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If You Lived There, You'd be Home by Now

By Frank Gruber

Friday morning in the course of having my eyes checked at the optometrist's office in the shopping center at Lincoln and Ocean Park Boulevard I may I have found the first new customer for the bus lane that will soon open on Lincoln Boulevard.

As I waited to see how much worse growing old has made my eyesight, conversation in the office turned to -- what else -- traffic horror stories. One technician said that one time recently it had taken him an hour and a half to commute home down Lincoln to Marina del Rey.

I informed him that Tuesday evening the Santa Monica City Council had taken action to give him an alternative, by voting to establish bus only lanes on Lincoln, and that by riding the new Rapid Bus, he would soon be able to get to and from work faster than by car. He said he only lived two blocks from Lincoln, and that he would definitely check it out.

The optometrist herself has a bigger problem. She and her husband and children live in San Marino, and she figures she's losing two hours a day to the commute. Her husband also works on the Westside and they would like to live here, but she said the homes in Santa Monica that are big enough for her family are too expensive.

I said I understood housing prices were expensive in San Marino, too, but she says they haven't gone up as much there. She said she'd like to live in Santa Monica, because the schools, like those in San Marino, are good. Frankly, I'd like her to live in Santa Monica, too, because in the late afternoon or evening when I want to drive to downtown L.A. or Hollywood to hear a concert or a talk, or see a play, it annoys me that commuters like her are jamming up the freeway.

The situation reminded me of how L.A. City Councilmember Bill Rosendahl described the Westside's problems when he spoke to the Santa Monica City Council in July: we are "jobs rich, and housing poor."

* * *

One place developers have been building housing, although not many condominiums that would suit my optometrist and her family, is downtown Santa Monica, and at the meeting last Tuesday the Council also spent time tinkering with downtown design standards.

I have written so often about these standards and how they came to be proposed -- because the Council had second thoughts about requiring discretionary review for downtown apartments -- that it's painful to write more. It's probably painful to read more about the downtown standards, too, but once you start covering a story you want to see it through to the end, and I'll presume my readers share my grim determination.

In this case, however, there may never be an end, as the Council has deferred action on the most significant of the original proposals until completion of the update to the land use and circulation elements. Since the LUCE process will take another two years, and since there will be a zoning ordinance update after that, I figure I'll be writing about downtown design standards for a good five years more.

By the way, if you want to get a feel for what's going on downtown, go to dinner some evening at Fritto Misto, the restaurant at the corner of Sixth and Colorado. Be prepared to join the crowd outside on the sidewalk waiting for tables, since it's usually crowded inside even though it's not the kind of restaurant with a regional draw.

There's usually a friendly scene there, out on the sidewalk, and in my experience you'll be hanging out with people who would be your neighbors if you lived in one of those new apartments on Fifth, Sixth and Seventh that have caused such consternation among Santa Monicans Fearful of Change.

But back to last week's City Council meeting and the Council's perpetual quest to perfect the unperfectable. No end in sight, but talk about a whimper instead of a bang. After two years of effort, many meetings, and hundreds of thousands of dollars expended, the Council adopted a few "harmless" (according to Councilmember Herb Katz) tweaks.

The original mix of proposals staff and the City's consultants made included wider sidewalks and slightly taller (but not bigger) buildings that would have allowed for better design and reduced lot coverage -- what the Council had said it wanted -- and reduced parking requirements that would have better reflected parking needs downtown. These issues are now deferred to the LUCE process, which means that by the time the Council may consider them again, many of these ideas will be moot because by then there will be few remaining buildable lots.

In the meantime, let's be happy for small favors. The tweaks were minor, but mostly benign, and for them I thank the Architectural Review Board, which has suddenly taken the lead in the city's good ideas department. While in the past the board has limited itself to a reactive, and sometimes reactionary, role, lately it has taken the lead in making constructive and proactive comments on pending policy matters, such as the downtown standards and the LUCE update's Opportunities and Challenges Report.

As someone who has often criticized the ARB for requiring too much landscaping in front of shop windows, let me commend ARB Chair Joan Charles for insisting at Tuesday's meeting that the Council reduce the landscaping requirement for ground floor retail.

The ARB also deserves credit for putting back onto the agenda the idea of eliminating parking requirements for small retail establishments. The point is to encourage local uses of local retail; as UCLA Professor Donald Shoup recently explained to the Planning Commission, requiring stores to provide parking gives regional retailers who need the parking an advantage over local establishments that don't.

What else? The Council voted to require first floors downtown to have high ceilings to improve the quality of retail, but since the Council didn't allow an increase in allowable building heights, it's unclear whether this will operate as a de facto down-zoning by eliminating a floor of housing. It's nice to want neighborhood-serving retail, but without enough neighbors to serve, you won't get it.

Unfortunately the ARB pushed for and the Council accepted a well-meaning but misguided rule to require architectural differentiation between the first floor retail of buildings and the upper floors of apartments or offices. This was well-meant because many good buildings have this differentiation, but misguided because the ARB already has the discretion to require this kind of differentiation from architects if the situation warrants it.

Now differentiation is mandatory, but then we live in a city where for some reason people believe you get better design by limiting design choices. We're getting to the point where whatever isn't prohibited is required.

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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