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Join the Civic Center Process; See the World

By Frank Gruber

London, Paris, Barcelona, Rome, Dublin. These are some of the world capitals that Santa Monicans evoked to describe the Civic Center's potential during this spring's brainstorming workshops on its future.

Now that the City has acquired 11.3 acres of land from RAND, it has embarked on a public process to revise the 1993 Civic Center Specific Plan. The City established a Working Group to coordinate this effort, and hired as consultants the ROMA Group, the design firm that facilitated the 1993 process and developed the 1993 plan.

This spring the Working Group and ROMA conducted four well-attended workshops to gather comments on the major issues and the community outreach part of the prospect will culminate this Sunday, July 1, with a "Community Planning Day." Sunday's activities will include tours of the site, workshops, and, to make sure hunger drives no one to distraction, a picnic.

The workshops this spring at times reminded me of the public lectures world travellers gave to travel-deprived audiences in the days before jets democratized the Grand Tour. "Have magic lantern, will travel."

But judging from the nonchalance with which they can invoke the Trevi Fountain or the Spanish Steps, many Santa Monicans travel. (But presumably not those who complain about our crowds of tourists.) Perhaps travel does broaden the mind: there has been a sea change in attitude about what to do with the Civic Center.

Ever present in 1993 was a portentous chorus of "24,000 car trips," and cataclysmic imagery of gridlock that created an atmosphere of Biblical doom. But this year, even people who usually worry about such things recognized that the Civic Center presents an unusual if not unique opportunity for urbanism.

Councilman Kevin McKeown said that he wasn't afraid of density and thought we could build as many as 100 units of housing per acre because of all the amenities that will be located nearby.

Councilman Richard Bloom said that we "need to maximize the use of the space" and cited Park La Brea to make his point.

Everyone wants parks and open space, but most participants wanted parks that were integrated into the urban fabric. I was fascinated by how many people liked the idea of parks with "steps," as in "Spanish Steps," places where people could congregate. Contray to my pessimistic expectations, there was no war between "housers" and "open-spacers." People wanted both.

Naturally, there were those who formed their ideas about planning in the fifties and sixties, and who want underground streets and such. They need to watch Godard's "Alphaville," or walk over Bunker Hill from the Central Library to the Grand Central Market.

And some people were unclear on this urban thing. One participant said early on that she thought Santa Monica was "way too popular as a city." Then, later, she castigated the planners for not envisioning something on the order of Paris or Barcelona. Then she said that what had gone wrong in the past ten years was too much building. Huh? We could reduce Barcelona to the density of Santa Monica, but then there would not be much there there.

There are always people who want everything to be green and open and built on top of parking structures, but why be churlish? So many good things were said.

Such as Sara Fauld's comment that instead of referring to "open space," we should talk about "public space."

Or Councilman Ken Genser on traffic: "streets democratize space." Nearly 50 years ago when the City condemned the old blocks and pushed traffic into surrounding streets, it not only cruelly displaced people and businesses, but cut the area off from every place else.

La Verne Ross of the Pico Neighborhood Association reminded people that the Civic Auditorium stands on the former site of an African-American neighborhood. Recently I saw an old map of the area showing the old streets. I wonder if their curbs still lie under the parking lot?

Rebuilding the Civic Center is an opportunity to restore a lost urban ecology.

Although the work of ROMA, staff and the Working Group has been impressive, timidity has characterized the discussion of housing.

ROMA's outside housing specialists did not appear to know much about the local situation. Their approach to building affordable housing was conventional and unambitious.

A little history. Under the 1993 plan, when RAND was to be the developer, the think tank was to build a minimum of 350 units of housing on a 3.3 acre parcel on the west side of Main. RAND had the right to develop another 250,000 square feet either as offices or as housing on two parcels totalling 1.8 acres on Ocean Avenue. If built as housing, 250,000 square feet would represent about another 250 units for a total of 600. A 0.7-acre park was mixed into these sites, so the complete development would have been about 600 units on about six acres.

At least 30 percent of all housing built, between 105 and 195 units, was to be affordable, paid for by the developer from the profits of building market rate housing.

Now the consultants say that only between 160 and 210 units of housing can be built in an urban "village" on approximately 3.75 acres west of Main Street and south of the Olympic Drive extension.

Two hundred ten units do not an urban village, or neighborhood, or even extension of a neighborhood, make.

It is not a matter of over-building. Even if we build all 600 units the 1993 plan contemplated, total development will be about 200,000 square feet less than what was then possible, because RAND is building about that much less than the 500,000 square feet it could have built for its own offices.

One hundred units per acre may sound like a lot, but it is not an extraordinary density. Consider the Legacy Apartments now rising on Colorado Avenue: a private-sector development with 351 units (189 one-bedroom units, 143 two-bedroom, and 19 three-bedroom, of which 28 percent are affordable) and 11,350 square feet of retail on 3.6 acres. Complete with two courtyards, two swimming pools, a clubhouse, a small gym, a spa and a tot lot.

As Genser pointed out, the Sea Castle has 178 units.

The consultants also proposed building only affordable housing. Santa Monica has always tried not to isolate affordable housing. As Jason Parry, Working Group member and Chair of the Housing Commission, said, we should create a well-rounded community at the Civic Center that is a microcosm of Santa Monica.

While the consultants concluded that there would be little "cross-subsidy" from building market rate housing along with affordable housing, their reasoning was unconvincing. The City will not be able to reach that conclusion until it has allowed developers who are experienced with public private partnerships to make proposals for how they would build a mixed-income "village."

See you Sunday? Ciao?

Here is the schedule for Sunday's Community Planning Day:



11:30 AM - 1 PM Open House (displays from past workshops)
Auditorium Lobby

11:30 AM - 1 PM Lunch (food catered, drinks at concession stand)
Civic Lawn & Under Canopy (round tables)

11:30 AM - NOON Working Group Briefing

12:30 PM - 12:55 PM Auditorium Tour (orchestra pit, main floor, if possible)

1 PM - 1:30 PM Presentation of Visions and Alternatives

1:30 PM - 1:50 PM Working Group Questions

1:50 PM - 1:55 PM Breakout Group Instructions

1:55 PM - 2:05 PM Break (concession stand open - drinks and popcorn)

2:05 PM - 2:50 PM Breakout Group Working Sessions
Main Hall (6 rounds around room)

2:50 PM - 3:00 PM Break (drinks and popcorn in East Wing,
Breakout Group efforts posted in East Wing)

3:00 PM - 3:30 PM Presentation of Breakout Group efforts
East Wing

3:30 PM - 4:15 PM Working Group Discussion and Direction
East Wing

4:15 PM Wrap-Up and Adjourn

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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