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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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Feel-Good Resolutions and Train Wreck Planning

By Frank Gruber

Last May Kevin McKeown introduced a resolution in City Council denouncing the flight of motion picture and television production jobs to Canada by declaring, "we cannot simply sit idle while jobs go north and the local economy goes south."

"We must stand in solidarity with our local workers and businesses, not with the boardroom bean-counters who prize profits above people," he said.

Note the gratuitous business-bashing that so defines Kevin McKeown. Anyone who has ever worked in the industry knows that producers don't massage every nickel because they "prize profits above people," but because there is never enough money being invested in whatever is being produced, precisely because profits in any given production are so hard to predict.

Council passed McKeown's resolution unanimously. (Given this softball and his recent forays into foreign policy and civil liberties, perhaps it's time to call McKeown "Mayor Pro Tem Feel-Good.")

In November, six months after City Council's fearless attack on greedy producers and our rapacious ally, Canada, Council considered approval of a development review permit for the long-planned expansion of the Hines company's Lantana post-production facility. This development would create facilities for 600 industry jobs.

Some neighbors testified in favor of the project. Others opposed it. The latter said that it would generate cut-through traffic. Planning staff fretted that yet a few more cars would use already congested intersections along Centinela and Olympic.

McKeown and three colleagues -- Michael Feinstein, Richard Bloom and Ken Genser -- voted down the jobs.

It was the traffic, stupid.

People usually consider sprawl in the context of residential development, but jobs sprawl, too, a fact that is obvious to anyone who has been to the high tech and bio tech corridors of San Diego and Orange Counties, or to Silicon Valley, or, for that matter, to just about anywhere where an off-ramp and new irrigation pipes are in close proximity.

"Hollywood" -- the swath of offices and production facilities from Burbank to Santa Monica -- contains a huge concentration of the world's motion picture and television jobs. Historically this concentration has provided the industry with efficiencies of scale and the industry's workers with unparalleled competition for their skills.

The increasingly digital film industry, however, will follow other high tech industries to "campuses" in the suburbs -- and in Canada -- if it can't expand here, notwithstanding the proximity of the world's greatest pool of production talent.

We will lose these jobs not because producers are greedy "bean-counters," but because politicians like McKeown play to the squeakiest wheels and permit neither the expansion of production facilities nor the building of homes for employees.

Not all the four council-members who voted against Lantana were as adamantly opposed as McKeown and, as it happened, although Council disapproved the project, it encouraged Hines to return with revised plans that would satisfy the neighbors.

In particular, Michael Feinstein, who at times shows some regional consciousness, wavered on his vote against the project. McKeown, however, threw a "greener-than-thou" tantrum, and pressured Feinstein to vote no. Not only that, but when Feinstein was about to cast a fourth vote, along with the three council-members who voted for the project, to allow Hines to return directly to City Council with its new plans, McKeown badgered him into requiring a pointless first stop at the Planning Commission.

According to sources at Hines, the developer is working on new plans and has been meeting with neighbors, and may make a revised proposal this spring.

Good luck. So far the development process for the Lantana expansion has been a typical Santa Monica planning train wreck, where environmental obscurantism, radical NIMBYism, bureaucratic timidity and developer paranoia have combined to derail both the City's planning for future development and a quality developer's good intentions.

One cannot start to understand what happened to Lantana without remembering that a decade ago the City undertook a major public process to determine the future development of the declining industrial areas along the railroad line that originally defined Santa Monica's existence.

Out of the process, in 1994, came the aforementioned Light Manufacturing and Studio District (LMSD) -- to encourage -- you got it -- light manufacturing and studios to replace the industrial uses that were on their way out.

A few years later Hines developed plans that fit perfectly into the new zoning, and at first Hines was successful. Hines renovated the buildings along Olympic that became Lantana Center, and then obtained approval for and built "Lantana West," the new building at the corner of Olympic and Stewart.

Then Hines submitted plans for its next phase of two buildings, "Lantana East" on Olympic and "Lantana South" on Exposition.

And then the train wreck. Years go by, to accommodate environmental review that only reveals the obvious -- that building something in an urban environment will make incremental additions to already crowded major streets, and that immediately adjacent neighborhoods will experience some increase in traffic.

There is no environmental analysis about how the project, by increasing urban density, in fact will reduce traffic on a per capita basis, for the region as a whole, and might even shorten the commutes for entertainment industry employees who live in Santa Monica and on the westside.

In response to the predictable and misleading environmental analysis, two things happen.

No. 1, our city planners panic. They do not want the Planning Commission to yell at them for supporting a project that people might drive to. Instead of using their imaginations, or what they might have learned at all the Smart Growth conferences the City sends them to, to work with the developer to devise a plan that is well integrated into the community -- i.e., instead of actually doing some planning -- they find ways to oppose the project.

In the meantime, no one talks to the Economic Development Department -- what could they possibly have to say that would be relevant to 600 new jobs?

No. 2, the developer panics. So anxious to please everyone whom the Planning Commission and City Council might listen to when they consider the project -- "everyone" in this case meaning only staff and the immediate neighbors -- the developer designs a project that would be better suited to a suburban office park, with free parking and lots of trees, than to the high density urban area in which it will stand.

This is the first of two columns about the Lantana project. In the second installment I will try to be constructive. Hopefully this development can get back on track.

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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