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Make 'em Walk

By Frank Gruber

The City Council has a full agenda tomorrow night, starting with a closed session that includes annual evaluations by the council of the three staff members the Council appoints: the city manager, the city attorney and the city clerk.

I'd love to be a fly on the wall to listen in on the evaluations of City Manager Susan McCarthy and City Attorney Marsha Moutrie, particularly after the meeting two weeks ago when Council Members Ken Genser and Kevin McKeown thought City staff had injected politics into a staff report on a landmarks question.

There's also no question the City is under stress arising from litigation over the legal fees due the City's former outside counsel in the MTBE litigation and over liability for the deaths and injuries from the Farmers Market tragedy.

It's easy to dump on staff, who don't get much credit when the city works but are game, fair or not, when it doesn't. We hire staff in the hope they know something, but city council members, and the public, are quick to jump on them when they exercise independent judgment.

Then there are people like me who get outraged when staff makes recommendations that appear to have no explanation other than a hope to please the council or squeaky wheels in the public, and I'm outraged by two such recommendations staff has made for the meeting tomorrow night.

The first outrage has to do with the issue of permitting access to Santa Monica College's new Bundy campus via Airport Avenue, an issue I touched on last week. The situation is that the College is gearing up for its first fall semester at the new campus. It's renovated an old office building into classrooms, and will be operating programs in nursing and early childhood education, as well as continuing education programs. The college has also fixed up a parking lot on the site. ("City Adds Last-Minute Terms to New Airport Campus," July 25, 2005)

The historic entrance to the new campus -- one that was always open when BAE ran the site as a factory and research center -- is by way of Airport Avenue, the east-west street through the airport that connects Bundy and 23rd Street.

The College has also connected the new campus to an entrance on Bundy, just south of Airport Avenue, but for now there is no traffic light there, and it's dangerous to make left, northbound turns onto Bundy to exit. Accessing the campus from Bundy is also not convenient for any Santa Monicans other than those who live in the far eastern parts of the city.

To get "leverage" against the College, and earn points with vocal Sunset Park residents who have opposed the College's expansion, the City has blocked access to the new campus from the airport. This summer when the College opened the campus for a few classes, the City allowed students to park at the airport, but required them to walk from the airport to the campus. This might have been good for the cardio-vascular systems of students and faculty, but otherwise it was silly and punitive.

The pedestrians-only gate from the airport to SMC's new Bundy campus. (Photos by FRank Gruber)

This fall the number of students will be greater than in the summer, and it's anticipated that the parking needs for both them and the users of the College's shuttle to the main campus will exceed the number of spaces available at the airport. The obvious solution is to open the automobile connection to the parking lots on the new site.

Instead, staff has proposed continuing the punitive pedestrian only access from the airport (i.e., let's make those future nurses and preschool teachers walk), and staff wants the College to find a new location for the shuttle parking.

But the shuttle exists to reduce traffic and parking problems in Santa Monica -- specifically in Sunset Park. Given the airport's location on the edge of the city, could there be a better location for shuttle parking? Any place else, and shuttle users will have to drive into Santa Monica. Does that make sense?

For that matter, looking ahead to when there will be vehicle access from the airport, would it make sense to block people from using the 23rd Street connection to Airport Avenue? That would only mean that most Santa Monicans will have to drive farther, around the airport, adding cars to congested streets, to get to the new campus.

The staff proposal is a classic case of cutting a nose off to spite a face; in fact, it's a classic case of spite, given that people will still be driving on Airport Avenue (from both ends) to get to and from the campus. They will just have to walk the last 100 yards or so, and the College will have to scramble to find new parking for the shuttle.

The proposal is also blackmail. Staff is quite explicit that the whole point of cutting access from Airport Avenue is to pressure the College during three-way negotiations among the City, the College and the City of L.A. over traffic issues. According to the staff report, completion of these negotiations -- which could take a long time -- is a "necessary precursor to consideration of vehicle access" to the campus.

The council should disregard staff's punitive recommendations and all the anti-College rhetoric. Instead, the council should remind itself how popular the College is in the community as a whole, as evidenced by how the College regularly passes its bond measures, allow full access to the new campus, and then enter into the negotiations with the College and the City of L.A. over traffic and other issues after losing the vindictive posturing.

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The second spark for my outrage is a recommendation staff has made respecting an otherwise obscure item on tomorrow night's agenda: a discussion item about added density bonuses to encourage housing development required by a new state law. Staff is asking for direction from the council on how to bring the City's zoning law into sync with the new state requirements.

I won't go into the details of the new state law, but it requires cities to give developers more leeway to build more units based on how much affordable housing they include in their developments. Although including affordable housing on site is one of the professed goals of the self-denominated "housers" on the City Council, some of these council members turn out -- oddly but not coincidentally -- to be the same council members most identified historically with reduced development standards.

Where staff goes outrageously wrong is to suggest to the council that it might "minimize the impact" of the new state law by "reducing building height and density or increasing setbacks and open space requirement beyond current zoning standards."

In other words, rather than comply with a state law designed to help deal with California's critical housing shortage (which is especially acute on the jobs rich, but hard to build in Westside, where housing prices and rents have gone crazy), staff is suggesting that the City downzone even further, so that the required bonuses don't lead in fact to more building.

I'm all for independent thinking on staff's part, but not when their imaginations turn to evading the law.

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No one else is counting, but this is my 250th "What I Say" and I'd like to thank Lookout editor and publisher Jorge Casuso, the rest of the Lookout staff, and any and all readers for encouraging me to write these columns. More to come.

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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