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If You Lived Here You'd be Home by Now

By Frank Gruber

Last Sunday my wife and I drove to Ojai to have lunch with our friend Lia. Unhappy with the bleak prospect of Route 101, we took the back route, by way of the 118 through hill and dale and Moorpark and Fillmore and Santa Paula.

While a meal cooked by Lia, eaten with good talk in the shade on her back porch, is a destination worth nearly any trip, the drive through agricultural Southern California was a trip worth nearly any destination.

If you have a hankering for Tuscany, but don't have the money or the time, go get yourself lost between Fillmore and Santa Paula.

What a place like Fillmore needs is some refugee from a cold climate to buy a house there, fix it up, and write charmingly about the locals and their foibles. "Under the Ventura Sun."

Fillmore, to complete the illusion, also could use farmers making fresh cheese and roadside restaurants featuring local wines and homemade pasta, and centuries of history and art, but let's not quibble when on a glorious day you can still outrun the encroaching housing developments whose colorful flags line the off-ramps in perverse tribute to medieval pageantry.

While mostly I stick around Santa Monica, on several recent weekends I've driven hundreds of miles in and around the "Southland." I've been quite the tourist, and not only to the Italianate portions of the local landscape.

My son's soccer games took me to the 1950s sprawl cities of Lakewood and Downey, located on the flats of the coastal plain. My Baedeker was D.J. Waldie's Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, a meditation on the life and times of a suburb, Lakewood.

For those of us who are as quick to dismiss suburban life as suburbanites are to damn the city, Waldie's book is worth reading as a reminder that when people have a choice in where they live, they tend to like what they choose.

For instance, my neighborhood in Ocean Park has several corner grocery stories. From time to time they need to renew their permits, but if the City ever tried to close one of them down, my gentle neighbors might riot.

Yet if the City tried to permit a corner store in a residential neighborhood that doesn't have one, the gentle neighbors there might riot.

The point being that there is no moral content to whether a neighborhood has a corner store, or, perhaps hitting the bigger point, the moral content of someone's life is a function neither of being able to walk to a store to buy a carton of milk nor having a little bit of backyard.

But what would be the moral content of covering Southern California completely with subdivisions with names like "The Highlands," or "The Village at the Brook?"

Forget morality, what about mobility, with all those new residents unable to go anywhere without driving?

According to a story in the L.A. Times last week, planners expect, over the next 20 years, that 71,000 homes will take the place of dairy farms in a 50 square mile area near Chino. Two hundred thousand people will replace 350,000 cows.

According to another story, in an obscure corner of wild country near Brea in Orange County, oil companies want to build 3,500 houses.

I don't doubt that people like to live in Lakewood, or will enjoy the "Village at the Brook" lifestyle, but it doesn't work anymore and we have to make with the alternatives.

Last week I muttered about how four members of City Council had voted to make it harder to build apartments in downtown Santa Monica. I'm still muttering.

It's not that I have any illusions, or delusions, that building more apartments in our downtown will solve the regional sprawl problem. For instance, in the past few years "massive overdevelopment" downtown has resulted in about 500 apartments. "Building booms" of this scale, or even projects the size of Playa Vista, are drops in the bucket when it comes to accommodating Southern California's continued growth.

Yet one can oppose both increasing density and Ahmanson Ranch only if one can only see sand from the vantage point of an upside-down head.

One comment I received in response to last week's column was that the real problem is developers who circumvent the development review required for big projects by dividing big projects up for legal purposes into smaller components that are subject only to administrative review. At the Council hearing, Kevin McKeown called this "gaming the system."

Ken Genser and Mike Feinstein said that developers of big projects should not fear discretionary review, that review would only improve their projects. I wish that were the case, but discretionary review isn't working.

What should happen is that the developer and the City have a dialogue that results in a better project that fits the zoning.

In recent years, however, there has been no dialogue. Planning staff and the Planning Commission oppose big projects like Target and the Boulangerie site development from day one, even when the projects are consistent with the general plan and the zoning, let alone sound planning principles. Neither staff nor the Commission offers constructive feedback to developers desperate to make their projects work.

It's a matter of opinion, but when City Council finally approved the Boulangerie project over the objections of staff, and on appeal of the Planning Commission's denial, I don't believe the project was better than the one Howard Jacobs originally submitted. I suspect the Architectural Review Board would agree.

One cannot blame developers for not wanting to participate in this game or the system.

One correspondent told me he thinks that some of the results of "slicing" big projects into smaller ones have been "appalling." Yet, as I said last week, the neighborhood that is developing in downtown looks good to me.

People vote with their feet. Notwithstanding the lack of discretionary review, there is a huge demand for these new apartments in downtown Santa Monica and more people than ever, including local residents, enjoy downtown.

So what's the problem?

Meeting Notice:

Many readers of this column probably received a notice last week for a meeting of the Civic Center Working Group to take place Monday evening, June 3, at 6:30, at Ken Edwards Center. Tuesday evening, however, City Council converted this meeting into a City Council study session and joint meeting of the Working Group and the Promenade Retail/Restaurant Uses Task Force.

The reason for the change is that the first item on the agenda will be a matter of major interest that affects more than the Civic Center, namely "master planning concepts" for improvements to Santa Monica Place.

The meeting will still take place at 6:30 Monday evening, but at City Hall, in Council chambers. (The Architectural Review Board meeting will be moved to the Ken Edwards Center.)

After considering this item, the Civic Center Working Group will convene by itself to discuss design concepts for the parking structure that will be built behind the courthouse.

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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