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Just a Bit Kinky Without the Mess

By Frank Gruber

Tuesday evening the City Council takes up the "Opportunities and Challenges Report" that the City's consultants have prepared in connection with the current updates to the land use and circulation elements of Santa Monica's general plan.

I don't have much to add to what I have said previously about the report, namely that it provides a good summary of the state of the city and what the issues are. That doesn't mean it makes every point it could. One challenge it misses is whether Santa Monica can get back to creating family-sized housing for middle-class and working class families.

Santa Monica's average population per household has dropped to well below two, and for years our schools have had to take in out of district students to receive enough state money to pay the bills. Empty nesters stay in their nests -- there are few alternatives for them if they want to sell their houses yet stay in Santa Monica -- and young families move out or never move in.

A number of condominiums are built each year, but few have three or more bedrooms. On the affordable side, Community Corp. struggles to build three and four bedroom apartments, but even with affordable housing incentives that to some extent ameliorate restrictive zoning, the lack of suitable sites and NIMBY neighbors make the task difficult.

I can suggest something that could help: change zoning to allow another floor for developments in multi-unit districts, but not to permit more units per lot, only more bedrooms per unit. What this would mean in most cases is to allow a third story.

I doubt that in the current political climate my proposal is possible. As reasonable as the views of Santa Monicans are about growth, as expressed in survey after survey, and vote after vote, and as well-thought out as the Opportunities and Challenges Report is, I'm already depressed when I contemplate what's going to happen in the LUCE process.

Because even though the City's polling showed that only a quarter of Santa Monicans are against growth, the default zeitgeist, expressed over and over by the same self-appointed neighborhood representatives, is that the "people" want things to stay just the way they are.

An example: A new neighborhood group, the Ocean Park Association, has formed in my neighborhood. The O.P.A. recently sent out a newsletter than included a short piece on the LUCE process. The point of the piece was the LUCE update was important "to assure that changes would be made to protect and preserve our community."

No argument with that, but the three and four story residential developments on Main Street that the author of the piece implied were assaulting "the intimate scale and historic charm of Main Street" were developments that had received, through years of scrutiny, the support of most Ocean Park residents who participated in the review process.

The membership of the Ocean Park Community Organization once approved the apartments at the old Boulangerie site by a 45 to five vote and although controversial, Community Corporation's Main & Pacific affordable development, in meeting after meeting, found far more support in the community than opposition.

Most Ocean Parkers don't believe that new neighbors are a threat to the community. Ocean Park has plenty of three story apartment buildings, from all stages of its history. But you can be sure, that if a developer were to suggest building another one, so that families who can't afford single-family houses might live there, someone would surely accuse him of destroying the character of the neighborhood.

* * *

Speaking of the character of Ocean Park, readers may remember back to last March when a store called "Secret Desires" selling lingerie and sex toys opened on Lincoln and some normally live-and-let-live Santa Monicans went nuts. ( see related story)

I attended the meeting at the Pentecostal Church at 10th and Cedar and left feeling relieved that in Santa Monica few people have pitchforks and tar readily available. Santa Monica officials (except for one levelheaded vice cop who said the City didn't have a history of trouble with stores like the new one) cautioned against members of the public taking matters into their own hands, but bent over backwards to assure the hysterical neighbors that their hysteria was justified and promised action.

A promise on which they have now delivered, in typical Santa Monica fashion: on Tuesday evening, the City Council will consider a new ordinance regulating "adult, or sexually-oriented, businesses," as well as consider new regulations for licensing massage businesses.

The City has an ordinance on adult businesses, adopted in 1981, but driven by "Secret Desires" and developments in First Amendment law, the City Attorney has recommended a wholesale replacement. Unless you blush easily, I recommend reading the staff report and the attached legal memo and ordinance; pay attention to the interlocking definitions.

The Secret Desires store on Lincoln Boulevard

I'm no constitutional scholar, but it appears the City Attorney's office has done a conscientious job. The basic idea is that you can't prevent people from selling XXX videos, sex toys and the like, but you can prevent these businesses from bunching in one place, or appearing too close to residences, on the theory that too high a concentration of scented lubricants might cause blight.

Avoiding a concentration of adult businesses is a good idea, but thinking of Lincoln Boulevard, you could say the same thing about car repair shops and fast food outlets. Too many of them in one place, and no one wants to take a neighborly stroll either.

Saturday I walked the three blocks from my house on Beverley Avenue to Secret Desires and had a look. My father is an anthropologist, and I felt like I was carrying on the family business.

What I liked about the store was its overall cheerfulness. I attributed this to the juxtaposition of lighting that would do a Rite-Aid proud and merchandise that with zero angst celebrated a pleasure-seeking culture as well as some obscure corners of the human mind.

A blurb on a roll of red "Fantasy Bondage Tape" seemed to sum up the whole store: "Just a bit kinky without the mess."

Secret Desires: Is it already Halloween?

Whether Santa Monica's proposed ordinance has much to do with Secret Desires is a good question. Under the law, an "adult retail use establishment" is a store with at least 30 percent of its stock in "adult oriented merchandise," a category that does not include clothing. Clothing is most of what Secret Desires sells -- including an alarmingly large selection of high-heeled shoes. Don't women know by now how bad high heels are for their feet?

Secret Desires also sells XXX videos and sex toys. I spoke to Alan Altman, the owner of the store, and he told me that as these products have become readily available to people on the internet, people seem to have less problem with stores that sell them in an open, friendly environment. My guess is that whatever the threshold is that is constitutionally enforceable, Mr. Altman will make sure that his store is not an "adult" business.

Mr. Altman told me that most of his customers are women and couples. I believe him, and not only because on Saturday morning when I was there the only customers were two women. (The two salespeople were also female.)

Sex is pervasive in our culture. Sex is used to sell everything from beer to fashion to movies, and it's been a long time since in places like Santa Monica many people worried about artists depicting "specified anatomical areas" (as defined in section 9.44.030(K) of the proposed ordinance).

If you look at the majority of products on sale at Secret Desires what you see behind them is a rather obvious desire of people -- particularly women -- to have sex. It's the same market for evening gowns and perfume. But maybe that's what so disturbs some people about the Secret Desires product line; they are used to seeing sex used to sell something else, but at Secret Desires sex is selling sex itself.

We have a culture where sex is used to keep the men drinking beer and watching TV. Stores like Secret Desires -- like the related phenomenon of "passion parties" that are popular in the Bible Belt -- cater to women who want to get the men back in bed.

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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