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Squeaky Wheel Planning

By Frank Gruber

Tuesday night, fascinated in a morbid way by Kevin McKeown's and Ken Genser's motion to extend ad hoc planning to downtown, I watched the City Council meeting on TV.

Preliminarily, let me take a moment to thank our cable system, Adelphia, for carrying City Council and Planning Commission hearings. It's great to be able to watch these guys -- talk about reality television -- while muttering all the imprecations I feel like muttering, annoying only my wife, who's used to it.

At the same time, let me express my intense satisfaction that the right-wing prudes who own Adelphia, the Rigas family, turn out to be just the corporate rats one would expect them to be, and my hope that some other, more open-minded monolithic cable company will soon be determining what Santa Monicans can watch.

In any case, muttering all the while, I watched the hearing on McKeown's and Genser's proposal to lower the threshold for discretionary review downtown to 7,500 square feet (15,000 for housing). Just a year or so ago, when Council lowered the threshold in the rest of the city to this level, Council made the pointed decision to exempt downtown to encourage development of housing there.

Apparently developers made the mistake of doing what Council wanted them to do, namely build housing downtown, creating, according to McKeown and Genser and a handful of people who testified Tuesday night, a crisis that City Council could fix only by jumping in with an interim ordinance that will "give people a say."

I hope the people who will have their say are not only those who testified Tuesday night. I hope city lovers and the housing community rise up and prevent this bad idea from becoming law.

Tuesday night only eight or nine people spoke against downtown development. Many if not most of them were tenants of Craig Jones, one of the principal downtown developers, and their specific grievances against him seemed to motivate them more than any rational complaints about development.

What struck me was that the downtown residents who complained about downtown development seemed all to be living in apartments that downtown developers built. The complainers were classic NIMBYs -- they had their apartments, now they wanted to stop anyone else from having theirs.

And then there was the owner of a sportswear shop at 614 Santa Monica Boulevard. His complaint wasn't about too many apartments, but that the City had built the transit mall in front of his store. He couldn't understand why the City was encouraging people to take transit, when he didn't think bus riders were likely to be customers of his and other upscale shops.

Now that this guy has sobbed his story, will McKeown and Genser make a proposal to give upscale retailers a say over new bus routes?

According to the City's 2001 survey of residents, only fourteen percent of Santa Monicans consider "too much growth" to be an important issue. McKeown and Genser, and Richard Bloom and Michael Feinstein who voted with them in favor of the proposed new law, are responding to only a few noisy residents who can't see past their own noses when it comes to what's good for the city.

Wednesday I spent lunch hour wandering Fifth, Sixth and Seventh between Colorado and Wilshire. I urge anyone who has heard about the supposed "canyonization" of these streets to do the same thing.

What you will find is a neighborhood that is a work in progress but which is developing into one of the most pleasant downtown living areas in the region, if not the country. The streets are wide. Instead of creating "canyons," the four and five story apartments frame the streets well. In fact, the large street trees have more impact than the buildings.

The most desirable urban neighborhoods in the world, such as in all the European cities Mike Feinstein likes to visit and talk about, are four and five story neighborhoods, usually with streets much more narrow than those in our downtown. Before elevators, buildings could not be built higher. Five-stories provide the critical mass of people a downtown needs without overwhelming streets and sidewalks.

Not all, or any, of the new buildings exhibit great architecture, although the newer buildings are better than the earlier ones that were built in this cycle. Perhaps this improvement is a result of both developers and the Architectural Review Board gaining experience.

But regardless of the architecture of individual buildings, these streets look good and would look even better with more apartments. The whole of all the disparate styles jumbled together is greater than the sum of the parts, perhaps because the buildings all have roughly the same contours and, when grouped together, give the street rhythm and structure.

While you walk, look up and gaze upon balconies with potted plants and open sliding doors and "lawn" furniture. Smile.

Although none of the downtown blocks is "built-out," the 1400 block of Sixth Street is the most developed. Compare it to the 1300 and 1400 blocks of Fifth Street, with their ugly mix of parking lots and uninspiring retail. These blocks cry out for mixed-use, higher-density development.

Of course, McKeown, Genser, Feinstein and Bloom, in response Herb Katz's and Pam O'Connor's cogent arguments against ad hoc planning and in favor of downtown density, all said that extending discretionary review would not prevent development, only make it better.

If that's the case, then why were they telling the complaining residents that this measure would respond to their complaints about more development? Don't be fooled, the whole idea is to curtail development.

Discretionary review creates huge obstacles to development because of delays and uncertainties (consider the Boulangerie project), as well as the requirement of environmental review. Not only are EIRs expensive, but because of the heavy traffic already existing downtown, and the City's flawed, non-environmental way of analyzing traffic, virtually any project downtown will be found to have unavoidable impacts on traffic.

No matter how trivial these impacts are, or how beneficial to the environment urban in-fill projects are in general (and it's worth noting that California authorities have tried to create an exemption from environmental review for in-fill projects), each project will require that City Council find reasons to override the EIR, a politically-charged determination that politicians are loathe to make.

Remember how McKeown summed up the debate on the downtown Target: "It's the traffic, stupid."

In the aftermath of the Target fiasco, and the soap-opera of the Boulangerie project, why would any developer want to enter escrow on a property, and spend all the money required for designs and environmental review, and public outreach, and be insulted at the Planning Commission, when the result is likely to be no?

McKeown, Genser, Feinstein and Bloom always talk about how they want to empower the people, but this proposal is yet just another example of their passing interim or "emergency" ordinances that circumvent zoning laws and other planning documents, such as the housing and land-use elements of the general plan, that the City adopted after long public processes.

If they believe downtown zoning needs to be improved, then initiate a new public process, rather than respond to a few squeaky wheels with an interim ordinance that they will never repeal.

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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