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Once More with Feeling
by Frank Gruber
Monday evening, at the first meeting of the Civic Center Working Group, City Council Member Kevin McKeown said that the chance to design a site like the Civic Center area is an "opportunity that comes to a community once a century."
That's right: once in the 20th century, and now in the 21st.
Just teasing. I know what McKeown meant, and I agree with him. Small cities can rarely spend $53 million to buy a 11.3 acres of soon to be vacant land smack in the middle of town. Land that happens to be just a few short blocks from the ocean. Land that is right across the street from the city's city hall.
But back in the 20th century the City conducted another process for determining what would be built in the Civic Center area, and followed that with a process to design what it would all look like.
As I have mentioned previously, I participated in that process as an active member of the public, and in many ways participating changed my life. I innocently answered a call for public comment on the original Civic Center specific plan by writing a memo to the Planning Department, and eight years later I am writing this column.
I made many good friends in the process, too many to mention here, but I most vividly remember interactions with opponents, such as the time I met up with Tom Hayden in a supermarket parking lot. This was after City Council had approved the plan and Hayden, a politician I had always voted for, was collecting signatures to put the plan on the ballot. I was counter-leafleting, and at one point when I was trying to dissuade a potential petition signer, Hayden yelled over, "Don't listen to him -- he wants to turn Santa Monica into Philadelphia."
As a transplanted Philadelphian, I was used to slights to the city, but that made it personal.
Hayden and the plan's no-growth opponents, including our current mayor, Mike Feinstein, gathered enough signatures and the plan went to the voters. In the local high point of new urbanism, 60 percent of them approved it.
I always believed that Hayden's personal opposition to the plan had less to do with the plan itself and more to do with animus toward the RAND Corporation left over from the Cold War.
RAND is now merely an interested observer. The City, boldly going where no developer would go before, bought most of the RAND property for $53 million, enabling RAND to build, on a smaller scale, the new headquarters that was its reason for getting involved in the process from the start.
The City now holds all the cards -- as well as the mortgage. This $53 million, plus interest, will be paid out of future property taxes on much of Santa Monica's appreciating real estate.
A cynic might call this checkbook socialism, but it was a bold move by the City, one that future generations should appreciate.
The City is also off to a good start in the re-planning process.
The Working Group itself is well-constituted. With three council members, it will have a lot of implied authority -- assuming these three agree on a plan, they will need only one more vote to approve it.
It also made sense to include representatives from the Recreation and Parks and Housing Commissions, as well the Planning Commission. The city needs more parks. It also needs more housing, and in any case, by the terms of the financing, 30 percent of the $53 million must go to build housing on site.
The City also made a good move in re-hiring The Roma Group, the design and urban planning firm that organized the public process for, and drew up, the 1993 plan.
Aside from the fact that Roma does great work (the firm recently won the competition to design the Martin Luther King memorial in Washington), it is important to realize that, despite the general impression that nothing has happened since 1994, much of the 1993 plan is being realized.
Everything that the City itself was to fund and build is under construction, or in the late stages of planning: the public safety building, the parking structure behind the courthouse, and the segment of Olympic Drive from the freeway on-ramp at Fourth to Main Street.
It is not unusual for city-building to proceed in fits and starts, and to revisit plans. "Rome wasn't built in a day."
The current efforts will focus on two large parcels: the 11.3 mostly contiguous acres west of Main Street that the City acquired from RAND, and the 10.3 acres that make up the Civic Auditorium site, including the parking lot.
It is worth taking a look at what the 1993 plan called for on these acres and what went wrong.
Under the 1993 plan the RAND properties, including the land the think tank has retained to build its new headquarters, were programmed for: (i) a headquarters for RAND of up to 500,000 square feet, (ii) 350 units of housing plus 35,000 square feet for live-work spaces, (iii) another 250,000 feet of development that could be either offices or housing, (iv) 20,000 square feet of retail, and (v) parks and other publicly accessible open space totalling 3.8 acres exclusive of streets and walkways.
Consistent with the City's Proposition R, thirty percent of whatever housing was built was to be affordable -- at least 105 units (30% of 350). If the other 250,000 square feet were developed as 250 residences, another 75 units would be affordable.
As for the Civic Auditorium parcel, the future use of the auditorium was to be the object of further study, room was reserved along Fourth Street for a cultural or community facility, including a child care center, and most of the parking lot was designated to become a six-acre park.
RAND and its developers were to pay for much of this, not only the development (including the affordable housing), but also the parks and most of the streets. After years of trying, in bad times and in good, they couldn't make a go of it.
The opponents of the 1993 plan criticized it as over-development -- but in fact, it was not enough development to be sustainable economically. The overall ratio of allowable development to the amount of land was low for an urban center, and it proved to be insufficient to create the wealth needed to build what the City (and RAND) wanted.
Now RAND's needs are met, and the City, under its redevelopment powers, is using wealth created in other parts of the city to create and build what Mike Feinstein, at the City Council hearing on Target, predicted will be a more perfect plan.
I, for one, hope the Working Group and Roma, and the public, prove him right.
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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