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Thanks for the Ironies

By Frank Gruber

One advantage of writing a column is that, having had my say about the City's budget, I could skip the City Council meeting Tuesday night. My son Henry had just finished his last substantive day of sixth grade, and the family decided to celebrate by seeing "Dogtown and Z Boys," the documentary about the 1970s' renaissance of skateboarding in Ocean Park and Venice (a geographical state of mind the skateboarders called "Dogtown").

It was one of those long warm nights that make one forget the marine layer, and we walked up Main Street, through the Civic Center, to the Laemmles, to see the five o'clock show.

The movie is terrific. It evokes a different Santa Monica, certainly a different Ocean Park, a rougher and poorer version than the one we have today.

It's more than interesting that two of the crucial "street" styles of the seventies that have since had such an impact on pop (and other) culture -- the outlaw beach culture celebrated in the movie and "hip-hop" -- both arose in isolated populations of kids living, as the country sprawled into suburbia, in the backwash of urban disinvestment, i.e., in Dogtown and the south Bronx.

It reminds me of how some anthropologists describe evolution as occurring in isolated populations that adapt to new challenges in changing environments.

The movie also has intriguing messages about art. While rap artists from the Bronx worked with words and music, and put their work on records, and thus identified themselves and were identified as artists, the Dogtown skateboarders themselves repeatedly describe their dances on wheels as "almost like art." They were not willing -- not then, at least -- to take the leap into self-conscious reflection, and the wider culture didn't encourage them to do so.

Yet the compulsion of the top skateboarders to push themselves further -- for their own satisfaction -- reminds one more than anything of the artistic impulse.

After the movie we walked to the Pier. Like I said, the evening was warm, glorious. The crowd was numerous, but soft. We ate dinner outside, then walked home along the beach.

At home, I turned on the TV. I had missed the council's vote to do the right thing and give the School District $1.5 million, but I tuned-in in time to see the council give extra funds to the Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Historical Society.

Maybe the two groups can get together and send tourists on historical tours of Dogtown.

I'm sure glad I turned on the TV because what I wouldn't have missed for the world came soon after: Mayor Michael Feinstein expounding on the importance of resolving zoning standards for Santa Monica's car dealerships so that they don't lose their franchises, leave Santa Monica, and take their sales taxes with them.

The rest of the City Council agreed, and the council pushed the Planning Department's consideration of the issue up ten months, from July 2003 to September 2002, in the schedule of the department's priorities.

Let's face it, irony is a columnist's daily bread and it's much easier for someone to give it to you for free than to have to stare into a computer screen trying to make it up.

The Santa Monica City Council worried about the business climate? Lord have mercy, nothing like a blip in the increase of sales tax revenues to make Green Party politicos think about that other kind of green.

You can double the irony, of course, because the council then made sure that the very first item on the long list (36 items) of planning priorities is evaluating the council's recent idea to pass an interim ordinance to lower discretionary review thresholds on Downtown development.

That means that in the City of Santa Monica, which prides itself on process and thinking everything through and through, the number one priority in the Planning Department is an ad hoc analysis of an off-the-cuff proposal by City Council to reverse -- with an interim ordinance -- years of planning and process that encouraged building dense, mixed-use development Downtown.

This is government -- and planning -- by whim.

Why bother teasing auto dealers with the idea that they might have new zoning standards for their future development -- a process expected to take thirteen months -- when if they actually build something according to the new zoning standards a couple council members might change their minds and push the council to pass an interim ordinance saying the dealers can't build anyway?

But my irony-meter was still having a heart attack. I mean, this City Council -- now so interested in protecting sales taxes -- is the same one that rejected Target. And why? Remember "It's the traffic, stupid," Kevin McKeown's immortal summation of the narrowness of Green Party thinking on the environment and urban life?

Yet now, according to a recent article in The Lookout, our Green Party mayor thinks it's a good idea for the City to buy a chunk of the old Target site to build a parking structure there instead, "to spread pedestrian flow."

Never mind that the recently enacted Downtown Parking Plan doesn't include building new parking structures on Fifth Street for at least ten years, and then only if there is proven need and the structures won't lose the City a sack of money (which, as of today, they would), that City Council is supposed to review the plan every two years before taking action, that the City hasn't even started environmental review of the plan, and that parking structures are better at generating traffic than enhancing pedestrian ambiance.

Never mind, because -- surprise -- the City has another chance to spend money in accordance with decisions rendered in secret under the cover of "real estate negotiations."

The time to negotiate the price of real estate in closed session is after the City conducts a public process to decide whether buying the property is a good idea. How can City Council objectively consider whether the City needs the land after participating in negotiations to buy it?

But you can imagine the temptation. Imagine the deal the City should get. After all, by frustrating development of anything else on the site, I imagine the City has created a seller who is "motivated."

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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