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(Sub)urban Planning

By Frank Gruber

The one thing I want to write about the brawl that took place at Santa Monica High School is that the fighting between Latino and African-American is not a schools problem, it's a social and parent problem.

It's not a problem confined to Santa Monica, and it is the product of huge social changes wrought by the historic immigration of Mexicans and Central Americans over the past 30 years to Southern California; nonetheless, given the progressive leadership and politics that have characterized Santa Monica during most of that time, it is disheartening that the problem exists here.

* * *

Tomorrow night the City Council and the Planning Commission will jointly evaluate a report on the "emerging themes" culled from the City's process to update the land use and circulation elements of its general plan.

This report is the first major document to emerge from the workshops and community meetings, and public opinion surveys, staff and outside consultants have been conducting since the process began last year.

It's a big report, more than an inch thick, including appendices, but some parts of the report are more meaningful than others. (Copies are available at the planning counter in City Hall, or on the Internet )

Most of the report consists of analysis of what the public said at various meetings. Most of this material is in the nature of anecdote: quite interesting, but not scientifically representative, since participants at meetings are self-selected. Although certain trends are discernible, much of what participants said was contradictory, both internally and when compared to what other people said.

The more meaningful sections of the report are the summary of a scientific phone survey the City commissioned to gauge public opinion (Subchapter 3.4) and Chapter 4, which provides a comprehensive analysis of the 1984 plan and how its predictions and prescriptions played out in the real world.

Santa Monicans, based on both survey results and the "gist" of anecdotal data, have a lot of common sense. Most people want a moderate amount of growth. They want a city that tops out in its most dense districts at five or six stories. They want small town ambiance, but they also want city amenities, from culture to cafes. They want to be able to walk to those amenities, and they want an urban diversity among their neighbors.

When asked point blank whether they would prefer Santa Monica to be a "compact, urban city where people can easily walk for shopping and services" or a "spread-out suburban city where people can easily drive for shopping and services," survey respondents chose the city over the suburb 59 percent to 23 percent.

Twenty-four percent of Santa Monicans oppose any new residential development and 34 percent oppose any more commercial development; these are sizable numbers of no-growthers, but far from majorities.

Far more common than straight-out opposition to growth are various (not unreasonable) anxieties people have about life in the city, from the homeless to traffic. In addition, residents desire for the city and its neighborhoods to maintain their "character" -- understandable conservatism, given how much the survey shows they like their city.

Traffic is the issue that makes people schizophrenic about growth. In general they like the quality of life that comes with "European" style density, but they don't like the traffic that seems to accompany it.

Traffic is a complicated thing -- bad traffic especially so. Some traffic is the necessary downside to success. For instance, traffic congestion increased in downtown Santa Monica without much net new development, because downtown became an attractive place to shop, work and play.

But some bad traffic is the result of bad planning, and needs to be seen as such, to avoid the same mistakes in the future and to identify fixes.

Back in 1984 the City's planners made certain predictions for the year 2000 regarding the city's population, employment, and development (residential, retail, industrial, etc.). Table 4-2 of the Emerging Themes Report summarizes what happened to those predictions. Here it is:

Table 4-2: Year 2000 Projected vs. Actual Values for 2000 and 2004


2000 Proj.

2000 Actual

2000 Actual vs. 2000 Proj.


2004 Actual
vs. 2000 Proj.








Labor Force





















Office Floor Area 4,893,300 9,052,654 13,081,335 145% 13,454,144 149%

Retail Floor Area







Ind. Floor Area







FC/FS Hotel Rooms







Housing Units








1Last column shows actual value from 2003.

What these figures show is that notwithstanding myths about "massive overdevelopment," even with help from estimated growth since 2000 the city's population in 2004 was lower than it was in 1980 and seven percent lower than predicted. (Line 1; but as for the 2004 estimate, keep in mind the City has historically overestimated population growth, and probably did so again in this case.)

All development indicators are either right at the predicted level or just below it, with one huge exception -- office development, which is 49 percent (about 4.5 million square feet!) higher than predicted. (Line 5.)

With this growth in white collar employment (and more moderate growth in other commercial activity) the city had a net increase of about 21,000 jobs. But even that number was almost 10,000 fewer jobs than the planners predicted in 1984. (Line 4.)

What was a failure in planning was not allowing the jobs -- jobs are good and Santa Monica has always been an employment center. The failure was that at the same time the City was projecting 30,000 new jobs, it was planning for only small increases in population (less than 5,000) and resident labor force (about 6,000). (Lines 1 and 2.) (The planning failure became a worse failure in reality, as both population and the resident labor force declined.)

Most of the new jobs were located in the city's "Special Office District," along Colorado and Olympic around 26th Street. The new buildings have lots of parking and sit on "superblocks" that intensify bad traffic, and the area is not served well by public transportation.

When you plunk a lot of jobs in an area without good transit, but with lots of parking, and when you don't increase your housing stock, so that all the new workers have to commute into the city, the result will be more traffic. A lot of it. (Another result is a huge increase in the cost of housing, but that's another story.)

It was a perfect storm of misplaced sprawl, landing a tornado of a freeway exit office park in "urban-but-small-town-feel" Santa Monica. If it's any solace, our planners weren't alone. The 70s and the 80s were the nadir of urban self-confidence, and the zenith of urban self-loathing; in Santa Monica the most visible results of trying to save cities by turning them into suburbs were Santa Monica Place and the Special Office District.

(Point of personal privilege: People consider me pro-development, but I first became involved in Santa Monica politics in 1992 to prevent the City from making the same mistakes at the Civic Center that it made in the Special Office District.)

I want to repeat: it wasn't the development that was bad in the Special Office District, not the jobs, but everything about the development, from car-oriented design to the lack of public transportation and the failure to build enough homes in the city to house a significant portion of new workers.

Strangely, although traffic engineers now admit that we can't build our way out of gridlock with roads, we can build our way out of commuting traffic problems like those created by the Special Office District by building housing nearby that will attract people who work there.

That shouldn't be hard. The commuters probably don't like the traffic any more than residents do, and everyone would like to live in Santa Monica. Even if only a fraction lived nearby, the pressure on nearby streets, particularly the north-south streets, would be much less. (To give the 1984 planners their due, if 6,000 of the 21,000 new workers lived in Santa Monica, traffic would be better; but how they expected to get 6,000 new resident employees out of a 5,000 person increase in population is beyond me.)

Where these new residents might live will be the subject of next week's column.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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