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Plan Check

By Frank Gruber

In Brunelleschi's Dome, the author Ross King detailed how the city of Florence marshaled the engineering and artistic genius of Filippo Brunelleschi to build "Il Duomo," the great dome of its cathedral.

No one had constructed anything like the dome since the ancients had built the Pantheon in Rome and Santa Sophia in Constantinople. Brunelleschi, starting in 1418 when he won the competition to design the dome, had to invent, or reinvent, how to build it.

Still, Brunelleschi's incredible accomplishments were not what impressed me most when I read the book. What knocked me out was that the city authorities way back in 1367 had decided to build the dome -- which would be the world's largest -- neither knowing how to build it, nor having the technology to do so.

And the voters of Florence -- the population of which was less than that of Santa Monica today -- approved the plan in a referendum.

I bring this history up to give some perspective on the nine years it has taken since the passage of the Civic Center Specific Plan and the opening of the Public Safety Building.

On one hand, compared to the time it took medieval Florence to build the Duomo, nine years is quick.

On the other hand, Santa Monica didn't have to reinvent the dome.

I got my start in Santa Monica politics as a citizen participant in the Civic Center planning process. That was in 1992. A few years after that I was a co-chair of the campaign for the Public Safety Building bond issue, which garnered almost -- but not quite -- the two-thirds vote needed to pass.

So I have a lot of personal history with the Civic Center and the Public Safety Building, and it felt good to attend the building's opening last week. The planning process now seems long ago, and the original plan underwent revision after the City purchased most of the RAND property. Yet things get built, and it's fascinating to see the area take shape mostly, and literally, "according to plan."

As significant for me as the opening of the Public Safety Building will be the opening soon of the first leg of Olympic Drive, from Fourth Street to Main. Breaking up the super blocks of the Civic Center is crucial to restoring the urban ecology.

When RAND has completed construction of its new offices, and has demolished its low-rise buildings, then the rest of Olympic Drive will be built through to Ocean Avenue. This will not only help alleviate the traffic at the intersections where Pico and Colorado cross Fourth and Ocean, but will provide direct pedestrian access and views along the same route, by way of a beautiful esplanade -- half of which is now built.

The main question for me is whether the low densities of the buildings, including the Public Safety Building, the Maguire Partners building on Ocean, RAND, and the housing that is planned -- will be enough to animate the area.

Although the densities are much like those of a suburban office park, I am hopeful that the Civic Center will become a lively place and a worthy center of civic life.

I am hopeful for two reasons.

One is the mix of uses. The public buildings -- City Hall, the Public Safety Building, and the courthouse -- will always be a draw for the many people who have business with government, including at night, when the City holds City Council and commission meetings.

The private office buildings -- RAND and Maguire Thomas -- will draw a steady stream of daytime workers and visitors.

The Civic Auditorium is intermittently a big draw, and someday there will be a big park with a soccer field at the corner of Pico and Fourth, ensuring lots of people on weekends.

The housing, even at the reduced scale of the revised plan, will one day provide a 24-hour presence.

The other reason I'm hopeful about the area is the design. While up until now the buildings in the Civic Center area have been notable for how isolated they are from street and sidewalks, the new buildings emphasize connections to the street.

The Public Safety Building is accessible to the public from the street, not from a parking lot. When built, the new parking structure across Olympic from the Public Safety Building will bring retail -- stores and cafes -- to an area that now is devoid of any kind of public amenity.

The esplanade and Olympic Drive facing west: waiting for the trees to grow.

Good urban design just doesn't happen. Everyone in the city except the no-growthers who obstinately opposed the Civic Center plan should be proud about the product of a very public process.

If you want to see the alternative to good urban planning, take an architecture trip to downtown Los Angeles, something I did few weeks ago when my mother-in-law was visiting. She's a big fan of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao -- she's been there twice. We decided to spend a day being tourists in L.A. so that she could see Gehry's new Disney Hall, as well as the new cathedral, designed by José Rafael Moneo.

These are two fantastic buildings that are, in the architectural context, something like the Duomo in Florence, at least for our time and place.

But what the Florentines could do 600 years ago that our greatest architects seem incapable of is to design big buildings that connect with the street on all sides.

The Duomo, of course, has been the center of life in Florence since it was built. It is surrounded by intersecting, densely developed streets, and pavements that are always full of people.

Although Los Angeles is rebuilding Grand Avenue to create what looks like good open space in front of Disney Hall, and the Cathedral's wide open plaza is wonderful, both the Disney Hall and the Cathedral present blank walls to the public along most of their perimeters.

The First Street side of the Disney Hall, facing the Music Center

It's the side streets that make good downtowns, not the main streets. There is nothing so boring as having just two directions to walk.

The Temple Street frontage of the Cathedral

When it comes to creating a real city, the Disney Hall and the Cathedral are little more than the false fronts of a movie set.

After showing my mother-in-law the new architecture of downtown LA, we parked near Union Station and took the new Gold Line to South Pasadena for lunch. Then we grabbed another train to Pasadena. We had a delightful time walking around Old Town, eating ice cream. As is happening in downtown Santa Monica, lots of people are moving into downtown Pasadena.

Even once the Disney Hall opens, I doubt whether downtown LA will yet be ready for that kind of strolling, and anyone who lives there is going to find the street scene anything but delightful.

So, Santa Monicans, count your blessings. In the future, when you drop in at the Public Safety Building to pay a ticket you'll be able to walk off some of the annoyance on the Esplanade, or maybe bump into a neighbor or two, and sit outside and have a coffee.

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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