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Take a Deep Breath. But Don't Hold It.

By Frank Gruber

Many people have compared September 11 to December 7, 1941. Perhaps the more comparable date was August 29, 1949, the day the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb.

Although there was no attack August 29, and we do not remember the date, the day's legacy was pervasive -- pervasive fear and vulnerability. Fear that was great for science fiction movies, but bad for everything else. Fear that did not lift until the the Cold War ended.

Of course there was fear after Pearl Harbor, particularly on the West Coast. Santa Monica was in the thick of it. There was precaution -- the Douglas plant on Ocean Park Boulevard was camouflaged to look from the air like the surrounding Sunset Park neighborhood -- as well as panic: in the wee hours of February 25, 1942, four local anti-aircraft batteries fired 1,440 shells at what turned out to be a weather balloon.

No plausible outcome of World War 2, however, included a serious attack on the mainland U.S. But only four years after the great victory, we awakened one day to vulnerability.

Then, just as there is today, when, as my wife puts it, "we have something to fear besides fear itself," there was good reason to be fearful. The Russians had the bomb, and presumably they could find a way to drop it here.

Although, as we saw on September 11, a crisis can bring out the best in people, fear can bring out the worst. Pearl Harbor led to deportation and detention of Japanese-Americans; the Soviet threat, to McCarthyism.

We ultimately learned to live with the fear of atomic annihilation, however, and before everyone buys up all the Cipro perhaps we should, pardon the expression, take a deep breath. Just as we did in the fifties, we need to devise strategies -- something beyond "duck and cover" -- to contain the threat and provide a reasonable basis not to fear.

Since this is a local column, let me point out that Santa Monica, as the home of the RAND Corporation, was on the front line. RAND articulated the doctrine of mutually assured destruction ("MAD").

MAD was brilliant, but it was based on the premise that the Soviets were rational or at least -- and this is relevant to today's situation -- not suicidal.

We fear people with malicious intent, like criminals, and we fear unpredictable calamities, like earthquakes and traffic accidents. But to really get scared you need people with malicious intent whose actions can't be predicted -- a truth the makers of slasher movies have used to great advantage.

I assume a group at RAND already has a Defense Department grant to study how to respond to the threat of biological and other terrorism, and I wish them luck. I have no solutions to propose myself, except to say that the lesson we can learn from past fear-inducing incidents is not to overreact.

Dr. Strangelove may have represented the bizarre logic of MAD, but Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper represented the futility of trying to drink "pure rain water" to protect our "precious bodily fluids."


Speaking about RAND -- this Sunday, October 14, and Tuesday the 16th Santa Monica will hold public meetings about what to do with the Civic Center, including the 11.3 acres the City bought from the think-tank last year.

Last spring the Civic Center Working Group hosted half a dozen events at which consultants led by Roma Design Group presented options for revising the 1993 Civic Center Specific Plan. The public, in turn, gave input to the consultants and to the Working Group, and the Working Group gave direction to the consultants.

The consultants have returned with an "Evaluation Report" that they will present to the public at a meeting Sunday afternoon. Tuesday evening the Working Group will deliberate on the report and presumably make concrete recommendations.

Motion picture production designers live by the adage that they can create anything a demanding director might desire, so long as there is enough "money and time." Money and time will shape the Civic Center as much as any design or program choices the City makes.

The consultants' report proposes and evaluates a plan that if realized would create a wonderful urban center, with more than a third of the area (15.5 acres) dedicated to parks and other public spaces, a small but reasonably substantial neighborhood of about 550 residences, and public facilities, including a renovated Civic Auditorium, a restored City Hall, new city offices, and a pre-school, that along with the courthouse and public safety building, will create a real working center for civic activities.

Residences, civic facilities, the new RAND headquarters, the offices under construction at 1733 Ocean Avenue, and strollers, cyclists and drivers who will meander through the area from downtown, the beach, and Ocean Park, will provide enough activity to animate the large open spaces at all reasonable times, day and night.

These uses will also conform to the history of the site, which since the days of the Arcadia Hotel has been one of the busiest locations in the city. To maximize the amount of open space, the built-up area will be somewhat dense by Santa Monica standards, but hardly so in comparison to the international cities members of the public frequently cited during the public workshops as models for development.

But don't hold your breath. The project will take a lot of money and time.

Money. The estimated costs of the proposed civic improvements, including only mid-range estimates for renovating the Civic Auditorium, total $119 million. The costs of building the housing will depend on how much of it is dedicated to affordable housing, and how much is market-rate. The consultants evaluated several possible scenarios, of varying costs, but at one extreme they expect a 100 percent affordable plan will cost $65 million.

Time. Because RAND cannot demolish its old buildings until it moves into its new one, none of its former property will be available until 2007. Except for a new parking garage, and the possible renovation of City Hall and construction of a new City Services Building, the consultants are not expecting much to happen until then, even on the non-RAND parts of the Civic Center, such as the Civic Auditorium and its parking lot.

Perhaps time will be the solution to the money problem. "Rome wasn't built in a day." The City has had so many projects under construction the past several years, some of which have gone (considerably) over budget, that the forced delay in using the RAND property might be what the City needs to marshal both the will and the money to proceed on what should rightly be ambitious plans.

Schedule for the Civic Center meetings:

Sunday, October 14: 11:30 to 12:30, "Fiesta Lunch;" 12:30 to 4:30 (approx), Presentation of Evaluation Report and Public Comment.

Tuesday, October 16: 6:00 p.m.: Working Group Deliberations

All events take place at the Civic Auditorium East Wing, 1855 Main Street.

According to planning staff advance copies of the Evaluation Report will be available at the Planning Counter at City Hall today. The City has also made the report available on the web, at

Other upcoming planning events:

Downtown Parking Task Force -- Community Presentation & Workshop

Saturday, October 20, 2001 -- Ken Edwards Center Room 100A-B, 1527 Fourth Street

10:00 to 11:00 -- Community Presentation
11:00 to 2:30 -- Task Force Discussion/Recommendations (including community input)

Lunch will be provided, but anyone planning to stay for lunch is asked to RSVP to (310) 458 2275.

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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