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Man Bites Dog

By Frank Gruber

I did not attend the City Council meeting Tuesday night even though the main item on the agenda was Howard Jacobs' Boulangerie housing development, an issue I have closely followed. My parents are in town, and I chose to have dinner with them and watch the proceedings on television.

My parents are, it should be no surprise to other parents, my most loyal readers. While Santa Monicans write letters to The Lookout taking pains to make it known that they do not read me, my far-off parents read their middle-aged son's weekly mutterings as loyally as they read his grade school book reports.

My father was eager to watch the City Council in action after so often having read my musings over this august body of legislators, spiritual heirs of the first democratic councils of ancient times, guardians of liberties hard-fought and hard-defended, neighbors elected by neighbors to pursue the public good. So we watched together while the others finished their dinners.

Naturally, I expected the council members would live up to their billing and say the most ridiculous things imaginable, argue childishly and at length over the most petty political points, pander to the most strident elements of the public, and thus validate my new life's work in the eyes of my father.

Why did the City Council choose this week to be reasonable?

What am I supposed to say when my dad says things like "they don't seem so bad?"

All I could do was sputter every time I heard the word "permeability." "But, but, but ..." I tried to explain that if they're so interested in permeability why don't they put more streets in the Civic Center but, okay, I know, the connection's weak.

The City Council's approval of the project leaves me with little to complain about. The council members understood the project and the issues, both local and global.

Most council members took pains to say that the current iteration of the development was better than what the Planning Commission rejected. This is a subjective judgment, but, at the risk of being churlish, it seemed to me they were trying not to hurt the Planning Commission's feelings.

Certainly from a development standards perspective the project is much the same as the one the Commission rejected -- the same number of units, with only a reduction of 1,750 square feet in size. True, the architect extensively modified the exterior, by breaking the facade into 60-foot pieces, adding set backs and step backs, and mixing up architectural styles, and both he and the City Council may consider that new design makes the project both different and better.

I can't argue with that, and I mean no disrespect to the job the City Council found itself doing, but is our process working if the City Council is deciding how many doors a corner shop should have and staff dings a building for not looking like it's as wide as other buildings? What happened to the Architectural Review Board?

There is nothing wrong with the Planning Commission or the City Council on appeal giving the ARB direction and advice, but whether a project is consistent with the general plan and the zoning ordinance should not depend on what it looks like. Not, at least, if we have a separate design review process.

But the process failed in other ways, too. This project was consistent with zoning standards the City Council had previously enacted. Jacobs indicated all along -- including in front of the Planning Commission -- that he was willing to modify his plans if the City would tell him what it wanted.

Planning staff, however, is not willing to do any planning. Perhaps they just don't want to be yelled at, but instead of engaging a developer in dialogue to improve a project, they just say yes or no, after the developer has spent huge sums in design and financing. They justify their timidity by the most mechanistic use of environmental analysis.

Environmental Impact Reports are meant to be tools for decision-makers, not straitjackets.

If, for instance, "permeability" is a goal of planning, why not empower our planners to work at the inception of a project with developers of big projects, before they have spent a fortune in plans, to break them up with new streets or walkways? Unfortunately the idea that our planners would work with developers during design is anathema here because so many people view developers as an enemy to be defeated.

It's not taking anything away from the City Council to say that the public testimony preceding their deliberations Tuesday night set the table nicely. Just as at the Planning Commission, few speakers opposed the project, will be the largest development on Main Street. Perhaps the usual nay-sayers saw writing on the wall.

Many supporters of the project, such as Ralph Mechur, Suzanne Kaplan, and Mario Fonda Bonardi, have been active in Ocean Park for years, and described how the project was consistent with the Main Street plan.

Other supporters, including nearby neighbors, spoke about how the development would bring life to a dead section of town. How unusual: people testified to the positives of development. They expressed what everyone knows, that we like living in Santa Monica precisely because there are other people here, and shops we can walk to, coffee shops we can meet our neighbors in.

In our system, government plans, developers build. We need them both. And they need to talk.

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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