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Downtown Again, Sure n' Begorra

By Frank Gruber

It's intriguing to me that the two great cultures known for their diasporas -- the Jews and the Irish -- have several characteristics in common. A love for language, a love for song, a love for, or even obsession with, the mother figure, come to mind.

Then factor in the most significant connection: a love for corned beef, and you start to think maybe the Irish are the lost tribes.

It is true that in the spirit of ecumenicalism I choose to ignore that the two present-day tribes eat the noble salt-cured brisket in different ways: the Irish boiled with cabbage, and the Jews in sandwiches named after minor celebrities. But these differences are trivial and it shouldn't surprise anyone that two weeks ago my parents had us over for St. Patrick's Day dinner at their apartment and served corned beef and cabbage. (We're Jewish.)

My father, who makes corned beef and cabbage well, says that the secret is to add the cabbage to the pot only at the last minute, just before serving. If people are going to want seconds on cabbage (and they will), have some cut in a bowl next to the stove, and keep the water simmering, but don't cook the cabbage until you're ready to serve the second batch.

Of course, we said the appropriate blessing before digging in: Baruch atah adonai... (Blessed art thou, Lord our God, king of the universe, who has caused the tough piece of beef to be salted and boiled in the water with potatoes and carrots and cabbage...)

Believe it or not, this all has to do with Santa Monica politics, for two reasons:

One, because my parents' invitation saved me from attending the Planning Commission's hearing that night on the new proposals for downtown design standards. ("Commission Questions Proposed Downtown Design Standards," March 22, 2004); and

Two, because my parents' apartment is in one of the new buildings developer Craig Jones has constructed on Sixth Street. (That's the same Craig Jones whose Santa Monica Collection advertises on this page.)

Like, apparently, every other downtown resident, my parents had no interest in attending the Planning Commission hearing on the future of their neighborhood. Going back to 2002 when the City Council started this whole new round of redoing downtown development, there have been no serious complaints from people who live downtown about development or design. Instead, driving the process has been a phony controversy fabricated by the usual SMFC's (Santa Monicans Fearful of Change): no-growthers like Ellen Brennan and Arthur Harris, and/or control-freaks like former Planning Commissioner Kelly Olsen.

My parents like their apartment. It has good light and air, as the living room has a western facing balcony and at the other end of the apartment there are two rooms with windows overlooking an internal courtyard.

If they like their apartment, they love living downtown. They don't have a car. They walk all over and go nearly everywhere else by bus. They even took a Greyhound from the stop in front of Santa Monica Place to visit my aunt in Santa Barbara.

They frequent the library and the Y, shop at the local stores and the farmer's markets, attend concerts at the First Presbyterian Church, see movies and go out to dinner.

I've never heard them complain about canyonization or lack of permeability.

It's tempting to compare the idea that downtown development created huge problems that needed government attention to the idea that Saddam had WMD, but fortunately the City Council's powers were limited to passing a disruptive interim ordinance, causing planning staff to rearrange their priorities, and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for consultants.

But if they could, I'm sure they would have sent in the Marines.

But I shouldn't complain, because the City Council appears on the verge of doing something highly unusual, namely, allowing a bad, anti-growth interim ordinance to expire. Not only that, but the process the council unleashed, however unnecessarily, has produced many good ideas for improving what was already a good thing.

A little history. The current round of revising downtown standards, which will culminate in a new City Council hearing April 13, began two years ago. In response to phantom SMFC complaints, and to deal with a few small real issues that could have been solved administratively, a 4 to 3 majority on City Council passed an emergency ordinance reducing the threshold for development review from 30,000 square feet to 7,500 feet.

This meant that nearly every project downtown would have to run the gantlet of discretionary review at the Planning Commission, even if it perfectly satisfied the standards of our zoning law.

Shamed, however, by testimony from the city's housing community and smart-growth advocates, the majority on the City Council not only agreed to put certain exceptions in the law, but also agreed that the law would expire in eighteen months. During that time the council directed staff to conduct a public process to develop new, more definite design standards and a new, more predictable permit process, which would replace the interim ordinance.

I never thought the City Council was serious about "sunseting" the reduction in the development review threshold, but I may have been wrong. I base this rash prediction on comments Council Member Kevin McKeown, who was one of the original sponsors of the ordinance to reduce the threshold, has made at the Planning Commission hearings on the proposals. Mr. McKeown seems to have got religion on downtown density and the importance of building more apartments and fewer parking spaces.

Praise the Lord.

Planning staff and their consultants, the ROMA Group, have come up with new ideas, mostly good (and which I'll discuss in next week's column), but they have run into opposition at the Architectural Review Board and the Planning Commission on proposals to replace, in certain cases, ARB review with review by the City's urban designer.

Not surprisingly, the ARB is miffed at this proposal, and I sympathize. Although the ARB had some terrible policies requiring plantings that block the view of ground-floor store windows, and although at times projects became lost in a no-approval zone between the ARB and the Planning Commission, in general the old system, by which the ARB reviewed projects that had received administrative development approval, worked.

By "worked" I mean that the appearance of buildings downtown gradually improved. Through dialogue between the ARB and developers and their architects, both sides learned what worked downtown and what didn't.

It seems unfair to pick on the ARB when the problem was not their review of design, but the council's idea to expand the Planning Commission's discretionary review over development. What would kill development is forcing developers to spend huge sums on plans, not to mention acquisition of land, without knowing whether at the end of the day they could build what the zoning law allows.

As if on cue, the Planning Commission demonstrated by its hearings on the new proposals why the commissioners can't be trusted to evaluate fairly how a development stacks up against zoning laws and the General Plan.

The hearings extended interminably over two long meetings, something that is hard to do when there is so little public comment. The highpoint (highpoint, that is, measured on an inverse scale) came when Commissioner Julie Lopez Dad went ballistic over, of all things, Chair Darrell Clarke's and Commissioner Arlene Hopkins' badgering of developer Jones for venturing his opinion that the down-zoning they proposed would put him out of the housing business.

But the real lesson from all the hours of the Commission's deliberations was that even without Kelly Olsen to confuse matters, the Commission still cannot stick to a subject at hand.

The City Council had mandated a narrow focus for this process and specifically excluded making changes to development standards, but that didn't stop the Commission from taking a collective flyer on density, the City's affordable housing program, and the economics of building housing, all of which the City has studied extensively and acted upon in prior proceedings.

Then, buying into the fantasy that there are seething controversies and conflicts between residents and developers downtown, a fantasy they helped create, the commissioners proposed a whole new layer of public review in the permit process.

Fortunately, City Council itself knows downtown better than the Planning Commission, and isn't likely to pay too much attention to the Commission's wanderings far a field.

This is the first of two parts.

The City Council's hearing on downtown development standards is scheduled for its April 13, 2004 meeting.
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