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Don't Kid Yourself, Part 2

By Frank Gruber

Last week I wrote about the perils of using slogans and epithets instead of reality as a basis for decisions about Santa Monica's future. Words that beg more questions than they answer, like "gentrification."

I get prickly over this stuff because I am a gentrifier myself. In 1983 I moved into a (recently renovated) rented cottage in Ocean Park. In 1987 my wife and I bought a house in the neighborhood. We remodeled and added a room. The value of the house increased, almost doubled, and twelve years later we plowed our equity into another house in the neighborhood we remodeled and expanded -- our very own "dream house."

According to the L.A. Times, houses in the 90405 zipcode, which includes both Ocean Park and Sunset Park, now sell on average for $653 per square foot. By way of comparison, the per square foot figure in Beverly Hills 90210 is $654; in Santa Monica 90402 and 90403 the figure is $817 and $842 respectively.

Getting back to Ocean Park, the $653 figure represents quite a reversal of fortune for the neighborhood the Dogtown skateboarders described in the '70s as the place "where the debris hits the sea."

The $653 figure also means that our house is now, until the bubble bursts, worth in the millions.

So I'm a gentrifier. Do I feel guilty?

Before I answer that question, let me say that if "gentrified" means unaffordable to working and middle class people, Santa Monica, at least when it comes to buying a home, has gentrified. Based on the figures quoted above, it's clear that the 31.43 percent of Santa Monica that is zoned for single-family houses is now dedicated to the wealthy, and if we're going to have a strategy for including middle-income but asset-challenged people in our future, we're going to have to look at something other than the single-family house.

The changes in real estate play out in our demographics. Between 1990 and 2000 median household income in Santa Monica increased 41 percent and the number of households with earnings more than $150,000 doubled.

But when my wife and I moved to Ocean Park nearly every block had at least one abandoned house. Two decades before our arrival the City had condemned a section of the neighborhood along the beach, one of the most historic and charming, as "blighted," and destroyed it in the name of "urban renewal." Our new house is next to a hulking stucco apartment building that from one angle looks like it's about to fall over.

I plead not guilty of guilt! But do I feel noble? No, not that either. Lucky, yes, given that investing in Ocean Park turned out to be the best financial decision I made in my life. But we didn't move to Ocean Park to do good. We moved here because we like to live, if not cheek by jowl, at least in close proximity to other people, and we're happy that it turned out other people did, too.

What's the point? The point is that one can justly worry about the lack of housing for working and middle class people, but don't fault investment in their neighborhoods as the problem.

As unimpressed as I am with using slogans, especially the old tired ones, for arguments, I have been impressed by two new slogans I heard recently. At the land use element workshop January 22 school board member and Pico Neighborhood activist Oscar de la Torre came up with these: "Better Neighborhoods, Same Neighbors" and "Santa Monica: Big City Opportunities, Small Town Feel."

To repeat, it doesn't make life better for working and middle-class people by shutting off investment in their communities and in the industries and businesses that create the jobs they and their children need, so that their own investments grow in value and so that their incomes and the incomes of their children increase, so that they and their children continue to have a future in their community.

But in Santa Monica we have this strange idea that when housing, particularly for the next generation of families, is in short supply, the solution is to make it harder to build more. I.e., what does it say about development policies in Santa Monica that new condominiums typically sell for $800,000, and new apartments rent for $2,000 or more, but the condos and the apartments only have two bedrooms?

What does it mean that Santa Monicans have so few children that for years the school district has had to rely on out of district permit students to get enough money from the state to run the schools?

What does it say about our priorities that the platform of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, our dominant political group and the purported voice of the ungentrified says plenty about limiting commercial development to protect the convenience of those that have, but nothing about the importance of creating jobs for those that don't?

And don't give me the line that Santa Monica does its part by encouraging "affordable housing," as if the aspirations of the children of the immigrants and the other historically economically disadvantaged living in Santa Monica, contrary to the aspirations of all prior generations of the same, are to be poor enough to qualify to live in subsidized apartments.

Big city opportunities and better neighborhoods; same neighbors and small town feel: new slogans that sound good to me.

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Rick Cole is one of the really smart people who have had an impact on Southern California in the past 15 years. He was mayor of Pasadena in the early '90s when that city adopted its forward-thinking general plan and then he used the knowledge he learned from that political position to forge a career in public administration. He is currently the city manager of Ventura; the city council there hired him to make their city more urban.

Mr. Cole gave a talk in November at USC about the future of urban growth in Southern California, excerpts of which have now been published in the Planning Report. In the supplemental reading department I suggest that anyone following or participating in Santa Monica's land use update will find it profitable to read what Mr. Cole has to say. Here's the link

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Yes, I am from Philadelphia, and Sunday's game was a disappointment. However, I know what most fans in Philly are saying: okay, the Birds lost, but at least they made the spread.

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