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Make Room for Some Vets, Downtown Parking and a Lesson for Mr. Cha

By Frank J. Gruber

Occasionally there is a week when a columnist wants to write about every article he reads, and he wants to write about everything that's coming up the next week. I'll cover what I can, in no particular order:

When I read that Councilmember Bobby Shriver was trying to persuade Brentwood neighbors of the 400-acreWest Los Angeles Veterans Affairs facility that it would be okay to house more homeless vets there, I heard a loud thunk. (see story)

It was the other shoe dropping.

Last October I attended a Westside Urban Forum breakfast where local politicians and neighborhood leaders vowed to fight Bush Administration plans to allow commercial development on the grounds of the "Old Soldiers' Home." They solemnly agreed that land donated for the care of veterans must be used for that purpose.

It goes without saying that no one would want the additional traffic, either.

Good, I thought. I agree. This country is clearly not out of the generating veterans department, and until we are, this land -- which the founders of Santa Monica donated to the United States in the 19th century -- should remain dedicated to serving vets.

And I may as well add that the government's idea of building a regional FBI headquarters in Westwood is also crazy, since the area is not served by mass transit and there is no middle-class, let alone "affordable," housing for miles around. The proper location for the FBI offices is downtown L.A. -- near the federal courthouse, near transit, and in an area where developers are in the process of building 20,000 apartments and condos.

But back to the Old Soldiers' Home. In October I was rather surprised to hear the likes of Flora Gil Krisiloff, President of the Brentwood Community Council, declaim in favor of using the Westwood facility to serve homeless vets. Hmmm, I thought, that's odd. I know traffic congestion is bad, but a neighborhood activist in favor of nearby housing for the homeless?

As I said, the other shoe dropped, as now the Brentwood Homeowners Association is objecting to plans to house 500 otherwise homeless vets on the site. It's not like it's a density issue; we're talking barely more than one vet per acre.

* * *

The City's downtown parking plan will be before City Council Tuesday night once again. I have written many columns on this plan over the five years it's been gestating, and I won't repeat everything I've said before. (see column)

But to sum up, when the City Council first approved the plan in principle, the idea was not to build new parking structures (i) unless there was enough demand or other financial sources to pay for them (i.e., no subsidy for downtown businesses) and (ii) until more development in the narrow shared parking zone around the Promenade justified more spaces. (Development outside the zone has to provide its own parking.)

Demand was to be reevaluated every two years. The plan, however, that City staff recommended committed the City to spending big money to acquire the property for two new structures, and build one of them, before new development in the zone justified the additional spaces.

Staff's position has been that the Council also directed staff to make sure that as existing structures were taken out of service temporarily for rebuilding, there would be enough new spaces to make up the loss. Staff has said this could not be done without building at least one new structure.

The view of those opposed to encouraging more driving into downtown with more parking has been that the City could manage the transition by counting the increased spaces created by rebuilding the smaller public structures and by taking into account the new parking structures north of Wilshire and at the new library, as well as new private structures like the one at 100 Wilshire, which reduce the demand for spaces in the public structures.

At its Feb. 28 meeting, because of absent members the Council could not muster a majority, either to adopt staff's plan or change it. The delay has had the fortunate effect that staff, in an update to its staff report has at least proposed a compromise, by which the Council would commit now to building only one new 500 space structure. This is still one structure and millions of dollars too many.

Another fortunate effect has been that development skeptics in the city have seen the connection between parking and traffic. At the Feb. 28 meeting Councilmember Kevin McKeown argued that by building parking before it was needed, the Council would be committing to more development downtown prior to the City deciding, in the land use element update, how much more development should be permitted.

Although I cannot imagine how anyone can describe downtown Santa Monica, where the average building height is less than two stories, as over-developed, at least the no (or very slow) growthers are now including parking in what they don't like. That's a step forward. It's always amazed me how in this town people are more likely to oppose building a concert hall or a new school than a parking structure.

There is traffic congestion (sometimes) in downtown Santa Monica not because of the amount of development, but because of the attractiveness of the experience. We should always be trying to improve the quality of downtown -- but not in a way that encourages more people to drive to enjoy it.

* * *

I am afraid that young Santa Monica High School artist Jun Cha may be learning too much about art -- or at least the art world. (see story)

Mr. Cha designed a mural for the high school with an anti-gang message. He did this on his own, without a commission. Evidently his creation reflects his "on the ground" ideas and perceptions about hate not distilled by the concerns of grown-ups.

Lesson number one: artists can't make customers buy their work. It is up to the school administration to decide whether to dedicate a real wall to it. The walls are theirs, and their responsibility, and no high school student has a First Amendment right to paint murals on a school's walls.

But -- and here's another lesson for a budding artist -- no one at the school seems eager to take responsibility for the decision. People are uncomfortable making decisions about art. The principal, Dr. Ilene Straus, was "concerned about the picture's tone," but she said that a committee of staff and PTA members would make the decision.

Wait a minute -- what does the PTA (i.e., parents) have to do with it? Shouldn't this be a school decision? I am a parent of a child at Samo, and I dearly love my fellow parents, but I'm not paying taxes so that they decide what gets painted on the walls.

In fact, it looks like the decision will end up at the School Board -- another lesson. Art and politics together again. Michelangelo and the Pope, Jun Cha and the School Board.

At the School Board, Oscar de la Torre will be Mr. Cha's champion. But then, consider the message Mr. Cha is getting from Mr. De la Torre, who told The Lookout he didn't see why Mr. Cha couldn't go back to the drawing board and make the mural more "acceptable."

There's a lesson; acceptable to whom?

Apparently Mr. Cha is now considering changing the cast of characters in the mural to improve the gender and class balance and making the picture less "violent."

But Mr. Cha insisted he would not "change the way it looks." Hmmm. Good luck.

I say to Mr. Cha -- stick to your brushes. Do what you want to do with your painting, but if the powers-that-be reject it, just remember -- it's only high school.

Someday you'll be the grown-up.

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