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About Frank Gruber

Frank Gruber, who writes "What I Say," the new column for The Lookout, was born in Norristown, Pennsylvania, home of Mike Piazza and Tommy Lasorda. Unlike Lasorda and Piazza, however, Gruber has never played or managed for the Dodgers although, as he points out, the Dodgers never asked him to play.

In 1978, after graduating from the University of Chicago and Harvard Law School, Gruber moved to southern California, settling first in Venice, and then moving to Santa Monica in 1983.

Professionally, his primary endeavor has been to practice entertainment law. He also calls himself a movie producer, although thus far despite strenuous efforts he has produced only one film.

Gruber involved himself in the early '90's in the Santa Monica political scene as a citizen participant in the development of the Civic Center Specific Plan. He was a member of the board of the Ocean Park Community Organization and treasurer of "Citizens for the New Civic Center," the citizens group that defended the Civic Center Specific Plan when it was the subject of an initiative election.

In 1994, City Council appointed Gruber to the Housing Commission and then, in 1995, to the Planning Commission.

Due to a complete misunderstanding, in 1999 the City Council chose not to appoint Gruber to a customary second four-year term on the Planning Commission, proof that in Santa Monica, an able and ambitious citizen, if he really plays his cards right, can go from unknown volunteer to political pariah in only six years.

According to sources who have found themselves seated next to Gruber at dinners and other events, Gruber is not bitter about having been dropped from the Planning Commission. His only regret about his Planning Commission years is that when he was a member, "Our Times" failed to include the commission, or any of its members, on its list of Santa Monica's most powerful people. Gruber often reminds people that "Our Times" is no longer being published.

In 1999 the School Board appointed Gruber to the Prop. X Oversight Committee and he was also a member of the Steering Committee of Community for Excellent Public Schools, a citizens group that formed during the 1999-2000 schools budget crisis. He resigned from both of these commitments to join The Lookout.

Gruber resides in the Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica with his wife, a professor at USC, and their son.

Gruber has dedicated "What I Say" to Ray Charles.
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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Copyright 1999-2008 All Rights Reserved.
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What I Say
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Civic Minded

By Frank Gruber

"I refuse to accept the idea that the 'isness' of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the 'oughtness' that forever confronts him." -- Martin Luther King, Jr., Speech accepting the Nobel Prize, 1964.

Tuesday night the City Council will consider the Civic Center Working Group's recommendations for what to do next with the Civic Center. Since the Working Group, as is customary in Santa Monica, included three council members, the outcome of the meeting should not be in doubt.

Barring changes of mind, the plan needs just one more vote to pass.

City Council will concurrently consider two issues raised by Council Member Herb Katz. He has appealed the Landmarks Commission's designation of the Civic Auditorium as a local monument, and he has proposed building the new main library at the Civic Center.

The major opposition to the Working Group's plan will come from the sports community, which wonders why the plan's 17.6 acres of open space include no playing fields.

As an AYSO parent and coach, I am sympathetic, but I also have to ask where the sports community has been these past nine years. Fields were not part of the 1993 plan and no one agitated for them in any organized way during the current deliberations of the Working Group.

The best solution would be to keep the programming of the 5.6 acre park (and the more than one acre surface parking lot!) near the Civic Auditorium open until the park is built, many years hence.

The people who should be complaining Tuesday night are housing advocates, who have consistently campaigned for inclusion of a significant housing component. They had apparently succeeded this summer, when the Working Group, after a day-long public workshop, instructed the planners to provide as many as 600 units if possible.

Planners returned with a plan for 550 units, but at the eleventh hour the Task Force reduced this to 300 after a few people testified in favor of even more open space, beyond the 15 acres then in the plan.

Council Member Katz's idea to move the main library to the Civic Center is less necessary than interesting, as there is nothing wrong with the library's present location. Given, however, that the City has decided to build a new main library from scratch at the same time that it is redesigning the Civic Center, the idea warrants serious consideration.

The worst mistake would be to build the main library at the Civic Center instead of the remaining 300 units of housing. We need this housing not only for its own sake, but also to make the area a day and night neighborhood that is more than an enclave for office workers and tourists.

In any case, the terms of the financing the City used to acquire the land from RAND require that housing be located on site.

The situation and the opportunities would be different if the library were located on the two acres of open space that the Working Group took from housing.

These two acres are now part of 3.6 acres of open space, adjacent to another 2.5 acres, that the City's consultants, the Roma Group, predict would be under-utilized unless the city devises some attraction for tourists, because so few residents live nearby. But if the City were to build both the library and housing, then the library, the housing, the plentiful remaining open space, and the other nearby civic and commercial buildings would make a terrific mix.

Another idea for this area of the Civic Center, which I am borrowing from former planning commission chair and ardent preservationist Ken Breisch, would be to turn at least part of an old RAND building into a Cold War museum.

The City might also consider locating the library in a renovated Civic Auditorium. Much of the Civic is worthy of landmark status, but not much of the interior. The hydraulic floor is an engineering curiosity, but not something to which it is worth holding the whole building hostage.

The current plan for the Civic, to turn it into a "community events center" at the cost of 44 millions of dollars (including capitalized operating losses), is so vague and so expensive that I wonder if it, whatever it means, will ever come to pass. But turning the Civic into a new main library could be an exciting adaptive re-use.

* * *

Meanwhile, to learn what another livable city is doing with 34 acres, read the article the New York Times ran last Sunday about a public-private partnership in Portland, Oregon, to redevelop an abandoned railyard. (

The situations are not completely comparable. Portland is dealing with an empty piece of land, while Santa Monica is planning around major existing and already approved buildings.

Nonetheless, Portland made some choices that are relevant to Santa Monica. For one, they coupled public investment in infrastructure, including parks and a streetcar line, with commitments from the developer for high densities, as an antidote to sprawl and to reduce reliance on the automobile. Approximately 3,000 units of housing, for all income levels, will ultimately be built on the 34 acres, along with mixed-use commercial.

Portland also broke the 34 acres into 20 blocks. This use of "grain" -- small blocks and streets instead of superblocks and arterials -- will permit traffic to flow through the area, but in a "calmed" manner. Roma Group recommended similar treatment for the Civic Center. In a misguided attempt to reduce traffic, however, the Working Group removed important streets.

Interestingly, the Portland project has a Santa Monica connection -- the developers are negotiating with Frank Gehry to design affordable housing. But then all developers these days say they are negotiating with Gehry -- all developers except those in Santa Monica.

* * *

The City Council has justified its efforts to mandate restaurants on the Promenade by arguing that because shopping malls regulate their mix of tenants, the City should do the same thing.

Funny, but I thought the Promenade and downtown Santa Monica were different from shopping malls precisely because, as real urban spaces, they derive their form and function from pluralistic, rather than hegemonic, decision-making.

Do any real cities have the magic "balance" City Council seeks to legislate? In Manhattan, for instance, even giant boulevards like Fifth, Madison and Lexington Avenues each have their own character. Typically big retailers pay the big rents on the big streets, and restaurants, with higher labor costs, are on the small ones.

While it is hard to imagine the Promenade without restaurants, perhaps we cannot imagine the direction downtown will go. Perhaps the best thing that could happen to downtown is for new restaurants to draw crowds off the Promenade to Second, Fourth and Fifth Streets.

People have to eat.

Nonetheless, I have little sympathy for the property owners who are up in arms over the City's impinging on their right to rent to whom they want and at whatever rents they can get. Most of them stood by or were in active opposition when the Henshey family wanted to sell its property to Target.

I suspect that if they had rallied behind the Hensheys and their rights, rather than fuss about traffic, Council Members Holbrook and Katz would have supported the project and Target would now be under construction.

Target would have done much to "balance" the retail opportunities downtown with affordable shopping, but apparently that kind of balance was not of interest to Council members Bloom, Feinstein and McKeown, who are now so eager to protect restaurants.

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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Copyright 1999-2008 All Rights Reserved.
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