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By Frank Gruber

This month is shaping up as some kind of milestone for culture in Santa Monica. Last week the American Cinematheque reopened the renovated Aero Theater, and next week, on Jan. 19, Santa Monica College will hold a groundbreaking for the new Madison site theater.

I couldn't make the reopening of the Aero Thursday night, but I did attend a screening of "The Mission" there Friday. The evening was dedicated to Jeremy Irons (the second feature was "Dead Ringers") and Mr. Irons took questions for half an hour between shows.

The theater looks great, the seats are comfy and the screen is huge. Local movie lovers will be forever in debt to many people who made the renovation possible, but I will single out Jim Rosenfield, the developer who bought the theater eight years ago and who wouldn't let it die, and philanthropist Max Palevsky, who donated $500,000 to the Cinematheque to pay half the costs of the renovation.

That Santa Monica College will soon build a gem of a theater for music is near miraculous, considering the grief the College received from a good number of members of the City Council. They attacked the idea of building a little 500-seat theater for serious music along one of our busiest boulevards as if the College wanted to build a tannery in Yellowstone.

For more information about the Cinematheque's programming at the Aero, or to join the Cinematheque, go to: For information about the groundbreaking for the Madison site theater)

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The City is having its own groundbreaking this week for a project that may not be as glamorous as a concert hall, or as fun as a revival movie house, but which will ultimately cause a similarly good effect. This week the City begins construction of the Civic Center parking structure on Fourth Street, behind the Courthouse.

In and of itself the parking structure is no great news. Building the parking structure, however, is the first step to converting the huge parking lot between the Courthouse and the Civic Auditorium into a park, which will include a soccer field, and a childcare center.

In effect, by building a parking structure, the City is acquiring land for a park. (The parking structure will also benefit the public by covering from view the hideous "fortress" addition the courts have added to the rear of the Courthouse.)

The building of the parking structure is the latest manifestation of the 1993 Civic Center Plan. When complete, and when the park and childcare center are built, most of the plan will have been realized in the area east of Main Street. Already built are the public safety facility and the first segment of Olympic Drive.

West of Main, however, the 1993 plan, which received 7-0 approval from a City Council that included such development skeptics as Ken Genser and Kelly Olsen, and which then received 60 percent of the vote in a referendum, has been significantly reduced in scope.

Although RAND has now built its new headquarters, RAND chose merely to replace the 300,000 square feet of its old offices, when, under the plan, it could have added another 200,000 square feet.

Now the City is proceeding with the Civic Center's housing component along Ocean Avenue -- now known as the "Village." The 1993 plan called for at least 350 units and 35,000 square feet of live-work space; in addition, another 250,000 square feet could have been built as either offices or housing (about 250 units). Under the revised plan of 2002, the City has downsized the housing component to only 325 units and dropped the additional 250,000 square feet entirely.

In all, between RAND's decision not to build the additional 200,000 square feet, and the Council's decision to reduce housing, the amount of development at the Civic Center has been reduced by about 500,000 square feet. The amount of park space west of Main has increased, but there is a serious question whether there will be enough residents or office-workers to keep it "animated."

Reduced or not, the housing plan is moving forward. In December, the Council did something uncharacteristic; it declined to tell the three prospective developers of the Village exactly what to build. Instead, the Council asked them to use their own creativity to design the best possible project. ("Civic Center Village Could Include Ownership Units," December 17, 2004)

When the Council reduced the housing component of the plan in 2002, one of the rationalizations the council-members, who like to call themselves "housers," made was that the lost housing would be made up for in a rebuilt Santa Monica Place, and the Council expanded the boundaries of the Civic Center Specific Plan to include Santa Monica Place.

As is now big news, Macerich, the owner of Santa Monica Place, has put forward a plan to redevelop the site, a plan that has drawn a lot of criticism -- the latest blast coming from the Planning Commission last week. ("Table Mall Project or Scale It Back," January 7, 2005)

Oddly enough, Macerich has done with the Santa Monica Place site just what the Council asked the prospective developers of the Village to do; use its creativity to propose what it believes to be the best design. But the 300-foot towers Macerich has proposed have drawn a lot of criticism. For instance, Council Member Kevin McKeown, one of the "housers" who looked to Santa Monica Place to replace the Civic Center's lost housing, told the Lookout the plan was "D.O.A." This columnist has also expressed reservations about the highest heights Macerich has proposed. ("WHAT I SAY: Tall Order," November 29, 2004)

But it's important not to lose sight of the forest for the high-rises. The development program Macerich has proposed is largely consistent with the revised specific plan that the Council approved conceptually in 2002. Macerich proposes to replicate the exiting amount of retail, and add as new development 450 housing units and about 80,000 square feet of offices. It's no coincidence that this adds up to about 500,000 feet of new development -- about the same as what's been deducted from the 1993 plan.

The Planning Commission is desperate to involve itself in a decision that the Council made more than two years ago: to encourage Macerich to redevelop Santa Monica Place to link downtown and the Civic Center. A majority of commissioners want to pressure the Council to change its collective mind.

Commissioner Julie Lopez Dad summarized that attitude with a muttered aside (recorded by the microphones of City-TV) near the end of last Wednesday's meeting: "The City Council is a big part of this problem."

The Commission's vote last week recommending that the City table the whole project if it doesn't conform to existing zoning until completion of the revision to the land use element of the general plan was a classic example of the anti-growth strategy of using delay to kill projects.

But the strangest part of the Planning Commission's "logic" was that while the Commission voted to table the project until completion of the land use element update, the Commission declined to recommend deleting Santa Monica Place from the Civic Center Specific Plan. Under California development law, a specific plan supersedes a general plan; by being part of a specific plan, Santa Monica Place is by definition not subject to the general plan.

When the Council voted to update the general plan, it knew that land within the boundaries of the Civic Center Specific Plan would not be part of the update. What's more, the Civic Center Specific Plan has been subject to nearly continuous public attention and input for more than fifteen years, and there is no reason to throw out the results of all this work because the City has embarked on an update of the land use element of the general plan.

The City has a new service for local politics junkies: archived videos of City Council and Planning Commission meetings are now available for streaming from the internet. Go to: for access. Conveniently, the files are indexed so that you can find specific topics.

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