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Return to Target, A Play in Many Acts

By Frank Gruber

All the world's a stage, and that includes the dais of the Santa Monica City Council. Two weeks ago most of the council members chewed the scenery with empathy for the working and middle class and their shopping needs, and waxed poetic about the idea of a downtown that served all demographics. Nonetheless a majority of five council members voted to kill the Target department store, and thus consigned downtown to an upscale and exclusive future.

The plot was too obvious to generate much suspense. But there were great roles for the council members to play.

Herb Katz, whose architectural firm has by my rough calculation designed more square footage downtown than the total square footage of Target, played the Yogi Berra role. That is the Yogi Berra of "nobody goes there anymore because it's too crowded."

Katz voted down Target because, as he said without apparent irony, the traffic it generated would be so great that people would stop coming downtown. This argument might be delusional, it could be cynical, but in any case it is as illogical as Yogi's famous quote. Yet just as meaningful.

The clear meaning from what Katz said, and in this all the other council members who voted no joined him to some extent, was that the interests of the property owners on the Promenade and their tenants take precedence over the needs of Target's potential shoppers and any other downtown uses.

The existing downtown business interests do not want competition from Target and its customers: not on price, not on quality, not on selection and not on the use of the public infrastructure of streets, sidewalks, parking and transit.

Property owners are now charging so much rent that even expensive restaurants, like Remi, are being driven off the Promenade by high-end retailers willing to pay for what amounts to billboard space on a world famous street. Meanwhile, chains like Benihana, P.F. Chang's, Hooters, and Buca di Beppo are replacing these restaurants and lower-priced foot outlets such as the Food Court.

Katz and colleagues repeatedly called the situation on the Promenade "fragile." Their attitude toward downtown businesses is like that of the Bush administration to the oil and gas industry. The city has made the property owners downtown rich: at what point can these self-reliant capitalists take care of themselves?

One hopes that Katz has the good taste to decline any commissions to design buildings that will replace Target.

If Katz was Yogi Berra, then Kevin McKeown was Yogi Bear. His contribution to the debate consisted of, "It's the traffic, stupid." Such a nuanced view of the state of civilization at the beginning of the 21st century demands more thoughtful analysis than this format allows, but one question worth asking is, to whom was McKeown addressing his question?

Was "stupid" merely rhetorical, or was McKeown trying to explain the situation to the large numbers of benighted fools who testified and wrote letters and signed petitions to the effect that there are in fact issues of convenience and price that are just as important as traffic?

You decide.

To give the drama more historical weight, Richard Bloom played Marie Antoinette, as in: Let them shop at Robinsons May! Many opponents of the Target store took pains to identify themselves as Target shoppers, but not Bloom, who did not like their service or selection.

Target was not Bloom's shopping "ideal," and he thought potential downtown Target shoppers should be happy with what they would find at Robinsons May, at least during their sales. He assured Target shoppers that these sales occurred frequently.

Taking Katz's protectionist argument even farther, Bloom said that the "chains are taking over" and that we need to protect Robinsons May (a division of May Department Stores Company, a $14 billion retailer operating eight regional department store chains) and Macy's (a division of Federated Department Stores, Inc., the largest operator of department stores in the U.S., with 1999 sales of $17.7 billion) from Target.

At least Bloom is consistent. A few years ago he sued to stop Ralph's from building a store that would serve the Pico Neighborhood. In an era when politicians say one thing on Monday and something else on Tuesday, it is somehow comforting that Bloom thinks poor people should be just as inconvenienced buying household goods as they are groceries.

Robert Holbrook played the Sphinx. He said little, and what he said was enigmatic. He began by describing the troubles he would have with his wife if he voted against Target. Then he voted against the store, but committed himself to bringing a Target to Santa Monica. Holbrook gave just one reason for voting no: that traffic in and out of the store's underground parking would back up onto Fifth Street.

Ken Genser pointed out that we survive the impacts of bigger parking structures, which have less room inside for queuing, on busier streets, but that did not persuade Holbrook to change his mind.

Last to speak was Mayor Michael Feinstein, who played the role he has been rehearsing for years: Ralph Nader. The mixture of unctuous concern for the downtrodden, unrealistic utopian solutions, and utter disregard for real-world consequences, can only be described as Naderesque.

You had to be there. Our leading "environmentalist" argued that the way to fix traffic downtown is to fly another on-ramp from Fifth Street onto the freeway, proving what many have suggested, that Feinstein's head is firmly in the sixties.

Briefly put, Feinstein's vision is that if we keep Target out of downtown, the growing number of people living there will cause the building of charming mom and pop shops to serve them. Just like in Europe, he said. Of course everyone in Europe hates the high prices those stores charge and goes to the "supermercato" whenever possible.

When Pam O'Connor pointed out that the European downtowns Feinstein loves all have department stores, he said that kind of urbanism would not be possible here until we had a "civilized transit system" and got beyond the "automobile culture."

There is no transit system I have travelled on, and I have travelled on many, more civilized than the Big Blue Bus. Feinstein owes an apology to its employees and its patrons.

It is also ridiculous to think we will transcend "automobile culture." However, if we stop building freeways and on-ramps to "solve" our traffic problems, and invest the money in transit, then perhaps we would have a bus system that was civilized even to Green Party standards.

Of course, if more people take transit, the beneficiaries will be all those people who "must" drive, because there would be fewer other drivers. But to make transit work we need to look at land-use, and it is politically easier to suggest spending $50 million on another traffic generating freeway ramp.

In the end Feinstein wants the same tony downtown that Herb Katz's clients want. Except that his ideal consumers wear Birkenstocks, not Kenneth Cole.

Bad traffic never killed a downtown, but many were murdered in the name of fixing traffic. What killed our urban centers and our small town Main Streets were all the cures for traffic -- all the freeways, overpasses, street-widenings, one-way streets, left-turn signals, right turn lanes, etc., that made downtowns inhospitable to their users, and at the same time facilitated the flight of the bedrock, middle and working class shopper to the malls and the sprawls.

Target had a plan to bring them back.
The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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