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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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What if We Measured Our Plans in Cubits?

By Frank Gruber

"I purpose to build a house for the name of the Lord my God, as the Lord spoke unto David my father, saying: Thy son, whom I will set upon thy throne in thy room, he shall build the house for My name." I Kings 5:19

Thus did the Lord plan the new Civic Center in Jerusalem.

At times Tuesday evening, during City Council's public hearing on Santa Monica's Civic Center plan, I thought of beseeching the Lord. "Blessed art Thou, oh Lord our God, who gets involved in urban planning."

Just think: we could forget task forces, consultants, process, hearings and just do what He commandeth.

Oh, well. For 3,000 years city planning has resided decidedly in the mortal realm, which is good to keep in mind. No one has all the answers. There is nothing everlasting except change. Nothing immutable except each person's own vision of a city set on a hill (to give the New Testament equal time), and sometimes these visions have been known to change, too.

Santa Monica has planned and re-planned its Civic Center many times over the past many decades. This is good. Each plan leaves some real change before the next plan supersedes it. No one plan will ever satisfy generations to come.

People expect too much from plans. Too much detail. They want to know what kind of housing, what kind of parks, what kind of art -- when the plan should be dealing with shapes.

Demanding detail, people read detail into plans that doesn't exist. They evaluate schematics and generic renderings as if they were construction drawings. They demand answers when questions are in order.

They don't want to trust the future to fill in the blanks.

The biggest argument in the aftermath of the Civic Center Task Force's report is over what to do with the proposed park at Fourth and Pico. Because of parking requirements in the Civic Center and downtown, it is unlikely the City will build the park until at least 2007. For now, why specify or limit any activity? Just call it a park, and leave the other decisions for later, when the park is in danger of being built.

I know this question is heretical, but is a comprehensive Civic Center plan even warranted? Ten years ago, there was a reason for a plan: RAND, which owned so much of the land, was entitled to learn what it was entitled to build. Now that the City has purchased most of RAND's land, what is the rationale for making all the decisions at one time?

Perhaps if the City broke the plan into manageable pieces, the City could deal with a level of detail that might satisfy people.

Having said all that, and taken, until now, the high road of generality, I can't resist making a few substantive comments.

What surprised me most about the debate Tuesday evening is the persistence with which some people, both members of the public and elected officials, argue for "concrete" solutions.

By concrete I don't mean real. I mean concrete as in cement. I mean bad neo-Corbusian ideas about super blocks and underground and covered streets and subterranean parking that rend both the natural and the urban fabric. To see how bad these ideas are, go to downtown L.A. and walk around the "Alphaville" landscapes of Pershing Square, Bunker Hill, the L.A. Civic Center, and the Music Center.

We want a pedestrian friendly city, and people do most of their walking not in parks, but on streets. It is important for streets to be in the open air, well-landscaped and with interesting things to see along the way.

One other idea Tuesday night that struck me as particularly misguided was the plea to build more parking for Santa Monica High School students. Do we want to make it easier for teenagers to drive to school?

Lastly, the opponents of extending Olympic Drive to Ocean Avenue say they want to keep traffic out of the Civic Center. Leaving aside Ken Genser's perceptive comment that "streets democratize space," we should remember that one of the original rationales for Olympic Drive was to reduce traffic at four of the worst intersections in the city: Fourth & Pico, Fourth & Colorado, Colorado & Ocean, and Ocean & Pico.

Once there will be more reasons to enter the Civic Center, we will need more streets to get there.

* * *

I live on an Ocean Park street, Beverley Avenue, that is typical of Ocean Park in that it has no typical building type. There are small houses, big houses, and small, medium, and quite large apartment buildings, such as the Tiki. My own house sits in between a large apartment building on the south, which is three stories tall at one end, and a split lot on the north with a two-story house at one end and a three-story apartment building on the other.

Ocean Park is like that -- its charm derives from its lack of sameness. Of course, as befits a beloved neighborhood, a lot of people like to wax poetical about what "is" Ocean Park, and they don't always agree.

Howard Jacobs' appeal of the Planning Commission's rejection of his proposed four and three story mixed use, in-fill apartment buildings on the old Boulangerie site on Main Street will come before City Council next Tuesday evening.

Jacobs' project hits every "smart growth" button from the mix of uses to transit access, yet planning staff opposes the project on the grounds that the buildings would be "inconsistent with the pattern of development in the nearby area." Meaning that the development will not be just like what already exists on adjacent blocks. As if consistency characterizes Ocean Park.

The Planning Commission determined that the project was too "massive" to be compatible with the neighborhood, a determination that implies that what "is" Ocean Park somehow does not include three and four story apartment buildings.

Yet that is not the case, as a walk through the neighborhood will reveal. If those big apartment buildings you see all over the neighborhood are "not Ocean Park," then what of the people who live in them? Are they incompatible with Ocean Park, too?

Would staff or the Planning Commission say my single family, mostly one-story house is inconsistent with the big apartment building next door? I doubt it.

Most residents of Ocean Park live in apartments, the vast majority of which were built by private developers like Howard Jacobs. How can two more such apartment buildings -- buildings that are smaller than the zoning allows -- be incompatible with the neighborhood?

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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