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What Becomes a City Most

By Frank Gruber

By Santa Monica standards, there was not a lot of controversy at either the City's public workshop on Sunday regarding Roma Design Group's refined proposals for the Civic Center or the meeting Tuesday evening of the Civic Center Working Group to deliberate the draft plan.

What controversy there was largely concerned whether there should be park land rather than housing in a two acre parcel called "Area D," which sits on Ocean Avenue directly west of City Hall.

[You can view "Area D" yourself if you click on "Illustrative Plan" at the City's Website. You can view the plan as either a jpeg file or with Acrobat Reader. Roma's full report is also available at the site.]

One speaker summarized the sentiment for more park land as follows: "When I hear the words 'civic center,' I think green space."

This struck me as odd. I think of green space when I hear the words "golf course," or "soccer field," or "the fruited plain." When I hear the words "civic center," I think of the pivot point of a city. Perhaps I lack imagination, but the dictionary on my shelf describes "civic" as "of or relating to a citizen, a city, citizenship, or civil affairs," and "center" means, if nothing else, the middle of things.

The current plan includes 15.5 acres of public open space. This is well over a third of the area of the whole Civic Center, from Pico to the freeway, and from Ocean to Fourth. The planners have not shortchanged the need for parks and other open space, and, as Planning Director Suzanne Frick reminded the Working Group Tuesday evening, in any case the consensus that emerged from the July public workshop was to create a neighborhood in the Civic Center.

You can't make a neighborhood without neighbors.

Before proceeding further, however, I want to say how much I admire the job the Working Group has done on the project. The group, which includes luminaries from the City Council and the Planning Commission whom I have often criticized, have said some of the smartest things I have heard from any Santa Monica dais. No one person could agree with all that has been said, but everything that has been said, has been said conscientiously and with a sense of public purpose.

For that matter, the public has been good, too, and has turned out in good numbers. All in all, this is one of the better examples of public process I have witnessed.

One smart thing that Planning Commissioner and Working Group member Geraldine Moyle said Tuesday night was that the bigger and grander the park at the Civic Center is, the more likely it will be the domain of the tourists and visitors who stay in nearby hotels.

Will the Civic Center be part of our city, used by us, or a mere source of amusement for visitors? This appears to be a fundamental question, but the fact is, we can have it both ways. Harking back to something City Council and Working Group member Richard Bloom said months ago, the best attraction for visitors is a city that works for residents.

With that perspective, I would say that some people, including members of the Working Group, miss the point about the housing in Area D. What they see is a drawing that indicates a monolithic block of housing, but which does not give an idea of how a residential area itself can provide important open space in the form of streets that people actually walk to get somewhere.

As Boris Dramov of Roma hinted in the discussion Tuesday night, we can break this housing up with at least two passageways, or "mews" as he called them, one that connects Ocean Avenue with the town square, on an axis with the City Hall steps, and one that crosses Area D in the other direction, connecting the housing south of Area D with the new park to the north.

Small streets also reduce scale and make neighborhoods themselves more livable.

Which brings up another issue. If this plan lacks anything, it is access. The Civic Center area is as large as downtown Santa Monica from Wilshire to Colorado and Second to Fourth, yet there are very few ways in and out of it. The planners should be looking for every opportunity to add small streets to disperse traffic, not only to provide for the needs of people living in, working in, and otherwise using the Civic Center, but also to relieve the bottlenecks at nearby intersections.

The Working Group set its next meeting, to review revised plans, for Monday evening, October 29.

* * *

This coming Tuesday evening, theCity Council will again take up the question of whether to add fluoride to our water supply to increase the level of naturally occurring fluoride to levels that are effective in preventing tooth decay.

When fluoridation came before the council last year, the matter stalled on a three-to-three tie vote because Pam O'Connor was out of town. Assuming that none of the other council members change their minds -- something that politicians (and columnists) are loathe to do -- the key votes will be those of O'Connor and Herb Katz. Katz takes the place of Paul Rosenstein, who voted in favor of fluoridation when he was on the council.

For fluoridation to win, Richard Bloom and Robert Holbrook have to hold firm to their yes votes, and both O'Connor and Katz have to agree.

I wrote about fluoridation after the previous vote, frankly in amazement that three members of the city council of a self-identified enlightened city such as ours could vote no on such a basic issue of public health. (Anyone so inclined can find the column in the "What I Say" Archives, under the date of December 14, 2000.)

The fact is that the votes of two members of City Council -- Mike Feinstein and Kevin McKeown -- were sure votes against fluoridation from the get-go. Opposing fluoridation is a bedrock Green Party position. Ralph Nader has been opposing fluoridation for decades. Don't expect any arguments to persuade our two Green Party council members.

Ken Genser cast the third vote against fluoridation, a vote that surprised me. The usually logical and liberal Genser said that he didn't see any risk in fluoridation, but he viewed the question as a matter of "choice," because people can choose to drink fluoridated bottled water or take supplements.

That argument might mean something if children, the chief beneficiaries of fluoridation, had a choice about what water they drink.

* * *

The curtain has risen on the next act in the development of the old Henshey's site at Fifth and Santa Monica, which seems forever destined to be called the "Target site." As many predicted, developers are proceeding to develop the property piecemeal, so as to avoid discretionary review, and with uses -- housing -- that allow them to maximize development.

Although the site was perfect for a department store, there is nothing wrong with building more housing downtown, as the City has recognized in its planning and zoning for the area.

If these plans, which cover five of the nine lots on the site, prove controversial, the response from opponents will no doubt include more calls to extend the scope of discretionary review and to eliminate preferences for housing.

The City is in danger, however, if it hasn't already done so, of removing any certainty from its zoning and other land-use laws. It struck me Wednesday evening, as I watched Planning Commission debates that one way or another revolved around the interpretation of "neighborhood compatibility," that our zoning laws no longer have any content.

While the problem with this from the point of view of a property owner is obvious, the problem from the City's point of view is more subtle and at least twofold.

One problem is that the City is forcing developers into narrower and narrower choices, because no developer wants to buy a property and hire an architect when no one can predict, based on its laws and plans, what the City either wants or will approve.

A second problem is that some frustrated property owner is going to wonder whether the City's zoning laws haven't become unconstitutionally vague, and then hire a lawyer to find out. The City may end up paying his lawyer.

Upcoming meetings:

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.

Civic Center Working Group -- 6:00 p.m., Monday, October 29, 2001, Civic Auditorium East Wing, 1855 Main Street.

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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