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What I Say About Frank Gruber

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Values or Data?

By Frank J. Gruber

Everyone has had the experience when reading a classic book that no matter when the author wrote it or what it is about, quotes jump out that are perfectly relevant to the events of the day.

For instance, recall all those pundits a few years ago who were reading Thucydides on the Peloponnesian War and found all those quotes that showed that our adventure in Iraq would turn into a fiasco.

As for me, I am trying to catch up on my education about city planning and I have been reading one of the (more recent) classics on the subject -- a book written in 1973 by Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter called Collage City. The authors were architects and scholars of architecture (Koetter was Rowe's student) and the book is famous among architects and planners for being one of the first books to explain what went wrong with utopian modernist urban planning of the mid-20th century.

I won't recount their whole argument -- not that I could -- but Rowe and Koetter make the point that neither the top-down "scientific" rationalism that undergirded modernism nor its antithesis -- any attempt at a populist "collective" judgment about what should be built -- could by themselves provide sufficient basis for good urbanism.

The scientific approach, they said, was insufficient for two reasons: because planning and design involve value judgments that could never be resolved merely by an appeal to "facts," and because no one could ever accumulate enough facts, inasmuch as circumstances were always changing.

In the words of Rowe and Koetter, "If the notion of a 'final' solution through a definitive accumulation of all data is, evidently, an epistemological chimera, if certain aspects of information will invariably remain undiscriminated or undisclosed, and if the inventory of 'facts' can never be complete simply because of the rates of change and obsolescence, then, there and now, it surely might be possible to assert that the prospects of scientific city planning should, in reality, be regarded as equivalent to the prospects of scientific politics." (from the MIT Press paperback edition, p. 105; emphasis in original)

I read that quote on the inadequacy of the scientific, data-based approach last week on the same day that I read in The Lookout that the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City was lobbying to get the City of Santa Monica to spend potentially millions of dollars (possibly obtainable from a grant) in a program to gather more comprehensive traffic data than what the City currently obtains. (see story)

The Coalition's expectation is that with more data about traffic, the City will make better decisions about development -- "better" meaning, under the Coalition's values, decisions to allow less.

Actually, I shouldn't pronounce on the Coalition's values. The Coalition has a diverse leadership (or at least had one when three former mayors -- Paul Rosenstein, Jim Conn and Denny Zane -- were actively involved) and has always presented a more open-minded attitude toward development than other growth-skeptics in Santa Monica. The fixation on traffic data has long been, however, a pet project of one of the Coalition's "advisors," Laurel Roennau, and I have no idea how much of the Coalition's leadership agrees with her.

As noted in her thumbnail bio on the Coalition's website, the first of Ms. Roennau's "primary interests" is "traffic," and indeed I can testify that Ms. Roennau has been for a couple of decades Santa Monica's doyenne of the traffic count, obsessed with measuring quality of life by how quickly cars can get through intersections.

Ms. Roennau is a scientist -- apparently she holds a Lifetime Award from the Society of Women Engineers -- and it must suit her nature to seek solutions to urban problems by gathering more data. But more data only beg more questions.

So what if we collect data that show that traffic is bad in Santa Monica at hours not currently studied by the City? Does that tell us what caused the traffic? And why stop there; shouldn't we, to study alternatives, collect even more data. What if we do so and learn -- as is the case -- that traffic is bad not only in places that have Santa Monica's density but also in suburbs that are less dense? Then what do we do?

As Rowe and Koetter argue, anyone who tries to make things better -- including architects and planners -- make choices based on values. But values vary. As Rowe and Koetter point out with regard to the second part of their equation -- populism -- the impossibility of basing planning on what the "people" want is that the interests of the people are "manifold."

Some people -- Ms. Roennau comes to mind -- highly value how fast motorists can drive through an intersection. Other people value affordable housing so their children don't have to move to the Antelope Valley to raise a family. Others worry about the environmental impacts of sprawl. And so on.

Scientific planning is as reliable as scientific politics.

* * *

Speaking of politics, the Coalition is also in the news because it has involved itself in the City Council race by attacking Council Member Pam O'Connor for accepting donations from Macerich Company employees during the time the Council was considering Macerich's plans to redevelop Santa Monica Place. (see story)

While time will tell whether Ms. O'Connor will pay a political price for doing this -- since she knew that the Macerich campaign contributions would be on the public record one assumes she evaluated the possible consequences -- the Coalition's allegations fit a pattern.

The Coalition has not been content to challenge the merits of developments, but instead alleges that conspiracies and corruption underlie decisions to allow development in Santa Monica. A continuing theme is that planning staff manipulates the City Council into approving more development. The Coalition sued the City, for instance, to obtain documents that the Coalition said would show that City planning staff connived with Macerich behind closed doors to develop the Santa Monica Place plan as a "done deal."

For anyone who followed the history of the redevelopment plan, or knows anything about how the City Council and the Planning Department operate, these allegations strain credibility. The plan to redevelop Santa Monica Place was not cooked up behind closed doors, but instead was a City Council priority.

Back in 2001, for instance, when the City Council voted very publicly to include Santa Monica Place in the Civic Center redevelopment plan, to move the project along faster, then mayor Michael Feinstein was quoted in the L.A. Business Journal as saying that what he was hoping for was "the possibility they [Macerich] would take the entire thing down, put all the parking underground and redevelop it."

Feinstein's expressed his preference for a three-story development (two floors of retail and one of housing), but he proposed virtually the same development program and amount of development that Macerich later proposed. The parameters of the redevelopment that Macerich explored were within those the City Council established for purposes of environmental review.

All of the council members, including usual growth-skeptics Kevin McKeown, Richard Bloom and Ken Genser, as well as members of the public who weighed in on the project, were thrilled with the idea of extending the Promenade to connect with the Civic Center and adding housing to the site.

The 21-story towers that became so controversial were Macerich's idea. If you know how planning staff works in Santa Monica, they never give developers guidance as to what they should build. As former Planning Director Suzanne Frick used to say, "we don't design projects."

I saw this failure to offer advice throughout my tenure on the Planning Commission. In my opinion, this is a mistaken policy -- why have a 110-person planning department if they're not going to do any planning? In any case, the policy was especially inappropriate when at issue was a city Redevelopment Agency site like Santa Monica Place.

The Santa Monica Place redevelopment needed not only design input from staff members attuned to the local gestalt but also realistic analysis, from the start, of what the public finance implications would be. As I pointed out at the time, regardless how tall the buildings would be, the plan faced daunting financial obstacles relating to replacing the publicly-owned parking structures with underground parking. (see column)

If there was improper conduct at the staff or City Council level, as the Coalition's rhetoric claimed, it's time for the Coalition to show some evidence. Since April the Coalition has been sitting on a pile of documents it obtained in its celebrated public records lawsuit against the City. (see story)

Inquiring minds would like to know -- any smoking guns?

Another thing I'd like to know is who are the Coalition's members and how many of them there are. The Coalition apparently has sent out thousands of mailers seeking new members (I have received two myself.) Since the Coalition purports to speak for the community, I'd like to know how many community members answered their call for support.

So far, however, the Coalition has not applied to itself the same standard of candor that it either demands from everyone else or which is required by law of candidates like Ms. O'Connor. Coalition representative Diana Gordon declined to tell The Lookout how many members it had or how it was funded.

Before I decide whether to vote for Pam O'Connor, I will know who is donating to her campaign. Before I decide to give the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City credibility, I'd like to know who they are.

* * *

Two years ago, Santa Monica embarked on what was to be a stately, two-year process to develop new land use and circulation elements (the LUCE) of the City's general plan. The City hired consultants, held public meetings, conducted surveys, and the process was off and running.

Then the planning director, Ms. Frick, quit, and it seems like a year since I've seen the consultants at a public meeting. Earlier this year the City Council threw a wrench into the works by refusing to make some elementary decisions when a few members of the public demanded that the council first establish quantitative goals for future development.

So the LUCE update is in shambles. The City finally has a new planning director set to begin work at the end of this month and let's hope she can get things back on track. (see story)

In the meantime, as if to illustrate the Rowe/Koetter point that planning is more about values than science, and not separable from politics, now the Planning Department is rushing to rewrite Santa Monica's zoning ordinance to implement "consensus" land use policies supposedly developed in the incomplete LUCE process for certain zoning districts. The Planning Commission will consider staff's proposals Wednesday evening.

Why the rush? The reason is something called the Anita Anderson Initiative, which will be Prop. 90 on November's ballot. Prop, 90 is a libertarian-type measure purportedly aimed at eminent domain abuses but designed to drastically reduce the authority governments in California have to limit development. In case the initiative passes, the City hopes to preempt any restrictions by downzoning before the election.

So forget the whole scientific, data-based, public, analytical LUCE process. We suddenly have found "consensus," because someone else's values -- Ms. Anderson's -- conflict with ours.

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