, concert hall, sports facility, and convention center: jack-of-all-trades, master of none. There is no reason to believe that anything has changed. At 3,000 seats, the facility is too big for theater and concert music, too small for rock and pop, and the floor area is too small to attract conventions that can pay their way.
These points I’m making don’t reflect any great insights on my part. The City engaged a panel from the Urban Land Institute to give it advice about the Civic, and conducted other studies, and no one had any good ideas. The staff has worked hard and come up with the deal with the Nederlanders, hoping that this will bring cultural benefits to the city, but there are no grounds beyond hope to expect that anything will come of it.
The first step in my solution is to cut the nostalgia and stop pretending that the Civic can suddenly be made relevant to Santa Monica cultural needs, whatever they are, or financially viable. After acknowledging that, my suggestion would be to tear the auditorium down, and then make a deal with a developer to build housing on the Civic’s footprint, with frontages on Pico and Main. If people feel that some piece of the Civic must be saved, then integrate the Civic’s façade into the new buildings.
The new apartments would make up for the 250 units that were stripped from the original 1993 Civic Center Specific Plan, and it would be fitting to bring back housing to the location of the old Belmar Place Triangle neighborhood. If there is $45 million to spend, use it to convert the parking lot into the park that is in the Civic Center Plan. Find work in other departments for the Civic’s staff.
As for the Santa Monica Symphony -- move their concerts to Barnum Hall. As for Stairway of the Stars – divide it into to elementary/middle school and high school divisions (parents will be grateful), and move it also to Barnum Hall.
The trade and craft shows? I know some Santa Monicans like them, but the City cannot afford to subsidize them. After all, they are businesses.
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Last year when the City was finalizing the updates to the land use and circulation elements (LUCE) of the general plan, I opposed ratios favoring commercial development over residential development in the industrial lands along the Expo line.
The LUCE as the City Council approved it, however, calls for 60 percent of the development around Bergamot Station to be commercial. Tomorrow night when the council considers whether to authorize staff to negotiate a development agreement with the developer Hines for the old Papermate site across Olympic from Bergamot, it unlikely that the council will renege on that and change the size of the development or the proportion of commercial space.
I can accept that, because the overall amount of development is appropriate for the location, but I wish we could be saved from the rhetoric in the staff report for the project about how the development “should feel, look and function like a ‘village.’” Planners love the word “village,” but for most people the word denotes something more like a place where hobbits live than a development of 960,000 square feet, 60 percent of which will be commercial development, and which will have a floor-area-ratio of more than 3.00.
But the planners don’t mean a village in the normal sense; what they are doing is invoking the kind of “urban village” that urbanist Jane Jacobs glorified in her great book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. But the village Jacobs lived in and lovingly described was not a few thatched-roof cottages between a crossroads and a stream, but Greenwich Village in New York, New York. Even her now iconic block on Hudson Street, with its ground-floor shops, did not come anywhere near being 60 percent commercial.
I bring this up because words have consequences. The City won’t get Hines to build the best development possible if its goal is to make the buildings appear to be something they are not. The meaning of “form follows function” is that you have to understand the function.
I look forward to the buildout of the Hines development. While there are many issues that staff wants to negotiate with Hines, most of them fall into the realm of the “narcissism of small differences.” Whether to alternate the residential buildings with the commercial buildings or separate them; where to position the streets and walkways that will break up the existing superblock; how much articulation to require in building façades; these are all subjective issues that can be argued differently by people seeking the same goals.
The most important element that the City needs to insist on is that Hines take advantage of the extra five feet of height that the LUCE provides for ground floor uses, so that retail and other public uses will have ceiling heights of at least 18 feet in the office buildings and 15 feet in the residential buildings. This will be extremely important for the east-west passageways that Hines plans to build through the buildings on the site that will be oriented north-south. My understanding from speaking to Hines representatives is that they already plan to agree to this, but the City needs to make sure it happens.
Otherwise, there are more ways than one to skin the urban village cat. Staff wants more building articulation and setbacks; one could just as well argue for straighter façades that would allow for wider sidewalks. Staff wants residential and office buildings to be mixed up, but this is more Hudson Street fantasy: most Santa Monicans live in neighborhoods where there is no commercial activity more intensive than a corner store or a block of neighborhood serving retail, and they do fine.
I am optimistic that if allowed to negotiate Hines and planning staff will work out through creative dialogue a good plan. But don’t expect miracles. One thing that has proven difficult in the 50 years since Jane Jacobs published “Death and Life” is for planners and developers to conjure up neighborhoods like Greenwich Village out of thin air and a vacant site.
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