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The Santa Monica No-Development Agency

By Frank Gruber

Monday night's action by the Civic Center Working Group to gut the housing component of the Civic Center plan in favor of a smidgin more of open space has little to do with the city's needs for more parks and a lot to do with the politics of no-growth. Not only that, but in half an hour they reversed thirteen years of planning.

Some history.

In a five-year process ending in 1993 a City task force decided on appropriate development standards for the 40-plus acres of the Civic Center.

In 1993 the City conducted a design process that turned those development standards into an urban plan. No-growthers, who had resisted the development standards and fought the design process, collected signatures and put the plan on the ballot.

In June 1994 the plan won with 60 percent of the vote.

In 2000 the City's Redevelopment Agency used tax-increment funding from its earthquake redevelopment district to buy 11.3 acres of land from RAND for $53 million -- $4.7 million per acre. The City initiated a new process to make changes to the 1993 plan to accommodate changes and the opportunities the deal with RAND caused and created.

On July 1, at a "Community Planning Day," about 130 people heard from consultants, broke into groups, analyzed possible plans, and communicated their ideas to the Civic Center Working Group.

The Working Group, which includes three members of City Council, then gave directions, based on what they had heard, for what they wanted to see in the plan: as much open space as possible, but also as many as possible of the 600 units of housing that could be built under the 1993 plan. They emphasized that they wanted a neighborhood.

On October 14 planners presented a plan that called for 550 units of housing and 15.5 acres of open space. Notwithstanding that usable public open space represented more than a third of the entire site, some members of the public complained that the plan did not have enough "green." They wanted a "grand park," and they wanted to achieve this by eliminating 250 units of housing proposed for "Area D," a two-acre site along Ocean Avenue.

On October 16 the Working Group met to evaluate the plan. Members of the Working Group expressed concern that the Area D housing was too massive, and the consultant, Boris Dramov, from ROMA Group said that he thought it could be broken up into smaller pieces.

Responding to the "more park" sentiment they had heard on the 14th, the group also requested that Dramov return with a plan alternative that had more park land, but all the Working Group members, except for Recreation and Parks Commissioner Frank Schwengel, reiterated their support for housing.

Monday night Dramov returned with three plans, all of which reduced the housing on Area D, but to differing levels: 160 units, 130 units, and zero units.

About 30 members of the public attended Monday night's meeting. The crowd included only a few of the people who had spoken in favor of housing at previous workshops. Possibly they thought the issue had been decided. Perhaps six or ten people reiterated that they wanted to see more green and less housing.

The Working Group, responding to "what the community wanted," chose the plan with zero housing on Area D. Instead of 15.5 acres of open space, there will now be 17.5, and 250 households will exist somewhere else.

There are many good elements of the plan that was approved, but the Working Group's changes jeopardize the success of the whole.

The plan now calls for about 450,000 fewer square feet of development than the plan the voters approved in 1994, a plan that itself was minimally dense for a downtown site. The RAND office building, essentially the same size as RAND's existing facilities, is 185,000 square feet smaller than it could have been under the 1993 plan; the 250,000 square feet of either housing or offices that could have been built, will not be built; and 300 units of housing will be built instead of the 350 minimum of the old plan.

Unless the City programs them with uses to attract tourists, the "grand park" along the freeway some members of the community wanted so much, and the adjacent town square, will be six acres that are about as popular as the existing City Hall lawn. There will no be reason for residents to use the park, and not enough people nearby, except for office workers and jurors eating their lunchtime sandwiches, to keep the park busy.

The 5.6 acre park at the other, southeastern, end of the Civic Center will also be under utilized. Perhaps one park like this could work, but not both. Too big to be intimate, too small to be recreational, these parks will be empty spaces that frustrate the purpose of using the Civic Center to knit the center of the city together.

Some people say we need parks for passive reflection. True, people need to reflect passively, but they don't generally do it in city parks unless there are other people there to watch and make them feel secure. I live a few blocks from Hotchkiss Park, at Fourth and Hollister, which is dedicated to contemplation. Very few people use it for that purpose.

But why commune with nature next to a freeway when one is blocks from the beach or only miles from the Santa Monica Mountains? Santa Monica doesn't need more parks for contemplation -- its real open space needs involve recreation, and no one found a way to use the open space at the Civic Center for the ball fields, etc., that we need.

If we want to spend $4.7 million an acre on park land, we could get a better deal in the city's industrial belt, where we could build parks near the bulk of our population, parks that would be used.

The money used to buy this land from RAND is money that the City Redevelopment Agency siphons from taxes otherwise payable to the County for all sorts of public purposes. The reason behind the law permitting this is to allow cities whose economies have been hurt by an earthquake to "redevelop."

Like a ministry from 1984, however, Santa Monica's "Redevelopment Authority" should be called the "No-Development Authority." But then, in Orwellian terms, Santa Monica, the only city in Los Angeles County of significant size to lose population in the 90s, is "choking on development."

* * * * *

Time flies when you're having fun and this week's column marks my first anniversary as a columnist. Writing the column has been rewarding in so many ways that that I must spread some gratitude around.

First, to my colleagues at the Lookout, Jorge Casuso and Teresa Rochester, for doing such a great job writing straight news untainted by opinion that (i) I can wallow in pride for my association with them, and (ii) my opinions stand out.

Second, to everyone in Santa Monica who participates in public life, not only because they give me something to write about, but also because they make Santa Monica a fascinating microcosm of the issues facing cities all over the world.

Third, to readers of the column, with a special thanks to everyone who took the time to reply to what I wrote, either to me or to the Lookout.

Fourth, to my family -- to my son, Henry, for occasionally giving me someone ingenuous to write about, and to my wife, for proofreading my drafts and pointing out my most egregious lapses in common sense and courtesy even before they reach my editor. (But, of course, "all errors are mine and mine alone.")

The year has been startling and at times horrific. It began with a Presidential election that spiralled down into absurdity; and included tragedies both local and national that I could hardly believe. I have been privileged to have a forum for which I could organize what thoughts I had on these big issues.

My greatest privilege, however, has been to observe Santa Monica closely.

Far more happens each week in Santa Monica than one writer's opinions can cover in 1200 words, so my view is doubly subjective: both opinionated and narrowly focused. But this focus on the inner-workings of urban life has given me, at least I hope so, some understanding of what goes on in the larger constructs of our now 21st century civilization.

For that I am most grateful.

Upcoming meetings:

Downtown Parking Task Force

Monday, November 12, 6:30 - 8:30 p.m., Ken Edwards Center, 1527 Fourth Street

Santa Monica City Council

The Council is scheduled to consider adoption of crosswalk recommendations for 26th Street, Tuesday, November 13. Meeting starts at 7:00 p.m., at City Hall.

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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