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Council Approves Civic Center Plan

By Jorge Casuso

April 24 -- With a 4 to 2 vote capping a seven-hour public hearing that ended early Wednesday morning, the City Council reshaped the future of the sprawling Civic Center with a plan that appeased playfield boosters but left housing and arts advocates dismayed.

Heeding the call of parents, school officials and coaches, the council unanimously approved a large athletic field, despite strong objections from the lead judge of the abutting County Courthouse. It also responded to the concerns of Main Street merchants, directing staff to look for ways to make their street transition more smoothly from Downtown.

In addition, the council voted 4 to 3 to extend Olympic Drive to Ocean Avenue, defying a strong lobbying effort by Mayor Michael Feinstein to cut the proposed road short at Main Street, making it a pedestrian walkway. Feinstein's push for underground parking also failed 4 to 3.

If the approved plan was a victory of sorts for the large and vocal sports lobby (which wanted two fields, not one), it was a setback for boosters of affordable housing, who turned out wearing headbands and feathers only to see their battle cry to double the proposed 300 units fall mostly on deaf ears.

Also losing out was the arts and cultural lobby -- spearheaded by a half dozen members of the City's Arts Commission -- who failed to convince the council that a new a theater and gallery was needed to complement the Civic Auditorium and the refurbished Barnum Hall. Arts advocates also failed to win a commitment that a proposed expansion of the Civic would be "predominantly" reserved for cultural events.

Despite the year-long task force meetings, consultant reports and extensive community input, most council members agreed that what they voted for Wednesday morning was a general concept, a vision that is subject to change.

"This is a historic and great step forward for the community," said Councilman Richard Bloom, who before casting his vote cautioned that "this is a vision that is incomplete. This process is not done. We are at a new starting point tonight saying, 'Here's the big picture.'"

Council member Pam O'Connor agreed, noting that the plan is "a roadmap to help people navigate.

"Can we put together a perfect plan? I don't think we could," O'Connor said. "Times are going to change. Needs are going to change. Things will have to be tweaked."

But Mayor Feinstein -- who cast one of the two opposing votes on the Specific Plan for the overall area -- urged the council to "dream big," even if it meant implementing the final plan over "more years."

"I would prefer to take longer to see a good plan," Feinstein said. "This is something that will last generations."

Wednesday's vote was a blow to the Green Party mayor who pushed hard for more housing and underground parking, as well as cutting short Olympic Drive, which he worried would be gridlocked with vehicles bound for the Fourth Street freeway entrance if it led to Ocean Avenue.

But Feinstein's call to add approximately 150 housing units along Ocean Avenue north of the extended Olympic Drive failed to persuade the council. Feinstein argued that staff's fear that it would encroach on valuable open space and be divided from the housing south of the drive was unfounded.

"We should be adding more housing," Feinstein said. "I am absolutely unpersuaded by more than 100 percent, if that is possible, that having more housing across the street won't be seen as part of a neighborhood. I don't think it takes away the open space or hurts the neighborhood."

Katz -- who joined Feinstein's push to cut Olympic short and to add more housing -- voted against the plan because the council did not require the consultants, Roma Design, to come back to the council -- and the public -- with drawings of the Specific Plan.

"This is such an important item that is lifetime and beyond," Katz said. "They should come back with drawings. They have to do them anyway."

Genser and O'Connor disagreed. "I don't think it's a 100-year plan," O'Connor said. "I think it's a 15 to 20 year plan."

"We're talking about concepts, broad concepts," Genser said. "We're dotting too many I's and crossing too many t's."

With the exception of moving the playfield a little north of Pico Boulevard, the council made only minor changes to a plan that was derided by several speakers. Critics of the plan felt that staff and the consultants had not given serious thought to some of the alternatives the council had asked them to explore after the February 5 council meeting.

They were especially irked that staff had only grudgingly followed council's direction to make room for playfields, coming back with numerous obstacles.

"I don't see them fulfilling the mandate to come back with a plan with specific play space," said John Petz, a longtime advocate of more playfields.

"I'm very disappointed," Parks and Recreation Commissioner Neil Carrey said of the staff report, whose message, he said, seemed to be "let's find reasons why things don't work."

"This project is not yet good enough," said Lifelong Learning advocate Louise Jaffe. "You need to make this better. You need more playfields. Those are all your kids, and they need more space."

Affordable housing advocates, who had pushed for 600 units, instead of the 300 proposed by staff and approved by the council, also had harsh words.

"This is an uninspired Civic Center plan. We're a long way from a solution," said James Mount, a board member of Community Corporation of Santa Monica, the City's largest affordable housing provider. "I don't see that your perspiration produced any inspiration or innovation. Bureaucrats have highjacked the project."

Councilman Robert Holbrook, who left before the final vote, cautioned that any plan would fall short of expectations.

"We need twice as much land and four times as much money to do the things they want us to do," Holbrook said.

While Tuesday's council meeting provided some tense moments, it also was sprinkled with light humor.

Noting that Judge Alan B. Haber had objected to sporting events being played outside his window, Councilman Kevin McKeown suggested that the judge "put solar panels" on the windows so "the courthouse can sustain more than an objection."

When Parks and Recreation Commissioner Steve Mount offered to show the council a sample of astro turf for the playfield, Feinstein jumped in: "Council members, do we want the grass passed around?" 
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