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What Becomes a Neighborhood Most?

By Frank Gruber

One of my eccentricities is that I like to use one-dollar coins. I save my dollar bills and exchange them at the bank for the new "gold" Sacagawea coins, then use them to buy things like cups of coffee and newspapers that 25 years ago one could buy with dimes or quarters, but which now require dollars.

I don't like opening my wallet and I enjoy the bemused reactions I receive in return from shopkeepers and valet parkers.

Okay, I'm a little obsessed.

Late Wednesday night I was walking home from a meeting at City Hall. The night was airy and quiet, good for walking and thinking. A few neighbors were out with their dogs.

Light was spilling from the doors of the market at Fourth and Hollister, and I had a sudden (Pavlovian?) urge for ice cream.

I'm sort of on an Atkins diet, but I rationalize ice cream on the grounds that so many of the calories come from fat (Atkins good) instead of sugar (Atkins bad).

The Hollister market has a freezer full of ice cream bars just by the door. I chose a Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia "peace pop" (no political meaning intended), and to pay for it I plunked a couple of my gold dollars down on the counter.

What was wonderful was that I could buy an ice cream bar at 11:20 at night, and eat it while I continued my walk through my neighborhood to my house.

Back in July, the City Council voted to allow neighborhood markets to stay open late, resolving an issue that had mobilized neighbors and caused tension in the Planning Commission last spring. (WHAT I SAY: Market Value, April 14, 2003)

I was on vacation, and missed writing about the council vote, but let's hear it for City staff, most of the Planning Commission, the City Council, and, most of all, the neighbors who attended all those meetings and signed all those petitions to preserve our neighborhood markets and their late hours.

* * *

So why was I up so late, walking home from City Hall?

I was returning from the joint Planning Commission and Architectural Review Board meeting on new design guidelines for downtown.

Of all the issues that face Santa Monicans, downtown design guidelines must interest the fewest. The number of commissioners and board members and staff and consultants and press at Wednesday night's meeting easily outnumbered the residents who were there.

But then, only a handful of residents originally testified last year at the City Council with complaints about downtown development. Those few complaints, however, set in motion this whole new process.

What happened was that when the council unwisely voted to reduce the downtown development review threshold to 7,500 square feet, the council wisely realized that if it was going to do that, the City needed to fix the review process and clarify design standards.

As opposed as I was to lowering the development review threshold, I'm ecstatic that the City is taking a new look at downtown design standards.

For about ten years, developers -- primarily one developer, Craig Jones -- have been building apartments in commercial districts downtown. The City encouraged this, not only because the City wants a mixed-used downtown, but also because the City wants to achieve its housing construction goals, and prefers to keep development out of residential districts.

What Jones and other developers were doing was new for Santa Monica, however, and in the beginning there was a "learning curve."

At first the architecture wasn't so great -- I remember arguing when I was on the Planning Commission against a ridiculous faux window on the side of one building. The rules back then also allowed mistakes like garage driveways that opened on the street rather than the alley.

But gradually, with give and take and trial and error by and among developers, the ARB, and city staff, the buildings improved. If you take a walk on Fifth, Sixth and Seventh streets, between Santa Monica Boulevard and Colorado, you will see a good neighborhood in development.

But some people didn't like what was going on. They thought that the new buildings were too big. The number of the discontented was small, but they included influential people, most notably Santa Monicans Fearful of Change Ellen Brennan and Arthur Harris and their patron, former Planning Commissioner Kelly Olsen.

Brennan and Harris started challenging projects at the ARB. Once the ARB would approve a project -- usually after several rounds of design changes -- they would appeal the approval to the Planning Commission and start over.

Legally, Brennan and Harris could not challenge the square footage of buildings in the context of a design review. But, with Olsen's help, they managed to confuse nearly everyone about the difference between development standards and design.

Still, ultimately, buildings would gain approval. Brennan and Harris upped the ante and began to challenge the entire concept of the pedestrian-oriented urban plan by advocating side-yard setbacks and excessive "permeability" -- as if they wanted to bring back the dingbat apartment.

Their ultimate weapon, however, against downtown development was to persuade the City Council to reduce the development review threshold, which would allow them to attack the size of individual projects. They reached the high point of their influence when a tenuous majority on council agreed.

But then something funny happened. There was a counter-attack. Urbanistas like Allen Freeman of the group Livable Santa Monica and bicycle and traffic-calming activists Kent Strumpel and Barbara Filet told the City Council that our supposedly progressive city was backtracking on sustainability and urban quality of life.

Developers pointed out that they were the City's only hope for reaching its housing goals.

Certain council members who considered themselves environmentalists began to realize, at long last, that the environmental movement was in favor of urban development.

The City Council lowered the development review threshold, but incorporated significant exceptions, and, perhaps even more important, promised a review of various policies that make it difficult to build apartments downtown.

What was ironic was that the city-haters initially proposed a review of design guidelines as a way of achieving their anti-urban agenda. But when the City Council directed staff to conduct a review, the council not only excluded development standards from the discussion, but also told staff to develop standards that would increase the predictability of the permitting process.

In other words, the council wanted to stop Brennan and Harris from using vague development standards against good projects.

It's too bad that what happens downtown does not interest more Santa Monicans. Twenty years from now, or even sooner, one more thing that Santa Monica will be famous for is how it built a neighborhood downtown and showed the world how to live happily in a post-sprawl city.

City staff and their consultants, the ROMA Group, will be returning to the Planning Commission and the ARB with specific recommendations at another joint meeting October 29. Between now and then I will write again on the substantive issues. Anyone who is interested in the topic should pick up a copy of ROMA's preliminary report on the issues and potential responses, which is available, I'm told, at the planning desk at City Hall.

Upcoming Meetings:

Planning Commission, September 17: The Commission will hear the appeal of the ARB's approval of Community Corporation of Santa Monica's affordable apartment project at Fourth and Pacific. I have written previously about the merits of this development. (WHAT I SAY: Tumbleweeds or Tipping Points, April 21, 2003)

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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