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Without Prejudice

By Frank Gruber

When I was on the board of the Ocean Park Community Organization (OPCO), a rumor reached us that Trader Joe's was looking at the old Boulangerie site for what would have been its first Santa Monica store.

The OPCO Board then included such no-growth stalwarts as Laurel Roennau, John Bodin, and Mike Feinstein, but they knew enough to button up when everyone else on the board gushed at the prospect of Ocean Park having its own Trader Joe's.

(By the way, taking advantage of a good deal Trader Joe's has on cannellini beans, I recently devised a recipe that has rapidly become a family favorite. Chop two purple onions and saute them in about four tablespoons of olive oil. Meanwhile, empty two cans of cannellini beans into a smallish baking dish. When the onions are soft but not mushy, add them with all the oil to the beans. Add a few chopped tomatoes, fresh or canned. Season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle bread crumbs over the top and bake at 350 for an hour.)

Of course, where NIMBY angels like Roennau, Bodin and Feinstein once feared to tread, Kelly Olsen, Chair of the Planning Commission, rushes in. Back in July Olsen e-mailed Planning Director Suzanne Frick to argue that the zoning code precluded converting a tire store at 12th and Wilshire into a new Trader Joe's.

Olsen's point was that Trader Joe's could not continue using a rear parking lot that sits on residentially zoned land because the parking standard for a grocery store was more intensive than that for the existing tire store. The tire store was classified as an auto repair shop for zoning purposes, and Olsen explained to Frick that the requirement for auto repair shops was one space for every 500 square feet, as opposed to one space for every 250 square feet of grocery store.

Depending on whom one talks to, Olsen's ex parte meddling either (i) resulted in, or (ii) merely coincided with, three months of delay in planning staff's review of Trader Joe's application for administrative approval.

The bad news, as reported last week in The Lookout, is that on November 15 staff finally replied to Trader Joe's and told them that their plans were not in compliance with the zoning code.

The good news is that staff rejected Olsen's parking intensification argument. Olsen, sadly, did not notice that parking requirements for auto repair shops are based primarily on the number of service bays, not square footage. It turns out that the parking requirements for the old tire store and the new Trader Joe's would be the same.

What might be even better news is that both staff and Trader Joe's believe they can resolve their differences over the code and the plans. Unless Trader Joe's becomes so frustrated that they just give up, there remains hope that someday residents of the western half of Santa Monica will not have to drive across town for good deals on cannellini beans.

* * *

Trader Joe's never was much interested in the Boulangerie site. The old restaurant and retail complex has been unused for years, except as a staging area for Pioneer trucks and the City's sewer repair equipment.

Wednesday night developer Howard Jacobs presented to the Planning Commission his proposal for a mixed-use, but mostly housing, project on the site. The Commission, predictably and unanimously, voted the project down.

Even the commissioners had to acknowledge, however, that Jacobs had diligently tried to work within the Santa Monica rules, whatever they might be at any given time.

Commissioner Barbara Brown said Jacobs "had done a great job so far." Commissioner Jay Johnstone said that with a little more work the project could be "world-class," and the Commission agreed with Johnstone's suggestion to deny the project "without prejudice," so that Jacobs could quickly return to the Commission with an improved -- presumably world-class -- project.

As if any developer in his right mind would voluntarily appear before the Planning Commission.

Consider that last month the Commission rejected a two-story, four-unit condominium project on 22nd Street near Santa Monica Boulevard as being "not compatible with the neighborhood" even though the adjacent lots had two and three story structures.

Jacobs and his 133 units never had a chance.

Nonetheless, Jacobs' project, though comparable in size to the Target once planned for downtown, engendered minimal controversy. Jacobs has presented his plans at numerous public meetings, and most people agree that Main Street is a perfect place to build apartments.

A mere eight members of the public appeared before the Commission with opinions about the project, and five of them spoke in favor. Of the three who opposed, one was Laurel Roennau, who opposes everything, and another was a neighbor who wanted to postpone construction of the project for "five or ten years" so that he could get over the trauma of the City's sewer reconstruction project.

This lack of NIMBY fervor caused consternation on the dais. Commissioners badgered the pro project speakers with leading and rhetorical questions. Wait a minute: wasn't this the commission that promised to treat members of the public, and their opinions, with respect?

Planning staff opposed the project, notwithstanding that the project actualizes major City planning objectives, is less dense than what the zoning permits, and has "significant" environmental impacts that are in fact either trivial or temporary.

The alleged traffic impacts, for instance, are Kafkaesque. Can we believe that the traffic from 250 residents and a little bit of retail will significantly affect traffic flow at the Fourth Street on-ramp? It's not development, but the on-ramp itself that draws traffic to both Fourth and Main.

Traffic analysts can spin numbers and predict that the project will generate cars that will slow traffic down at intersections on Main and Fourth, but the import of this analysis conflicts with the fact that on both streets the City has reduced the number of lanes, and incorporated various traffic calming features, precisely for the purpose of slowing traffic.

Staff hung its opposition to the project on tenuous interpretations of vague and general policies of the General Plan, ignoring the multiple incentives the City's laws and policies give to building housing in commercial zones like Main Street.

For instance, staff cited a provision in the Land Use Element of the General Plan that calls for good transitions between commercial and residential areas, ignoring the plain meaning of the provision, namely that mixed-use projects, like Jacobs' project, are to be encouraged precisely because they make good transitions.

I can't figure staff out.

Perhaps staff opposes a project like this one because staff doesn't want to be chastised by the Planning Commission as soft on developers. After all, staff recommended approval of the four condos on 22nd Street and got burned.

Or, perhaps staff opposed the project because it views the Planning Commission, because of its psychological incapacity to deal with developers, as irrelevant to the essential role of planning in our society: the process of molding developer desires to public needs and wants. If this was the case, then staff's motive would have been to create negotiating room with the developer for the inevitable appeal to the City Council.

But under either scenario, all our significant planning decisions are being made on an ad hoc basis, our zoning standards are hopelessly vague, and we are stuck with an eyesore blighting one of our most important streets.


Madison Advisory Group (Re: the Madison Site Theater)

A special meeting of the Advisory Group will take place Wednesday, December 12, at 7 PM, at 1900 Pico Boulevard.

The meeting will be a tour of Santa Monica College's main campus performing arts facilities. The meeting is open to the public. Parking for the tour will be available through the kiosk attendant at the SMC Pico Blvd. surface parking lot starting at 6:30 PM.

The tour will begin in front of the College Concert Hall at 7:00 PM. For further information call 310-434-3431.

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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