The LookOut columns
What I Say About Frank Gruber

Email Frank

Graciousness and Theory

By Frank Gruber

Last week I started out by writing about what I loved about local politics and then, wouldn't you have it, City Manager Susan McCarthy decided to retire.

I don't want to get superstitious, but maybe it's not a good idea to accentuate the positive.

It has been odd having a city manager for whom "gracious" was the most apt adjective. The times I most appreciated Ms. McCarthy were when she, due to circumstances not within her control or anyone else's, not only had to rise to an occasion, but also to a level of eloquence not usually part of a city manager's job description.

It's weird, this city manager form of government. A city's most important official is not political, but a hired technocrat. Our politicians are better at conversation than rhetoric. Maybe that's a good thing, but who in this system speaks for us when something important needs to be said?

Ms. McCarthy's grace is of the steely variety. I'm thinking of when she kept City Hall open on Sept. 11 as her personal statement against terrorism and a speech she gave a year later on the first anniversary of the attack.

I'm thinking how last October she sat on a dais at Edison Elementary School, after a nearly tragic drive-by shooting, and took the flak for years of political neglect of the Pico Neighborhood.

I'm also thinking about how Ms. McCarthy was able to reach out and connect with our school district to make last year's historic funding agreement and how I'm sure, if the council would let her, she'd now make a mutually advantageous deal with Santa Monica College.

Okay, but how did Ms. McCarthy disappoint me? Santa Monica is a complicated little city that, overall, is well run, and Ms. McCarthy has justifiably received credit for steering the City through stressed economic times. There have been problems, but unless I'm going to mention and credit her with everything that works, it's not fair to blame Ms. McCarthy for every cog that from time to time doesn't mesh.

The city manager has to delegate, and from time to time subordinates are going to screw up. On the other side of the coin, I'm sure subordinates at times fault the boss' leadership. But unless you're inside, it's hard to know who is right.

There are, however, two areas where I believe Ms. McCarthy, and only Ms. McCarthy, could have done better for the city.

One was the budget. Not the recent budgets, but going back five years to the end of the boom times. The City Council went on a spending spree, hiring many new employees and increasing basic expenditures more than 20 percent -- more than $20 million -- in two years. At the same time, a booming stock market was artificially and temporarily lowering retirement costs.

Only one person -- the city manager -- could have told the council to be more prudent, that the revenue and times were extraordinary and could not be counted on.

Then there was the demoralization of the Planning Department that took place when the planning commission and planning staff were so at odds, starting around 2000. Only Ms. McCarthy could have stepped in and refereed that conflict, or given the planning director -- then Suzanne Frick -- enough backing to confront the commission herself (which she finally did in 2003, but after the damage was done).

Oops. I guess I'm not being gracious to blame the departing Ms. McCarthy for these problems when anyone can tell I really blame the council and the Planning Commission (of those days).

One thing is for sure: we will miss Ms. McCarthy for her calm graciousness, and the Council will have a hard time replacing her.

* * *

Speaking of graciousness, a couple weeks ago the City sponsored an open house allowing people to tour 415 Pacific Coast Highway site, the site of Marion Davies' old beach house that now, with money from the Annenberg Foundation, the City will turn into a public beach club (of a sort to be determined).

I forgot my camera, but Janné Jones, of the City's Civil Engineering and Architecture Division, graciously took this graceful photo with her cell phone camera.

Photo by Janné Jones

* * *

Whatever the Planning Commission was up to four years ago, it provided a great service last week when the commissioners hosted two experts on planning: UCLA professor Donald Shoup and Ventura City Council Member William Fulton. Prof. Shoup and Mr. Fulton gave presentations on challenges facing Santa Monica as it updates the land use and circulation elements of its general plan.

Mr. Fulton is the author of the most popular guide to California planning law, and he spoke about various difficult and important issues, including how good design is imperative in tight urban spaces, how neighborhood and district planning is central to all good planning, and how creating needed workforce housing is a challenge both economically and because of the effects of increased density, including the concentration of traffic.

Prof. Shoup is known for once iconoclastic but rapidly becoming mainstream views about applying market economics to the study of parking and traffic. His recent book, The High Cost of Free Parking, is as sexy as a book can get in the planning world. As the title implies, the professor is not one who believes you create value by giving parking away.

For anyone interested in these topics, you couldn't spend a better two hours than to watch the City's netcast of the meeting. (Click on the Aug. 3 meeting; go to item 11-A.)

I would not be giving the whole story if I didn't report on some discontent that was expressed at the meeting, notably by activist Ellen Brennan.

When it comes to her frequent public testimony on planning issues, I agree with Ms. Brennan, perhaps five percent of the time, but that doesn't mean I don't like listening to her. She is always well-prepared, eloquent and polite, traits not inconsistent with those words of hers that come wickedly barbed.

Although what Ms. Brennan said after Mr. Fulton and Prof. Shoup spoke at last week's meeting fell into the 95 percent disagreement category, she made an important point. Ms. Brennan admonished the commission not to take to heart mere theories, which is how she classified the research of Prof. Shoup and Mr. Fulton.

Ms. Brennan said that residents wanted wider streets, easy access in their cars, more parking, and low density development, and she was concerned that the ideas and research presented at the meeting -- which she characterized as theory -- were inconsistent with those goals.

I don't believe her fears are warranted, but Ms. Brennan has a point. Theories are tricky. But what people forget is that what they often consider the natural order is the product of what once were theories themselves. Theories that had, as Ms. Brennan warned the commissioners, unintended consequences.

For instance, it was theory that dispersing population down cul-de-sacs and building wide boulevards and arterial highways and freeways and providing lots of parking -- all the while hiding the costs in the costs of other things -- would provide a nirvana of mobility.

But it didn't work that way. The more we sprawled the more traffic we got. The more parking spaces we built, the more we wanted, so that today there are seven parking spaces per car in Southern California, but still no place to park.

Ultimately, facts catch up to theories. Then new theories replace old theories. The new theories may also have obsolescence built into them, too, but while one must use prudence in evaluating a new theory, it's plain foolish to follow one that's been proven wrong.

The Planning Division has released an important report in the land use and circulation element update process. It's called the Opportunities and Challenges Report, and it is full of information about the city as well as analysis of various possible futures. Copies are available at the Planning Desk at City Hall, at libraries and on the web.

The report will be the subject of an Open House Community Meeting on Tuesday, August 16, from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Ken Edwards Center, 1527 4th Street, as well as the Sept. 7 Planning Commission meeting.

The report is more than 400 pages, but most of the important data and analysis are summarized in the first two chapters, which I urge everyone to read.

For more information

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
Lookout Logo footer image
Copyright 1999-2008 All Rights Reserved.
Footer Email icon