The LookOut columns
What I Say About Frank Gruber

Email Frank

Don't Kid Yourself

By Frank Gruber

The City Council did a good job with Macerich's proposal to redevelop Santa Monica Place. Although to my taste the council members spent more time than necessary agonizing over what it means to "start over," and I'm nervous about their collective commitment to increasing population downtown, they struck a good balance between making sure everyone knew they want this makeover to succeed and making sure everyone knew that they had not decided anything yet.

This reflected the tone of the hearing; I attended expecting to report on the kind of anger that had fueled prior development controversies, but I was surprised by the lack of emotion. Most project critics recognized that the existing mall deserved to be replaced, and Randy Brant from Macerich dissipated most of their hostility by dropping the 300-foot towers from his presentation.

For instance, the usually adamant anti-development Friends of Sunset Park presented a list of constructive ideas rather than a denunciation.

It's an important project, important enough, as former mayor Dennis Zane said, to attract three former mayors to speak. It also attracted three planning commissioners, but the council ignored the commission's recommendation to table the plan until completion of the updates to the general plan.

Back when the commission injected itself into the decision whether to have a process, Commissioner Terry O'Day warned his fellow commissioners that they were in effect saying they had "no confidence" the council would make a good decision for the city. ("Table Mall Project or Scale It Back," January 7, 2005)

Sure enough, the Council, knowing that a lot of planning has gone into the site and the nearby Civic Center, and also knowing that in this case delay would probably mean the project would die, returned the compliment.

The three former mayors did better. Michael Feinstein supported the redevelopment and got what he wanted, the start of a design process, which no doubt means that Santa Monica hasn't seen the last of Michael Feinstein.

Paul Rosenstein, who had opposed the project, apparently -- based on his comments to The Lookout after the vote -- felt satisfied that the City would now proceed with a true public/private partnership in which the City, as an "integral partner," would, or could, make an ultimate decision whether to proceed based on an objective analysis.

Then there was former mayor Zane. He and Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights had opposed the project. Mr. Zane told the Council that the project would be the antithesis of the "egalitarian" and "diverse" values of the Third Street Promenade and Santa Monica itself, and that it would instead be "exclusive" and "upscale."

Anti-egalitarian. Anti-diversity. Exclusive and upscale. Sounds bad. Surely Mr. Zane was standing up for all the ungentrified. But wait a minute: didn't Mr. Zane oppose Target four years ago? In our culture, U.S.A 2005, what is more egalitarian, diverse, and non-exclusive than a Target?

But Mr. Zane's hauteur is what Santa Monica is all about: "luxury" condos are too upscale while Target is too downscale.

When Mr. Brant of Macerich presented its original plan to the Bayside District in November, there were shocked looks of disbelief when people saw the towers, but there were snickers when he mentioned he was in negotiation with the Cheesecake Factory to lease a prominent restaurant space.

The Cheesecake Factory? In Santa Monica? What kind of rubes do they think we are?

In Mr. Zane's fantasy, real, ungentrified Santa Monicans are Jeffersonian yeomen, independent of the vulgarity of the global economy and full of contempt and disdain for the fripperies of the vain and debauched rich. (Meanwhile, a lot of Santa Monicans make their living in the entertainment business, the most globalized, culturally imperialistic, and full of fripperies industry of all, but that's another story.)

The reality is that the real ungentrified shop at Target and Costco. When there's a wedding, they splurge at Nordstroms, and feel good about it. They throw birthday parties for their kids at Shakeys, and go out to California Pizza Kitchen before a movie. They shop at farmers markets but also at chain supermarkets, where, by they way, their unionized neighbors work.

Santa Monicans complicit in the Zane fantasy combine snobbery with a particular chutzpah: they condescend both to anyone who has more and to anyone who has less than they do, meanwhile ignoring the reality of who they are.

Last week Paper Mate and Allen Janitorial Supply announced their closings (the latter will reopen with new ownership) and Yahoo! announced it would locate its Southern California offices (and eventually 1,000 employees) at Colorado Center (to be renamed Yahoo! Center). The L.A. Times published its list of housing prices and Santa Monica came out on top, with the highest per-square foot prices in the region.

For all the fantasy about diversity, north of Wilshire, the city is only about six percent Latino or black.

What this all means is that when the process gets going on what to build at Santa Monica Place, ignore buzzwords like "diversity," "upscale," "gentrification," "greed," or, my favorite, the all encompassing, "the real Santa Monica." These words have no meaning because they have no connection to reality. People who don't want change because they've already got their piece of the pie use words like these as distractions and moral cover to mask their indifference to the needs and wants of others.

The real questions are simpler and more obvious and, at the same time, require more thought. "Are there negatives to having more people live downtown?" "How high is too high?" "Are we, the public, getting enough for our money?" "What constitutes a public benefit?" "How many jobs will the development create, and for whom?"

* * *

One more word about the City Council hearing. Among the important actions the council took was to direct staff to hire two consultants, one to advise the City on the economic and financial issues, and one to conduct the public process to design the project "starting from scratch."

My impression from listening to the council members was that this consultant would be a firm that not only would design the process and run the meetings, but also would be able to give the public and the City advice about design issues; when, before the vote, Mayor Pam O'Connor summarized the action the council was taking she described the positions as a "facilitating consultant analyst," and I assumed "analyst" meant something.

Apparently, I may have been the only one who heard the discussion this way; according to The Lookout's account of the meeting, and then according to both a City Council member and a planning staffer I have since spoken to, the council only wanted to engage a "facilitator."

If I heard wrong, then I hope the council reconsiders. If this development is going to be a public/private partnership, then the public side needs to get advice at the urban design level. It's not that Macerich's architects can't plan and design the project; but same as Macerich's finance department is not in a position to advise the City's finance department, their architects are not in a position to advise the public on the feasibility of their ideas.

If the public will ultimately buy into the plans, which will be crucial for everyone, they will need to feel confident that their ideas have been evaluated "from scratch," without preconceptions.

It makes sense for the City to engage one of the firms that have previously worked in the area, such as the ROMA Group or Moule & Polyzoides, or a similarly well-regarded firm, to handle both the outreach and the independent analysis.

Copyright 1999-2005 All Rights Reserved.