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Tumbleweeds or Tipping Points?

By Frank Gruber

Last week I wrote about zoning that keeps neighborhood stores out of residential districts.

This week I'm writing about residents wanting to keep residences out of a residential district.

Community Corporation of Santa Monica (CCSM), which was investing in the Ocean Park neighborhood before the average square foot price of a house in the neighborhood went north of that in Brentwood, wants to build 44 affordable family apartments on the empty lot at Main and Pacific.

The Architectural Review Board reviewed the CCSM development at its April 7 meeting. The ARB members had various comments, reflecting their varying perspectives. Most of the comments focused on the Main Street frontage, and whether it was pedestrian-friendly, and whether the Main Street part of the development, designed to have a fourth floor, would be too high.

CCSM and its architects, the noted firm of Fred Fisher Partners, will be returning to the ARB with adjustments to their plans. Although it is sometimes difficult, understandably, to get a clear, unitary aesthetic judgment from the ARB, it's likely that CCSM, like most developers, will ultimately satisfy the board.

I hope CCSM does not reduce the number of units and their size. The development is already smaller than what the applicable development standards would allow and, as such, qualified for administrative, i.e., non-discretionary, development approval.

The ARB legally must base its review solely on aesthetics. It's one thing if the ARB wants to move volumes around, but it would be a misuse of the architectural concept of "massing" to use it as a tool to reduce development standards.

Whether the ARB rejects the plans or approves them, someone is likely to appeal the decision to the Planning Commission. CCSM, of course, will not let the project die at the ARB, and since a vocal group of immediate neighbors oppose the development, someone will appeal an ARB approval, no matter what changes CCSM makes to please the ARB.

I attended the ARB hearing and I was fascinated by the rhetoric I heard in opposition to the project. It was typical of what small groups of immediate neighbors say when they want to stop the building of something that the greater whole of the community wants -- in this case, affordable housing.

I'm not referring to any hidden agendas, either. While a desire not to welcome low-income families into their neighborhood may motivate at least some opponents, I'm not going to psychoanalyze anyone. I'm willing to take their public reasons to oppose the project at face value, although it is worth pointing out that CCSM is not introducing a new demographic to the neighborhood, but rather restoring one that gentrification has been displacing.

No, what fascinates me is misuse of planning jargon to oppose a fairly routine development for this neighborhood -- a mostly three-story, partly four-story, 44-unit apartment complex.

According to the opponents, the project is "too tall." It will "over-tower" the neighborhood. It will "destroy the vibrancy of the street." It will create "canyonization." It's not "pedestrian oriented" -- to some people, because it's too big, to others because there's not enough retail on the ground floor.

Context, of course, is everything. As was the case with the Boulangerie apartments up the street, opponents of this project say it's too big to be "compatible" with the neighborhood, even though Ocean Park is loaded with three-story apartments and has many four story buildings as well -- some even higher.

In fact, a good number of the opponents to this project live in a 26-unit, three story apartment building at 230 Pacific, a site immediately to the east and half the size of the CCSM site. Within a block of the site, on Second Street, is another large, part three-story, part four-story apartment building.

The CCSM site at Main and Pacific, showing existing adjacent
three-story apartment building (Photo by Frank Gruber)

The CCSM site is on a stretch of Main Street that, as opposed to the vibrant blocks south of Hollister, is soulless and dull. It's hard to understand why this is so, but the street opens up north of the bend at Hollister and the intensity dissipates. What was a street of shops and restaurants, usually full of walkers, becomes a forlorn strip -- just another underdeveloped L.A. boulevard.

There are a few shops and a couple of places to eat, but most of the old buildings north of Strand are shabby. The new buildings are worse. They are typically a little taller than the old buildings, at two and three stories, and in better condition, but they are individually and collectively ugly, an unorganized pastiche of International School cliches.

Main Street zoning required the developers of these buildings to provide ground floor retail, but the shop windows are empty blanks of either tinted glass or shades, as the storefronts are in use as offices. Apparently there is not much market demand for retail.

There are none of the bars and few of the restaurants that are so important to life on south Main. Instead, there are many more gaps between buildings, and more parking lots and other empty spaces.

When I walk that stretch of Main, I always expect to see tumbleweeds blowing down the sidewalk.

So it was strange to hear opponents of the CCSM project talk about preserving the vibrancy of the street by making CCSM build less, or build somewhere else, since there is no vibrancy on the street and not much development either.

It was also strange to hear opponents say that "tall" buildings (four stories?) create "canyonization," and that canyonization is anti-pedestrian, when the best pedestrian neighborhoods in the world typically have even taller buildings on narrower streets.

What north Main needs is people. It needs life.

If Howard Jacobs' projects up the street at the old Boulangerie site are ever built, and if this CCSM project is built, then there is some hope that the street will have a base of customers that will make the street's retail spaces attractive to stores and restaurants.

If a few establishments get going, and the street livens up a bit, then the immediate neighbors -- perhaps even those who oppose the CCSM project -- will start using Main Street, too, creating even more business. At some point the street will reach one of those "tipping point" moments, and things will start revolving in a "virtuous circle."

It could hardly be more fitting for a virtuous circle to get its start with a virtuous act, the building of CCSM's Main and Pacific apartments.

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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