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(They) Have Guestroom; (We) Will Travel

By Frank Gruber

I'm writing this from my parents' place in Italy, where I am spending a little dolce far niente time. As readers of this column know, I rarely travel if I can't sponge accommodations off relatives, usually my parents, but this year I threw in a bonus round; I have a cousin who works in Prague for the European reconstruction and development bank, and before Italy, that is where the Santa Monica Grubers went.

It wasn't my first visit to Prague, but it had been a long time. Thirty-five years, in fact, since I visited on the sixties' student version of the Grand Tour. It was exotic then to travel "behind the Iron Curtain," but -- you guessed it -- I had people there to stay with.

Prague under Communism was a dreary place, but now the city sparkles, and it's become a, if not "the," destination for the great international migration of tourists. Imagine the Third Street Promenade multiplied twenty or thirty times.

Prague's Old Town Square (Photo's by Frank Gruber)

Czechs can be proud of, and amused and annoyed by, all the attention, but as that perceptive student of urbanism, Santa Monica City Council Member Richard Bloom, once noted, a city that's a good place to live is going to be a good place to visit, too.

Czechs call Prague the "mother of towns" and if you keep within the urban core -- the medieval center and no farther out than the pre-War districts -- you understand why. It's charm and livability all over.

Unfortunately, if you venture out to the suburban Communist era apartment blocks, you will begin to think that American-style sprawl isn't so bad.

It's usually a mistake to analogize from one urban form to another to draw any "lessons" that are universally applicable beyond the most basic -- that most people like to be around other people, for instance. Prague may have been the mother of towns, but it wasn't the mother of Los Angeles or Santa Monica.

Still, it can pay to look closely at particular elements of a successful place and see if there is some knowledge that can be "ported" somewhere else. Given that Santa Monica is updating its general plan, I was especially on the lookout in Prague for ideas, and I'll try to put my short stay there to use.

In the meantime, I missed last Tuesday's workshop on the general plan update's Opportunities and Challenges Report. But before I left for vacation, I did review the tome. It's quite a good empirical study of the current reality of Santa Monica and has a lot of smart things to say about the challenges we face in balancing conflicting needs and desires of the city's various communities.

One opportunity and challenge wrapped up together is the chance and the need to create more housing to balance the growth in jobs that Santa Monica experienced in the past 20 years. By necessity, most of this new housing, if it gets built, will be built in areas that are currently zoned for commercial or industrial purposes. Some of these areas are large, and will provide the opportunity for some serious planning -- of new streets, for example, and new configurations of land use.

Some particularly beautiful residential neighborhoods grace Prague. These neighborhoods, built around the turn of the 20th century and up until World War II, have streets that are wide enough for cars, but not too wide, and apartment blocks that typically reach six or seven stories. In the downtown area, these buildings typically have shops and restaurants on the ground floor, but in more outlying neighborhoods they may have commercial enterprises only at street corners.

What is hard to explain, or even show with pictures, is that these tall fronts, going straight up, do not create any sense of claustrophobia, or "canyonization." Perhaps it's the good design (everything from fin de siecle whimsy to modernist simplicity), but these are great streets to walk.

The details help, too, beyond the architecture of the buildings. The Czechs are not as wealthy as us Americans, but in Prague most sidewalks sport simple mosaics made from stones -- much nicer not only when compared to the concrete slabs of America, but also when compared to the sidewalks in downtown Santa Monica or on Pico that the City built after much artistic process.

Prague's neighborhoods, by the way, are much less dense than they look. Behind the buildings are courtyards. Here is the view out the back from my cousin's fifth floor apartment:

There is a lot of open space back there, some of which is green and some of which goes to park cars. The space is not public, but it is intensively used, which is more than one can say for the front setbacks that characterize American residential neighborhoods.

What these Prague streets tell me is that Santa Monica needs to get the downtown redesign process back on track, because the basic proposal that arose then was for a Prague-like trade-off: a little more height, in return for less lot coverage (i.e., courtyards) and better design.

What Prague is beginning to confront is an explosion of automobile ownership, a product of increasing affluence since the fall of Communism. Fortunately, Prague has an excellent transportation system that includes three subway lines and myriad tram ("light rail" in transportation jargon) lines.

One issue the Opportunities and Challenges Report identified is that Santa Monica will have to decide what to do with the Expo light rail line if it comes to Santa Monica, as everyone in the city seems to hope.

A few weeks ago L.A. City Council Member Bill Rosendahl appeared before our city council and had the effrontery to say that he wanted to "vet" an Expo route that bypassed Santa Monica and reached the beach in Venice. Mr. Rosendahl said he was concerned that a route passing through Santa Monica's light manufacturing area (the path of the Exposition right of way) would not serve enough people.

It turns out, according to the Opportunities and Challenges Report, that Mr. Rosendahl has a point. Current plans for the Expo line in Santa Monica envision two stations: one downtown and one at Bergamot Station. The downtown stop is right in the midst of things and near to a slew of bus lines -- the obvious best choice for a terminus of the line -- but Bergamot manages to be in simultaneously the middle of Santa Monica and the middle of nowhere.

As the Opportunities and Challenges Report put it (page 1-22), Bergamot "is challenged with surrounding uses that favor the automobile, such as industrial and office parks. Generally, the office and residential uses within walking distance of the light rail are separated by wide roadways, and in the case of the Pico Neighborhood, the freeway."

The report goes on to say that it will be essential to create a pedestrian oriented environment near the station and to increase transit use.

Which encourages me to say that perhaps we can learn something from Prague -- if we can't bring the tram to a pedestrian oriented environment, let's bring a pedestrian oriented environment to the tram.

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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