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Happy Birthday, Santa Monica

By Frank Gruber

This Sunday, July 15, marks the 126th anniversary of the day Senator Jones auctioned the first lots in a newly subdivided Santa Monica.

Jones, following the precedent of real estate developers since at least the days of ancient Rome, arrayed his streets on a grid. He numbered them eastward from the ocean. He named the east-west streets for western states, except that what is now Colorado Boulevard was called "Railroad Avenue" for the railroad that ran by it and connected the new town with Los Angeles. Santa Monica Boulevard was Oregon and Broadway was Utah. The source of Jones' wealth was the Comstock Lode, and he named the widest street, what is now Wilshire, for Nevada.

The first lot, at Ocean and Utah, went for $510.

I took these facts from "Santa Monica Bay: Paradise by the Sea" by Fred E. Basten. This is an excellent picture book about the history of Santa Monica, provided one can get past the fact that there is nothing in it about Santa Monica's African-American community, nor anything about Hispanics once the Sepulveda, Marquez and Reyes families sell the land to Colonel R.S. Baker in 1872.

Colonel Baker thought the bluff overlooking the ocean would make a good sheep ranch. He got wise quick, however, and sold most of his holdings to Jones two years later for about a 300 percent profit. Jones wanted to build a port to serve a railroad he wanted to build from Los Angeles to his silver mines in Inyo County.

Some days I think history is destiny, some days I think it's bunk. No matter what future one wants or predicts for Santa Monica, one can choose a past that suits one's argument: port or resort, high-class or honky-tonk; congenial small town or Raymond Chandler's "Bay City;" industrial powerhouse or sleepy suburb. Your call.

No one ever built much in Santa Monica to last, and the only constant, aside from change itself, has been the continued need for investment to keep the place from expiring from terminal shabbiness.

The port failed. A great era of resorts, like the Arcadia Hotel that stood near the present site of RAND's headquarters, replaced it. The resorts deteriorated during World War II and the Cold War when Santa Monica became a blue collar manufacturing town, as a major locus of the aviation industry. The freeway presaged a boom in apartments and Santa Monica became both a bedroom community for commuters and a retirement center for seniors.

No "vision" of Santa Monica ever proved permanent, yet every phase left some imprint, and sometimes seeds for a revival.

Traffic now crawls on the freeway, and Santa Monica looks again to its own resources. Office workers have replaced factory workers, tourism is again a mainstay of the economy, and, irony of ironies, the MTA voted two weeks ago to start a process that may return rails to Colorado Avenue.

Rails will return there, that is, if the MTA follows the consensus expressed two weeks ago at the City's planning day for the Civic Center, and locates the terminus for the light rail line at the corner of Colorado and Fourth, in what is now the Sears auto center.

I was impressed with what I saw and heard at the Civic Center workshop, although the format itself was not as open as it might have been. The City set the standard for public workshops with those it conducted for the "BIG" projects on the beach and for the non-aviation land at the Airport, when the City had the public tour the actual places that were being planned, and solicited comments along the route.

The Civic Center workshop took place indoors, at the Civic Auditorium. The turnout was impressive, perhaps more people than I have seen previously at such an event, and people had a lot to say. There is something about working with a resource that is both huge and not big enough that makes one think and think again.

In fact, there is so much to say about the Civic Center that it took the consultants from the ROMA Group much of the afternoon to explain the current status and their own preliminary ideas. This left only about 45 minutes for public workshops, which is not much time. The public was distributed randomly among six tables, which meant that each table had more or less the same mix of views. This helps achieve consensus, but tends to dull the analysis, perhaps before we need consensus.

It would be better to let people break up into "affinity" groups -- the "housers" here, the "recreators" there, the "culturalists" over there -- and let them go at it, with the understanding that ultimately everyone will need to compromise to make as many winners as possible.

But what I heard was good. I liked especially the commitment to housing. The Working Group told the planners that they want to try to achieve all 600 units possible under the 1993 plan, by increasing density (to maximize open space) and, if necessary, locating additional housing on sites where it will have minimal impact on view corridors and be connected to other housing.

There are at least two good places to locate more housing that meet these requirements.

The first is a site Ken Genser suggested, the north side of the future Olympic Drive. This is the area east of Chez Jay and the Ocean Lodge hotel. Buildings on the west side of Ocean block the view there, although there will be a view corridor along the northern sidewalk of Olympic Drive. Housing along the north side of Olympic will face housing on the south side, and having apartments and local serving retail on both sides of the street will make the street work better.

To continue the historical theme, housing on this site would replace the apartments next to Chez Jay that RAND removed from the market in the 80s, and it might be possible to convert part of the historic RAND office building into apartments.

Another good place for housing is the north side of Pico, between the Civic Auditorium and Fourth Street, where housing would help make the connection to Ocean Park, as well as improve Pico, an important street that now suffers from being the location of the Auditorium's backside. The south side of Pico is rundown, and both sides of the street would be excellent sites for mixed use buildings with retail below and apartments above.

While this additional housing will reduce the amount of park space, the new neighbors will help enliven the parks, for everyone's benefit.

Happy birthday, Santa Monica, and many happy returns.

On Sunday, July 22, the Santa Monica Historical Society and the City of Santa Monica will co-host the 92nd annual Pioneer Community Picnic to commemorate 126th anniversary of Santa Monica's founding. Time: Noon to 2 p.m. Place: Christine Reed (Lincoln) Park Auditorium. Bring your own picnic lunch and beverage. Donation: $3.

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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