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By Frank Gruber
March 28, 2011 --I can understand why the Santa Monica City Council wants revisions to the plans for the old Papermate factory site on Olympic Boulevard, opposite Bergamot Station, but I do not understand why the council sent the project back to Hines, the developer, for more work rather than have the Planning Department begin negotiations with Hines over those plans. (See story of March 24 2011, City Council Tells Hines Try Again)
At least a majority on the council and the department are in sync on what kind of changes the plan needs; they like what’s going to be built there but they want changes in the design and layout. So -- what’s the point of having Hines do another iteration of the plans without direct city involvement? The plans, as part of a draft development agreement, would still go through the Planning Commission and the council again, so it’s not like the council would be signing off.
In the meantime, we need the city’s urban consultants and Hines’ urban consultants to get together to hash out issues like where to locate north-south crossings and which of them should accommodate cars, where to locate open space, or how to integrate commercial and residential buildings. This is why the City’s planners asked for authority to begin negotiations for an agreement.
Having Hines go back to its own drawing boards looks like just a delay to make opponents of the project feel good. The council was not telling Hines to reduce the overall scale of the project or change the proposed mix of uses. In fact the council members want the project to be built by the time the Expo light rail arrives at Bergamot.
The designs at this stage are so schematic that it’s impossible to evaluate them on the terms of last week’s discussion, much of which concerned the specific architecture of the buildings. It is senseless, however, for a developer to hire design architects to design real buildings until everyone has a reasonable idea about what can be built.
But then I am not as offended by the straight-sided modernist “boxes” Hines used to illustrate volumes in the schematic plan. Modernism, particularly of the horizontal variety, has been traditional architecture in Santa Monica and Los Angeles now for almost a century. When Council Member Bobby Shriver said that the plans didn’t look like Santa Monica, you have to ask: what architecture looks like Santa Monica more than some form of modernism?
Of course, there is a lot of terrible modern architecture around -- I say this as one who has roundly criticized the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. But there is lot of terrible architecture of all styles and eras. In particular, though, whether a modern building is good or bad depends upon fine details of proportion and materials, details that are beyond the scope of the Papermate plans at this point.
Planning staff wants Hines to break up building facades and vary roof heights, but many of the greatest city streets in the world have repetitive facades going straight up for four, five or six stories, or more. Think of apartment buildings in European cities, or brownstones in New York, or even the narrow canyons of medieval Barcelona. One can do the same quality work with neo-modernism or contemporary architecture, and create great streets, but the beauty is always going to be in the details.
It’s not that the City should be passive when it comes to the architecture of the project. The development agreement needs to give the City a continuing role, like that of a client, in the design process to make sure that Hines’ architects pay as much attention to the City’s interests in the exteriors of the buildings and how they relate to the context as they do to the floor plans.
To get the variety the planning department wants, rather than focus on artificial requirements of “articulation” that can lead to pastiche (consider the impact of the City Council’s meddling years ago in the designs for the building that replaced the Boulangerie on Main Street), what the City might do is encourage (or require) Hines to bring in different design architects to work on different buildings. The architects could work with Gensler, the firm doing the master plan, so that the infrastructure is cohesive, but the idea would be that the buildings wouldn’t look like they were all designed together.
In any case, as I watched the public testimony on the project, I couldn’t help but recall past hearings about big projects in Santa Monica -- hearings that were much more contentious. I mean, does anyone remember the hearings on rebuilding St. John’s Hospital after the earthquake? I mean, that was a hospital and people went crazy. Or the hearings on the 1993 Civic Center plan -- opponents took that to a referendum.
While some opponents of the project made principled arguments about the size of the project, others seemed to be grasping at straws. One straw was, naturally, planning staff’s “village” metaphor, which some opponents took literally -- big mistake if you’ve been following the LUCE.
One opponent said she was worried that the project would not conform to new Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. Another worried that Hines would not deal with toxic wastes left by Papermate. Huh? Do these people think that in this day and age in Santa Monica, when you practically need an Act of Congress to redo a kitchen, these issues will be ignored?
Then there were the comments from representatives from the newly formed “Santa Monica Transparency Project,” who read into the record the amounts of campaign contributions that Hines and its allies had made to different City Council members. This led to one hapless Transparency Project member telling an outraged Council Member Robert Holbrook that yes, if she received $13,250 in contributions, that would influence her vote if she were a council member.
If you know anything about Santa Monica politics, you know that a developer like Hines has many reasons to support certain candidates over certain other candidates, without having any expectation of having any special influence over the candidates it supports.
So, I was left wondering: did the Transparency Project opponents of the project expect that insulting the council members would be a good way to persuade them to agree with the opponents’ arguments, or did they simply want to grandstand about their own righteousness?
Which naturally brings me to Kevin McKeown’s “deliberately impertinent” comment that he didn’t know why Hines was even there last Tuesday night.
Maybe, after waiting for Mr. McKeown and his colleagues to complete the LUCE, to get its project moving?
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