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We Must Remember This... and That

By Frank Gruber

The past couple weeks have been nostalgic for me, as a number of events caused me to reflect on how long I've been banging around Santa Monica politics.

Two weeks ago the Architectural Review Board approved the plans for the mixed commercial/residential buildings that will occupy the remaining lots of what to me will always be the "Target Site," the five lots at Fifth and Santa Monica Boulevard that should have been one of the country's first urban Target stores. ("Prominent Projects Sail Through ARB," April 21, 2004)

I say, "should have been," and I mean it, but I won't complain about the ultimate result.

Yet I imagine many of the opponents of Target will. Because of density bonuses for residential, all the new buildings planned for the site look to be about twice the size of the proposed Target, and they're going to have a lot of retail on the ground floor, too.

* * *

Then last week I was on North Main Street, and what did I see, but demolition in process at the old Boulangerie site. Last I had heard, developer Howard Jacobs had moved to Florida and was trying to sell his mixed-use projects there. But he pulled a building permit and has commenced construction.

When this project is built I hope the Planning Department will conduct a workshop to determine if the finished product is better or more beautiful than the original plans, i.e., better than what Jacobs will build after the Planning Commission, the City Council, and the ARB got their hands on the project and subjected it to all their contradictory and nonsensical seat of the pants world-class architectural theory about "massing" and "articulation" and "breaking up the façade."

While they're at it, the Planning Department could determine if the completed project has "material" impacts on traffic, as the EIR predicted with little regard for reality.

* * *

I had nostalgia of a different sort Thursday evening when I attended the Liberty Hill Foundation's annual banquet. This year the social justice organization honored, among others, Tom Hayden.

Growing up in the sixties and seventies as something of, but a sorry excuse for, a leftist, I always admired Tom Hayden. Living here I appreciated the opportunity to vote for him. Then I became involved as a resident in the planning of the Civic Center back in 1992 and 1993 -- my first fling at activism beyond walking precincts for Michael Dukakis.

Hayden also involved himself in the Civic Center planning process, but on the side of the no-growthers who were trying to scuttle the plan. I was convinced antipathy toward the RAND Corporation motivated his opposition more than his professed anxiety about increased traffic, since he had floated an alternative proposal to build a Santa Monica College annex on the site, but who am I to say what Tom Hayden was thinking.

In any case, at public meetings I suppose I often got wistful about my old neighborhood in Philadelphia, and Hayden must have heard me, because one day when he was in a grocery store parking lot collecting signatures to put the Civic Center Plan on the ballot, and I was counter-leafleting, he yelled over to the people I was trying to dissuade from signing his petition, "Don't listen to him; he wants to turn Santa Monica into Philadelphia!"

I thought that was pretty funny and trusting his sense of humor if nothing else I continued to vote for Hayden, although not when he ran for Governor in the Democratic primary in 1994, the same election in which Santa Monicans approved the Civic Center Plan. Hayden deserves all the awards people want to give him, if only for showing that there is a place for radical politics in electoral politics.

* * *

I feel like the City Council's vote last week to continue its search for a solution to the "formula retail" problem should have been nostalgic, since the search has been going on so long, but it was more like lying awake at 3 a.m., after waking from a dream you think you've had before. ("Council Explores Curbing Chains Downtown," April 29, 2004)

It's been five years now that Council, however well-intentioned, has been worrying about this overstated problem, during which time downtown has only become more interesting to tourists and more useful to residents. Can't Council let staff work on something important, such as the long-delayed Circulation Element of the General Plan?

Walk around downtown, and it is evident "nature" is taking its course in a good way. Outdoor dining is sprouting up all along the widened sidewalks of Santa Monica Boulevard and Broadway, interesting stores, such as the many modern furniture stores, are opening on the side streets. Unique and affordable restaurants run along Santa Monica Boulevard all the way to Lincoln. (Try the Syrian restaurant, Sham, at Seventh.)

Last week I spoke to a cashier at Hennessey & Ingalls who told me they're doing better at their new store on Wilshire than they did when they were on the Promenade.

Since I've already mentioned Philadelphia, let me get wistful over the vibrant days of my youth when its Center City commercial district was like a bit of Manhattan. All along Market Street were the great department stores -- Wanamaker's, Gimbel's, Strawbridge & Clothier, Lit Brothers.

These were the Gap and the Banana Republic and Crate & Barrel of their day (not to mention the Targets). They were the "formula retail" that brought in the customers -- of every class -- downtown for the specialty shops and mom & pops.

Then the malls lured the department stores out of the city. The big downtown stores closed or scaled down their operations, and the district went to seed.

At the City Council meeting, Council member Michael Feinstein, the main proponent of capping formula retail, said, as quoted in The Lookout, "[t]he Third Street Promenade has only gone in one direction, from small unique, locally owned retailers to large national formula retail."

Well ... There was Woolworth's. And J.C. Penney. And J.J. Newberry's and Kinney Shoes and Leed's Shoes. Etc. And let's face it, "small, unique, locally owned" these days usually means expensive (Montana Avenue, Main Street, Abbott Kinney). Why look down on the stores that masses of people obviously like?

Feinstein went on to ask, "[w]hat's going to happen if twenty owners each pursues his own economic interest?"

I say that's a good question and fortunately not answerable. Twenty owners will make twenty decisions, for their own purposes. Unfortunately, if City Council tells twenty owners what they must do, what they do will be predictable, and predictability is the death of a place.

* * *

I could have nostalgia for the good old days when school boards could set tax rates independent of the needs of the grown ups, but what's the use? Instead I'll hope for the best in the ongoing negotiations between the School District and the City on cutting the schools in on the City's future growth in revenues. ("Negotiators Offer Optimism but no Details," April 30, 2004)

Guys -- let's make a deal.

* * *

The final nostalgia stimulator was for memories of a more recent vintage. The agenda for Wednesday night's Planning Commission meeting includes the item many of my readers have been waiting for, Stephanie Barbanell's and Jerry Bass's appeal of the Zoning Administrator's decision that they must remove their fourteen-foot high hedge and six-foot high fence on Seaview Terrace. ("Seaview Fence Must Come Down," January 21, 2004 and "WHAT I SAY: Ungrateful Greens and Fences and Hedges," November 3, 2003)
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