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Civic Center: Extra Innings

By Frank Gruber

I'll try to add some color commentary to The Lookout's play-by-play of last week's City Council hearing on updating and adopting the Civic Center Specific Plan ("Council Approves Civic Center Plan," June 30, 2005).

When it comes to the Civic Center, I feel like veteran who has hung up his spikes and grabbed a microphone.

I first stepped to the Civic Center plate as a rookie in local politics in 1993, when I read an article in The Outlook about proposed new zoning there. The City was seeking public comment, and I wrote a memo advocating for something I called "Piazza Santa Monica."

I've had plenty of at-bats since then and thrown a few pitches, too. Last week I pulled out the old scrapbooks, I mean files, and reminisced. I'll tell you what's weird: based on my three-ring binders, the whole Civic Center plan was developed, approved by the City Council, enveloped in controversy, and voted on and approved by the public without benefit of email or websites.

Perhaps the most engaging work I did in the whole process occurred in 1993, when as a member of the Land Use Committee of the Ocean Park Community Organization (OPCO) I helped draft a statement of OPCO's "vision" for the Civic Center. The work was fascinating then and is satisfying now because so much of OPCO's vision made it into the plan and survives today: connectivity, accessible open space, neighborhood housing, local serving retail. (If you're interested in what we were thinking then, you can link to a copy of the vision statement.)

Sure there have been compromises, and frankly, some of the ideas we had were not so good. (For instance, we wanted underground parking everywhere, something Council Member Herb Katz is still pushing.) In retrospect I wish we had thought more about historic preservation, but even only twelve years ago the attitude toward mid-20th century monuments like the old RAND buildings was quite different.

Notwithstanding OPCO's "vision," the community and the Land Use Committee itself soon took sides and the fight over the plan was bitter. It was a classic case, to use William McClung's terminology that I wrote about last week, of Arcadians versus Utopians: the partisans of "open space" versus those desiring an urban center. The designers the City hired, the ROMA Group, devised a balanced plan with expansive parks that they shaped to create public space, and they added new streets to restore the lost urban ecology.

The plan passed the City Council on a unanimous, 7 to 0 vote. The Arcadians collected signatures and put the plan on the ballot, but the plan passed with 60 percent of the vote.

But I fear the opponents have had the last laugh. It hasn't been quite death by a thousand cuts, but what will be built at the Civic Center is about 500,000 square feet less than the 1993 plan allowed, and more than half the loss is in housing that would have made the place real.

What happened to the 500,000 square feet? The first big cut occurred when RAND built its new headquarters but only replicated the square footage of its old facilities. Under the 1993 plan it could have built almost 200,000 square feet more.

Then, in the 2002 redo of the plan, the City dropped 250,000 square feet that could have been either offices or housing. Based on public workshops in summer 2001, it looked like this 250,000 square feet would become 250 units of housing north of Olympic Drive. Unfortunately, at a meeting where few "housers" (thinking they had already won the battle for more units) appeared, and in response to fervent last minute pleas for more open space, the Civic Center Working Group changed its mind and dropped the housing.

Along the way, the City also dropped about 50,000 square feet of retail and live/work and 35 housing units. The latest reductions are from the City services building and possibly from the 325 units of housing that were supposed to be built south of Olympic Drive.

So now there will be about sixteen and half acres of open space rather than fourteen, but only about half as many residents to keep the parks and plazas and sidewalks busy. Few people walk around the Civic Center now, and the only significant increase in use will be the housing.

One good change, however, has been the addition of a soccer field to the park at Fourth and Pico that will add activity to what would otherwise be a forlorn corner.

It's not only the loss in "program" that worries me. So far, the buildings that have been constructed under the plan have done nothing to define public spaces and make them more attractive to pedestrians.

For instance, the RAND building is handsome, but its placement violates the principles of the plan. The OPCO vision statement called for open space that was "accessible and usable, not merely decorative," and said that "building setbacks and privately enclosed open spaces are not adequate substitutes for public plazas and parks," and that "open spaces should have multiple uses." The plan reflected this, calling, in language from the staff report for last week's meeting, for "the design of buildings to provide spatial definition to public spaces."

Yet the RAND building sits behind a yard and some trees that have nothing to do with either the natural flora or the local culture -- i.e., it sits like any building any business park near any freeway ramp in anywhere.

Let's hope that when the City builds the big traffic circle and fountain at the nearby Main Street bend, RAND and the City's urban team can take another look at the RAND building's connection to the street.

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So how did a plan go from a 7 to 0 unanimous City Council vote in favor in 1993 to barely having updates passed last week 4 to 3? I watched the meeting, but it's hard to understand.

Even Ellen Brennan, usually one of Santa Monica's development skeptics, urged approval, saying that the plan was "a good marriage of competing interests."

Three council members voted not to certify the Environmental Impact Report (EIR), but none of them had anything particularly damning to say about the environmental review. Bobby Shriver had some questions about how the City counts traffic, but the City's expert traffic counter seemed to answer them. Certainly the EIR of one project isn't the place to rethink how we count cars.

Most of the updates to the plan itself were not controversial. Ken Genser, who made the motion to adopt the changes, accepted as friendly an amendment from Robert Holbrook to limit the height of the "Village" housing to 56 feet. After that, the only points that didn't get added to the motion were Council Member Holbrook's bid to cut housing by another 100 units (only Holbrook and Shriver supported that) and Herb Katz's proposal not to allow cars on Olympic Drive between Main Street and Ocean Avenue (only Katz, Holbrook and Shriver voted for that).

Apparently, based on not getting their way on these two points, the three Chamber of Commerce-endorsed council members felt justified in voting against the entire update. I would like to think they wanted to go back to the 1993 plan, but I don't think so.

I've probably spent more column inches criticizing the anti-growth politics of "lefties" on the Council, particularly Ken Genser, Kevin McKeown and Richard Bloom, than anything else I have criticized, but it is a thousand times more aggravating to deal with "rightist" no-growth than anything the lefties come up with.

What's the point of having a Chamber of Commerce if it is against commerce?

At least growth-skeptics like Genser, McKeown and Bloom pay attention to what's going on in the world. They go to conferences and read books and have an idea about what works and what doesn't. They didn't use Prof. McClung's terminology, but along with Mayor Pam O'Connor, the three grasped how the ROMA plan balances Arcadian and Utopian notions -- gaining open space while restoring the city.

Katz, Holbrook and Shriver were in a time warp, still talking the failed urban planning doctrines of the 50s and 60s that created the urban problems we have -- including the traffic!

Herb Katz is especially mystifying, because he's an architect. You would think he would know better, but he wants to build parking structures underneath all the parks and plazas. This is a fifty-year-old bad idea; if you want to see what underground parking does to public space, go to downtown L.A. and take a look at Pershing Square or the plaza between the County Hall of Administration and the Courthouse.

As for cutting the housing by 100 units, for reasons discussed above, this is a bad idea from a planning perspective. It would also violate at least the spirit of the redevelopment law under which the City spent the $53 million to buy the RAND land.

Also, it's worth remembering that we don't need more housing in Santa Monica to satisfy some do-good social impulse. We need more housing because over 20 years we added 21,000 jobs, without an increase in our population. We need to work on our jobs/housing balance for our own sake.

* * *

Readers who are interested in more detail can link to the City's staff report. At the end of the report there are a series of links, including to a PDF file with a map of the current plan.

For readers interested in more of the history of the Civic Center plan, and who have a lot of time on their hands, here are links to old "What I Say" columns on the subject:

"Once More with Feeling," April 6, 2001
"Join the Civic Center Process," June 29, 2001
"Happy Birthdy Santa Monica," July 12, 2001
"What Becomes a City Most," October 18, 2001
"Civic Minded," January 18, 2002
"What if We Measured Our Plans in Cubits," February 8, 2002
"A Freeway Runs Through It," May 10, 2002
"Matters of Height," December 13, 2004

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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