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What I Say About Frank Gruber

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Not Only in Santa Monica

By Frank J. Gruber

I hope the Palisades Beach Road Property Owners' Association (PBRPOA) does appeal the Planning Commission's approval to the City Council. (see story) That might give the Council a chance to reconsider the ill-advised down-scoping of the project that it authorized after control-freak neighbors asked for changes to a project design and concept that had resulted from a long and open public process.

The after-the-workshop talks between staff and the neighbors took supporters by surprise. It wasn't until after the council had accepted the compromises at its February 28 meeting that they realized what had happened and began to marshal not only their counter arguments but also their counter forces -- the "Friends of 415."

But it was too late at the Planning Commission to ask for another look at the conditions the City Council had agreed to. If the PBRPOA appeals, the council should take the concessions off the table.

I also hope the PBRPOA's threats of litigation do not intimidate the council. Rattling their sabers, the PBRPOA's lawyers and environmental consultant sent the commission a combined 44 pages of correspondence detailing their grounds for attacking the City's environmental impact report.

Although both letters were heavy on the procedural piffle, they identified two potentially significant issues. One had to do with whether the locker building on the site was historic, and the other questioned whether the City was applying a more lenient standard of review to itself than it had applied in 1990 to the Michael McCarty beach hotel project.

In two underplayed "gotcha" moments City staff blunted both attacks by explaining that the PBRPOA's representatives had their facts wrong. (As of the posting of this column, William Delvec, of Latham & Watkins, PBRPOA's law firm, has not replied to an email inquiring whether the association accepted the City's explanations.)

To get an idea about the level of the homeowners' hysteria, do a little math. Mr. Delvec's letter was 31 pages; with top lawyer time going for $500 or more an hour, the document must have cost at the very minimum $1,000 a page. Add in the meetings, consultant, appearances, phone calls . . . .

I hope our City Council remembers that a few years ago attorneys from Latham & Watkins appeared before it to argue that the living wage ordinance required environmental review -- because it might lead to the abandonment of the beach hotels.

To borrow a turn of phrase from the late Richard Pryor, law firms like Latham & Watkins are God's way of telling you that you're making too much money. Mr. Pryor, of course, was referring to cocaine.

* * *

Would that I could say that obsessed neighbors lived only in Santa Monica. But no, from just south of our border, in Venice, I can report a similar story of self-laceration of noses.

Back in October, I wrote about efforts by the M.T.A. and a developer to effect a land swap that would enable the M.T.A. to vacate its overtaxed and out of place bus yard on Main Street and the developer to build a mixed-use residential/retail project in its place.(see column)

After the swap, the M.T.A. would build a new, bigger, and better bus yard on land the developer owns in an industrial zone off Jefferson Boulevard. The Westside is in dire need of more housing, and locating housing and shops on a desolate (but well-served by transit) stretch of Main Street would help connect the vibrant neighborhoods of Ocean Park and North Venice Beach.

So much for good ideas. It now appears that no-growth Venice residents, with support from City Council Member Bill Rosendahl, have succeeded in killing the project. After hearing from Mr. Rosendahl, recently the L.A. City Planning Commission downscaled the project, from 201 units (34 affordable) to 156, and the developer says it is no longer economically feasible.

Although the M.T.A. may get the L.A. City Council to reverse the Planning Commission's action, the council would have to vote against Mr. Rosendahl; he and the neighbors whose water he is carrying oppose even the Planning Commission's compromise. They want 130 units. Prospects are bleak.

There is a connection between the bus yard project and 415 PCH. In both cases neighbors are fighting projects that by any objective standard will be far better for their communities than what currently exists on the two sites. On PCH it's the derelict Davies estate; in Venice, it's a noisy and noisome bus yard that could become even more so if the M.T.A. can't move.

In fact, for decades Venice residents have asked the M.T.A. and its predecessors to vacate the bus yard, which abuts a tightly developed residential district between it and the beach. Many of Mr. Rosendahl's constituents are as vocal in favor of the deal as those opposed to it.

Just as there is no real downside for Palisades Beach Road property owners to building a beautiful beach club at 415, the benefits of replacing the bus yard with residences and shops far outweigh whatever negatives -- possibly a bit more traffic -- that the project might have. And certainly there would be no perceivable difference in traffic impact between 201 units and 130.

The "politics," of course, appear to be different, but only because we are locked into a false left/right paradigm. In Venice, the NIMBY neighbors flaunt their putative left-wing credentials; they represent the "people" against the "man." At least in the controversy over 415 PCH, the neighbors haven't tried to hide the fact that they are among the haves in our society and do not hide their obsession with their property rights.

But regardless of the rhetoric, the result is the same, as is the motivation. It's not a left or right thing. People have the opportunity to say no, so they say no. It's easier than saying yes, especially when you already have your place near the beach and you don't want to share.

What's galling about the rhetoric in Venice is that the "man" is the M.T.A., which, last time I looked, was trying to provide transportation to the poor and transportation options to the middle class. The neighbors seem to feel that they can extort more money from the M.T.A. (to replace money from the developer) to pay for leaving the bus yard; money that the M.T.A. might better spend building bus shelters.

What's sad about the Venice bus yard project is that in the early rounds, the neighbors made a lot of good comments and caused a redesign of the development that vastly improved it, mostly by adding a walk street that broke up the "super block." The developer reduced the number of units by six percent. The Venetians could have declared victory.

It's easier to say no.

Sometimes, however, people say yes.

Council Member Rosendahl has been going around complaining that Santa Monica has caused his district to choke in traffic. It is true that Santa Monica, like the rest of the Westside, has allowed itself to become, as Mr. Rosendahl described the Westside plight in an insightful moment, "jobs rich and housing poor."

But the historical reality is that Santa Monica has always been a jobs center. Back in 1952, when Santa Monica's population was about 72,000 and West. L.A. was bean fields, one Santa Monica factory -- Douglas Aircraft -- had 18,000 workers.

It's kind of a joke for Mr. Rosendahl to accuse Santa Monica of over developing the jobs sector when you consider the skyscrapers in Century City, Westwood and on the Wilshire Corridor.

As for saying yes, Santa Monica has approved three mixed-use developments on the Ocean Park side of Main Street, all of which are under construction. Although some residents objected that these three and four story developments -- more dense than the Venice project -- would be out of scale, most residents who expressed themselves were in favor. When built these projects will fit right in, they will not cause gridlock and their residents will become valued members of our community.

Why is it so hard to say yes?

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