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Frank Gruber

If Only Cars Could Go to School

By Frank J. Gruber

The back and forth over the School District's financial situation is the politically most interesting story that's been playing out in Santa Monica recently. As you know if you've been following the stories in The Lookout, last fall the School District got a shock when its own C.F.O. wouldn't certify a financial projection because he worried that the District wouldn't have enough money to pay for a new contract with the teachers union.

That triggered anxiety from District's Financial Oversight Committee, a review of the District's finances by the County's Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT), the resignation of the C.F.O., a settlement of his contract that included a covenant from him not talk about the District's finances, and resulting annoyance expressed by members of the Santa Monica City Council, who support the District with millions of City dollars.

The District got some good news two weeks ago when FCMAT submitted its report and found that as of now the District could afford the contract with the teachers. (see story)

But FCMAT also saw trouble ahead, predicting that because of declining local enrollment, and a policy the School Board enacted to reduce the number of out-of-district students, the District would have financial problems in near future years unless is trimmed its payroll and operations to match an expected decline in enrollment and the drop in state revenues that would result.

In the man bites dog department, local attorney Chris Harding, who has for years been one of the District's most enthusiastic supporters -- he was a founder of Community for Excellent Public Schools and has close relationships with School Board members -- sent an open letter to the Board admonishing the Board Members that the FCMAT report was no free pass, and that they needed to rein in spending if they were going to stick to the locals-only policy.

The Board then replied with its own open letter, saying, yes, they know what they need to do,, and they would do it.

What's interesting is the drop in enrollment. The region's population is ever increasing, and the neighboring L.A. Unified District has been building schools like crazy the past ten years trying to catch up. You would think there would be plenty of kids to go around.

But Santa Monica has had no-or-very-slow growth policies over the past 20 years that have made it hard to build housing in general and family-friendly housing in particular. Santa Monica has also discouraged the building of large or largish condos and apartments that might entice empty-nester homeowners to embrace urban living and sell their houses to young families.

The City Council passed a lot of laws over the years limiting what can be built, but it neglected to repeal the law of unintended consequences. Now we have a stagnant population, fewer residents (meaning children) per unit of housing than ever, and a school district with tremendous support in the community, but not enough kids to keep our beloved schools afloat.

Sometimes news stories intersect in interesting ways. The Lookout also reported last week that the City is convening a task force to see how workforce housing can be built in Santa Monica. Let's hope the group pays some attention to making larger units legal and incentivizing developers to build them.

* * *

In the other shoe drops department, at its Feb. 13 meeting the City Council -- sitting also in its capacities as Redevelopment Agency and Parking Authority -- approved spending $6 million to buy two lots on Fifth Street south of Arizona (on which Carlson's Appliances sits), and at tomorrow night's meeting the Council Members will likely approve spending another $30.9 million to buy four properties on the same block.

The purpose of these purchases, totaling about 67,000 square feet, is to build a parking structure.

Last May, the City Council adopted the downtown parking plan, which calls for the retrofitting of the existing parking structures to add about 730 new spaces, and for the possibility of adding approximately 1,000 spaces in two new structures on Fifth Street, outside the downtown parking zone, if the need arises.

The need for parking is supposed to be evaluated every two years, and new parking is supposed to pay for itself.

At the time, Council Member Ken Genser assured residents who were concerned that a surplus of parking would attract more traffic to downtown, and not pay for itself, that "by adopting the full program tonight, we are not buying a single parking space."

As I said, the other shoe has dropped, and the City spending about $37 million of redevelopment money to buy land to hold in reserve in case (i) there is future need or desire for downtown parking beyond the 730 spaces in the rebuilt older structures (not to mention the currently underused hundreds of spaces under the new library), and (ii) the City can replay the costs of land and construction and operate new structures without subsidy.

The staff report is one of those obfuscation jobs that accompany the spending of redevelopment money anywhere, but which we always hope would be below the standards of the City of Santa Monica's professionals.

Redevelopment money is money that would otherwise go to public schools or healthcare or the justice system, so there has to be a good reason to spend it. Did you know, for instance, that buying these properties "will assist in elimination of one or more blighting conditions inside the Project Area by assisting in the elimination of one or more of the conditions resulting from the 1994 Northridge Earthquake disaster"?

There have been rumors for years that the City was looking for land to facilitate a public/private partnership to bring new movie theaters to downtown with -- WHOOEE! -- stadium seating.

I'd prefer the City leave development to the private sector. Redevelopment in Santa Monica has a bad history -- replacing the beach tract with Santa Monica Shores, building Santa Monica Place. While I hope the City will do better with the old RAND property at the Civic Center, and the early indications are promising, we don't know yet.

The real reason to build an extra 1,000 parking spaces downtown and new movie theaters is because the City and downtown landowners are concerned that downtown will lose ground to new commercial "nodes" like The Grove, and they won't be able, respectively, to collect enough sales tax and charge the highest rents.

As if we know, with traffic the way it is, that more regional customers will brave the east-west congestion and use the parking spaces, or as if we want the traffic that 1,000 new parking spaces could entice.

The way to keep our downtown humming with less impact on traffic is to build more housing and hotels, not more movie theaters, and improve public transit. (How many buses could $37 million buy?)

It's practically impossible to build a three-story townhouse in Santa Monica with four bedrooms, but it's plenty easy to build a seven story parking structure. No wonder we're choked with traffic and we don't have enough kids to fill our classrooms.

Meeting(s) notice(s):

The M.T.A. is beginning the environmental review process for the extension of the Expo Line to Santa Monica. The process begins with "scoping" sessions, and four public meetings have been scheduled. Here is the information:

Tues., February 27 - 6:30 pm to 8:30 pm
Culver City Senior Center
4095 Overland Ave., Room B45
(free parking available)

Wed., February 28 - 6:30 pm to 8:30 pm
Hamilton High School Cafeteria
2955 South Robertson Blvd.
(free parking off Robertson)

Tues., March 6 - 6:30 pm to 8:30 pm
Santa Monica Civic Auditorium
1855 Main St., East Wing Mtg. Rm.
(special event free parking off Main St.)

Thurs., March 15 - 6:30 to 8:30 pm
Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services
3200 Motor Avenue, Gymnasium (free parking)
[Columnist comment: Isn't it amusing how the M.T.A. gives parking information, but nothing about how to get to the meetings by public transit?]

One can also submit comments in writing. They will be accepted until April 2, 2007. Send by snail-mail or email to:

Mr. Joel Sandberg, P.E., Project Manager
Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority
707 Wilshire Blvd, 34th Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90017
Phone: (213) 922-3976 Fax: (213) 243-5553
E-mail: <> or at <> under the "Phase 2" tab.

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The Lookout.

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