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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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When Less is Less

By Frank Gruber

So, Prop A goes down, 53 to 47 percent -- not a landslide, but a substantial victory for the preservationist side. Personally, I was excited to have voted on the winning side, for a change, even if I wasn't so happy about the tactics.

Now our long municipal nightmare is over -- at least until City Council takes up the results of the City's historical inventory.

What puzzles me is how an issue not particularly identified with the Santa Monicans for Renters Rights agenda became, in the end, almost a referendum on SMRR's power in the city.

Okay, I'm being disingenuous. I'm not puzzled. At the core of the Prop. A campaign -- the political core, not the emotional one -- were politicians who define themselves by their opposition to SMRR. Prop. A was just the latest in a series of propositions that they have floated in the hope of achieving some victory over SMRR.

Perhaps SMRR's opposition will now realize that if they are ever going to defeat SMRR, they are going to need to do so with candidates and ideas that appeal to the vast center of the liberal Santa Monica electorate.

SMRR, on the other side of the ledger, most energetically defines itself by being against whatever its opponents are for, and can't help but fight hard when challenged. SMRR took extraordinary measures to enforce party discipline on the issue.

In contrast, SMRR never even took a position on fluoridation, even though preserving children's teeth should be an issue at least as relevant to SMRR's progressive mission as preserving historic houses.

* * *

To continue on the subject of the proposed expansion of Lantana Studios, the project that the City Council turned down last November, but which is now in the redesign process. (You can link to my first column on Lantana by clicking "WHAT I SAY: Feel Good Resolutions," March 10)

To try to understand what might work at the Lantana site, which is nestled into the old industrial area between Olympic and Exposition, just west of Centinela and east of Stewart, I spent some time walking around the neighborhood immediately south of the site, between Exposition and the freeway.

I spoke with neighborhood residents who successfully opposed the project and I can understand why they are protective of the status quo. Except for the steady drone of the freeway, their neighborhood is quiet. Quite quiet. Notwithstanding what these residents told the City Council, at this time there is no traffic congestion to speak of.

Usually there is not even traffic. One can stand, late in the afternoon on Exposition at Centinela, and look west, all the way down Exposition to Stewart, and for minutes at a time not see one car in the roadway. In the middle of rush hour, at most a few cars wait on Exposition to make a turn onto Centinela.

But the opponents make a fair point that traffic coming and going from a large parking garage can result in "cut-through" traffic, as motorists seek alternative routes -- in this case, to Centinela to reach the freeway.

I am a traffic-calmer from way back, and I respect this concern. It's a mistake, however, to look at traffic, in particular cut-through traffic, as a development issue and not a streets issue.

If we allow production jobs to sprawl, that will create more traffic, on the whole, than locating jobs within the historical studio zone. At the same time, there are many tools available for discouraging traffic from cutting through neighborhoods.

Hines, the developer of Lantana, was willing to fund traffic calming measures, but it's impossible ahead of time to predict what will work best. Also, it's not developers who should decide how to configure streets. These are decisions government needs to make -- after appropriate process that involves all residents, not only those who choose to meet with the developer.

Nearby neighbors should not have veto over developments that benefit the community as a whole. That's not democracy. But neighbors are entitled to ask how the development itself will serve them.

How can the Lantana development serve the neighborhood?

The neighborhood near Lantana is smack in the midst of urban Los Angeles -- yet it lacks any of the benefits of the city.

Originally the neighborhood was part of the "hinterland" of Pico Boulevard and its mix of shops and restaurants. Then the freeway ripped through and severed the connection, cutting the neighborhood off from all services.

If residents want to walk to Pico for hamburgers and Cokes at Rae's, for instance, or combo platters and beers at Lares, the distance is not far, but they have to walk through a dark, narrow, and thoroughly uninviting tunnel under the freeway.

Hines and the City's planners should be thinking how to make this development an asset for the neighborhood, not how to separate it from the neighborhood.

As Lantana moved through the planning process, planners made a conscious effort to isolate it. As now planned, for instance, the entrance to the Exposition building is below grade, in the parking structure, as if no one in the neighborhood might work there. Elaborate landscaping hides the building from the street.

This approach might make sense for a factory, or for a suburban office park, but not for a quiet and clean digital studio in an urban center, adjacent to a neighborhood that needs services.

What Lantana needs are features that mutually benefit the neighborhood and the developer -- such as neighborhood-serving retail.

Consider the success of the shops on the Colorado Avenue frontage of the new apartments east of 20th Street. These businesses -- a dentist, a cleaners, a copy shop, an optometrist, a La Salsa, a Quizmo sub shop, and a Starbucks -- serve the employees who work in nearby offices and the residents of both the new apartments and the old neighborhood.

Typically, when a development is turned down, the developer's reaction is to reduce the size of the development in the hope of gaining approval.

This would be a mistake. A smaller project will not change the potential impacts much, but there will be less money available, not only for the developer to make a better project, but also for the city to use for neighborhood benefits. Ultimately there will be less tax revenue.

Instead, the project should be enlarged with neighborhood and project-serving retail situated on Exposition. This would require a zoning variance, but it makes more sense to use compatible development to mediate the connection between residential and commercial zones than to leave it to landscaping.

As needed, and if they develop, the City should then take steps to deal with any cut-through traffic problems.

Less is less. Settle for more.

* * *

Postscript to a parking structure. Readers of last week's column on the Planning Commission's review of the City's Civic Center parking structure project will be interested to know that the question whether the City would appeal the Commission's decision became moot when the Doubletree Hotel appealed the decision.

City Council will now hear the matter "di novo," meaning that all the issues that were before the Planning Commission, including the EIR, will now be back on the table.

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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