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Take Yourself Public

By Frank Gruber

I try to resist sentimentality, but two recent events have touched my mystic chords. One was Paul Rosenstein's retirement from City Council. The other was the start of the process for redesigning the Santa Monica Civic Center.

I connect the two events because my involvement with public life in Santa Monica began with the original Civic Center Specific Plan and continued because of Rosenstein.

In 1993 a city task force, after four or five years of meetings, released its recommendations for developing the Civic Center area -- the area bounded by the Santa Monica Freeway on the north, and by Fourth Street, Pico Boulevard, and Ocean Avenue on the east, south and west, respectively. The two biggest land owners were the city itself and the Rand Corporation.

The Planning Department sought comments to the plan from the public, and I wrote a memorandum with my suggestions.

Until then, I had not participated in Santa Monica politics beyond largely passive memberships in the Ocean Park Community Organization (OPCO), my neighborhood association, and Santa Monicans for Renters Rights.

I didn't realize it at the time, but I had irrevocably, "gone public."

People read the memo, and one thing led to another. I joined an OPCO committee that was reviewing the Civic Center Plan. We drafted a "Vision Statement" and submitted it to the Planning Commission.

The Planning Commission recommended that the City Council authorize a new process to focus on design. City Council agreed and the city hired Roma Design Group, the same firm that had completed the design work on the Third Street Promenade, to conduct a series of public meetings and workshops and ultimately formulate an "urban design plan."

The public process, which Roma led in conjunction with a "Design Working Group" of council members and planning commissioners, was open, challenging, and, for me, very rewarding. It was like a year of urban design school. City Council approved the resulting plan on a 7-0 vote, something no one would have predicted when the process began.

When anti-Rand and anti-growth interests placed the plan on the ballot, it passed with 60 percent of the vote in a June 1994 referendum.

Since then, however, the plan and the Civic Center have gone almost nowhere. Financing most of the public improvements depended on Rand's developing its property, but the recession of the mid-1990's, the bankruptcy of Rand's developer, and rising costs, put the kibosh on that.

The city went ahead with the public safety building, which includes building one half of Olympic Drive, an important street that will connect Ocean Avenue with Fourth Street and the freeway, but as we all know construction of the facility is mired in cost overruns.

Rand decided to throw in the towel on the real estate, and last year sold the city most of its land. It kept enough to build a new headquarters, but one which is about the same size as their current facility, about 300,000 square feet, foregoing the right under the plan to build another 200,000 square feet for its own use.

A few weeks ago the city issued a request for proposals for preparation of a new specific plan that will take into account the new realities.

A planning process that began in the boom of the late 80's, and which produced a plan just in time for the recession of the mid-90's, is now beginning again -- once more in boom times. Let's hope something gets built before the Bush recession.

Last week, now a journalist, I attended the meeting where city staffers explained the project to potential bidders for the contract.

This time the city will combine land-use planning and design in one process. This may make sense, now that the city is the sole owner of the site, but the city will need to make key decisions about what to do with its land before the designers can do much designing.

But this is not the time to speculate about the Civic Center.

Instead, I will wallow in sentiment.

Mostly about Paul Rosenstein. Rosenstein was one of the council members on the Civic Center Design Working Group, and I came to know him and appreciate his good sense during the design process.

But I owe a special favor to Rosenstein because he encouraged me to stay "public" after the Civic Center process concluded. He persuaded me to join the Housing Commission, then encouraged me to seek appointment to the Planning Commission when a vacancy opened.

Rosenstein set a good example for me as well as a pragmatic man of principal. He is a man of the left -- the left being so much a part of his character that he has never had to worry about whether he is "left enough." His history, and his family's history (his father fought in Spain as a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade), is so full of victories and defeats, that he always sees the big picture in a practical way.

Rosenstein knows that people will always need jobs, housing, education and a clean environment. He also knows that achieving these goals in a system where everyone is supposedly out for themselves is not a matter of rhetoric, but instead, hard work.

Now he is going to continue that work as the political director of his union local, Local 11 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

It is easy to ridicule local activists. We all roll our eyes from time to time. But the joke is on the cynics, because the participants all know they are getting the best part of the bargain, the satisfaction that comes from trying to make a difference. True, sometimes this good feeling takes the form of self-satisfaction, but what is worse, a little pride for being an oversized fish, or the smug arrogance of complaining about the pond?

Get involved. It's not that hard. If you don't like what the busybodies do, become a busybody yourself. One of the blessings we Santa Monicans have is that our town is big enough for decisions to count, but small enough that individuals can have a real impact.

I wish Paul Rosenstein good luck, but I regret that during the next round of the Civic Center process, he won't be there to encourage someone else to "go public."

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