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Why I love local politics and why I don't

By Frank Gruber

A few weeks ago when the issue before the City Council was the update to the Civic Center plan, I extolled the wisdom of council members Ken Genser and Richard Bloom and rent my metaphorical garments over the retrogressive thinking of their colleagues Bob Holbrook and Herb Katz.

Yet at last week's city council meeting, when the issue was access to Santa Monica College's Bundy campus, my heroes were Holbrook and Katz and the forces of darkness were Genser and Bloom.

I love local politics; you have to think about issues before deciding with whom to agree.

There was a lot of politics, although I'm not sure how much there was to love, at last week's City Council meeting, what with contentious hearings over the College and the de-landmarking of 125 Pacific, and the three-three tie over affordable housing fees.

Oddly though, the most provocative moments came during what would ordinarily be the council's merely ceremonial welcome to newly elected Los Angeles City Council Member Bill Rosendahl, and his subsequent remarks.

Council Member Rosendahl knows Santa Monica's politics and politicians well, as for many years he ran our local cable company's public service coverage. His election presents a great opportunity for coordinated planning, as his district, the 11th, "embraces" Santa Monica on three sides.

Santa Monica and the 11th have many of the same problems, which arise, in Council Member Rosendahl's accurate and succinct words, from the fact that both the city and the district are "jobs rich, but infrastructure and housing poor."

Let's hope there will be cooperation in building both more housing and more infrastructure.

But speaking of infrastructure, Mr. Rosendahl indicated there might be competition as well as cooperation.

He shook everyone up when he said that he would "vet" three routes for the Exposition light rail line west of Culver City including one route -- down Venice Boulevard -- that wouldn't terminate in Santa Monica. He wondered whether the line would serve enough people if it ran through Santa Monica's light industrial area instead of, say, to Venice. He floated a whole new idea of running a connecting line on Lincoln Boulevard from Santa Monica to a new Green Line terminus at LAX.

Yikes. Years ago Santa Monica, thinking ahead, instigated the purchase of the Exposition right of way to hold for future light rail use. Ever since then Santa Monicans have assumed the Expo line would come here.

Mayor Pam O'Connor, who is also a member of the MTA Board, pointed out to Council Member Rosendahl that Santa Monica was a "regional center" and that there are a lot of jobs to commute to here, but beneath Council Member Rosendahl's affability lurked a challenge.

The question is, was the council member's challenge one to Santa Monica's regional role, or one to its lack of regional consciousness?

* * *

But speaking of another kind of infrastructure that Santa Monicans (and Malibuans) provide for the region, let's get back to the College and its new campus.

In that regard, Mr. Rosendahl said something that made sense to me. When it comes to access to the Bundy campus, he said the City of Santa Monica needs not only to permit access to Airport Avenue, but also to allow campus traffic to turn either east to Bundy or west to 23rd Street and Walgrove Avenue.

The College is, of course, battling the City for access from the airport, but what Mr. Rosendahl was referring to is an inexplicable concession the College has proposed, namely to allow drivers exiting the campus onto Airport Avenue only to make a right, eastward, turn toward Bundy. Apparently the idea is that this will reduce traffic on 23rd Street in Sunset Park.

But this is silly. Speaking as someone who, like most Santa Monicans, lives west of the airport, if I take a lifelong learning course at the Bundy campus, and I'm driving home, and if I have to take a right on Airport, I am not going to continue on and take a left on Bundy and a left on Ocean Park Boulevard and go all the way around the airport to get home (adding to traffic all the way).

No. I'm going to pull into one of several parking lots, turn around, and return home by way of 23rd Street.

You know something else? If there is no airport access to the campus, and I have to leave by way of Bundy (where, Mr. Rosendahl, the City of L.A. should put a stoplight), I'll still take a left on Airport and return home by way of 23rd.

And so will everyone else.

But of course the issue is not Airport Avenue or even, truly, the Bundy campus, the traffic from which will represent only a trivial increase over the traffic associated with the former industrial use of the property.

Council member Ken Genser's tough cross-examining of College supporters, as described in The Lookout's coverage, at least provided illumination, albeit unintentional, for why College opponents are making such a big deal about access from the airport.

Mr. Genser's questions had two primary rhetorical thrusts; he repeatedly asked supporters of the College, regardless who they were, their opinions about whether the College had the legal right to access to Airport Avenue across City owned land, and he repeatedly expressed his surprise that anyone would accuse the City of trying to use the access issue as leverage to limit the College's operations.

As for the first point, the issue before the council was not whether the College has a right to access. That's a question for the lawyers if litigation should ensue. The issue for the council was whether Santa Monica residents -- that's right, residents! -- who overwhelmingly voted in favor of the College's bonds expected that their money would go to build facilities they couldn't get to from Santa Monica.

Of course, Mr. Genser, who says he's merely representing residents, opposed the bond issues.

But the second issue was the big one: whether the City seeks to use the access issue to try to limit what the College does overall, a point made by, among others, Carole Currey, Chair of the College's Board of Trustees. Mr. Genser protested -- probably "too much" -- that he couldn't see any "link" between the City's refusal to allow access from Airport Avenue and the College's overall operations.

The City's staff report, however, specifically said that the City should not give on airport access until there was agreement on "traffic and parking alternatives system-wide" that took into account the College's "hub and satellite campus locations" and its "regional student population."

Mr. Genser may have been trying to hide that ball, but the few residents who spoke against the College were not so coy. Zina Josephs, chair of Friends of Sunset Park, expressed what was on her mind by repeating a question she said she had asked years ago: "Is the College willing to cap enrollment?"

Let's get serious. Is a state college going to bargain over the scope of its mission because of a driveway? Frankly, it's embarrassing for the City even to imagine the College would.

And that's what I don't love about local politics.

* * *

The Planning Commission, continuing its excellent series of speakers on issues relating to the update of the land use and circulation elements of the general plan, is hosting two giants of the planning scene at the commission's hearing this coming Wednesday, Aug. 3.

The two speakers are:

UCLA professor Donald Shoup, an expert on parking, and author of the recently published The High Cost of Free Parking.

Ventura City Council Member Bill Fulton, who is author of two of the most important books about planning in California, The Reluctant Metropolis: the Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles, and Guide to California Planning.

USC professor (and Santa Monica's own) Jennifer Wolch is also on the agenda as a speaker, but her talk has been postponed.

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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