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Frank Gruber

Tough Choices

By Frank Gruber

For public meeting junkies, Thursday evening presents a tough choice: attend the unveiling of Marcerich's proposal to remake Santa Monica Place, or the meeting in Cheviot Hills about the route of the Expo Line?

The Macerich meeting takes place in the mall, on the first floor (space #189 - Macy's wing) from six to eight. The developer along with city staff will present the new plans to redesign the mall as an open-air shopping center, connected to the Promenade and the local grid of streets.

The Expo Line meeting takes place in the gym of the Vista del Mar Child & Family Services center, 3200 Motor Avenue, from 6:30 to 8:30.

Current thinking is that the terminus of the Expo Line will be located at the current Sears auto center, between 4th and 5th along Colorado, cattycorner from Santa Monica Place, so the two projects are related. (For more information about Phase 2 of Expo, go here []

Although I'm tempted to attend the Expo meeting by the prospect of watching a NIMBY explosion -- local residents going crazy over the prospect of trains using a railroad right of way through part of their neighborhood -- I'll probably choose the meeting and the issue that is literally closer to home -- Santa Monica Place.

There I will shed a figurative tear for the 400 units of housing that won't be built, but that's all. I always believed [] that the big plans for the site were farfetched, given the cost, to the City's redevelopment agency, of digging a giant hole for underground parking. The financing might have worked, but it would have involved the agency making a huge commitment of future tax revenues to pay off the bonds.

That's a strategy suburban fringe cities use to attract sales tax revenues, or L.A. uses in downtown L.A. to trigger mega-projects like L.A. Live, but it's not Santa Monica's style. Not these days at least, as opposed to 30 years ago when the City put Santa Monica Place together and built the parking decks for the developer.

Today the City Council for political reasons doesn't want to appear to subsidize business, so it needs to make its subsidies look indirect and generalized, e.g., by building more downtown parking structures not tied to a specific development. That these unneeded parking spaces undercut the rationale for building Expo seems not to occur to anyone in City Hall.

But that's an irony we don't need to get to in this column. It's ironic enough that while Santa Monicans -- even most of our local NIMBYs -- are impatient to get Expo to 4th and Broadway, to get those commuters out of their cars, we turned our collective back on a basic premise of progressive urban planning -- transit-oriented development. Four hundred residences across the street from a light rail station would be just what the good urbanism doctor would order.

But that doesn't mean apartments and condos won't be built there -- in ten or 20 years. One of the virtues of the new plan is that it begins to unscramble the super-block the redevelopment agency assembled in the 70s to build Santa Monica Place. In the future the various separate properties -- the two department stores, the two parking decks, the pieces of the mall -- will be separately developable, and the site can evolve organically, rather than convulsively.

The controversy over the Expo route -- whether to pass through the southwest edge of Cheviot Hills west of Motor (for about half a mile on the old railroad right of way) or to run the trolleys around Cheviot Hills on the busy boulevards of Venice and Sepulveda -- comes down to one word: speed. The longer route will add about five minutes to a trip going past Cheviot in either direction.

Those minutes are precious if Expo is to be successful, because trip time is nearly everything when it comes to presenting mass transit as an alternative to driving. Comfort is important, as is price, but time is how most people with choices evaluate their transit options.

Whether my wife, for example, will use Expo to commute to her job at USC, or whether moviegoers and shoppers from Culver City and places east will use Expo to reach the Promenade, will depend on how long the trip takes versus driving, and five minutes will be crucial.

Meanwhile, the hysteria gripping Cheviot Hills is -- hysterical. It's the whole litany of NIMBY fears -- more traffic congestion, crime and graffiti, danger to schools, not to mention declining property values. None of which have ever been associated particularly with light rail, except, in many instances, in inversely.

If you haven't seen the Expo right of way through Cheviot yourself, you may not be aware of how big it is. At places it's 200 feet wide. It's been used for railroading for a century or so. I recommend taking a look at the "Light Rail for Cheviot" website []; there is not much commentary, but the pictures and maps are great.

And you might want to attend yet another meeting. Monday evening, Mar. 19, the City of Santa Monica will host a public meeting (at the Virginia Ave. Park community room, from 6:45 to 8:30) to discuss the development of a bicycle and pedestrian path on the portion of the Expo right of way that is within Santa Monica, from the eastern limit of the City to 17th Street. The plan for this bikeway is that it will extend all the way to downtown L.A. along the Expo right of way in coordination with the light rail line.

Someday residents of Cheviot Hills could ride their bikes along the tracks to tram stops at either Overland or National and hop aboard. But that would kill their property values, I'm sure.


Since I'm on the subject of public meetings, I may as well mention that Eileen Fogerty, Santa Monica's Director of Planning and Development, has announced three neighborhood workshops as part of the next stage for updating the land use and circulation elements of the City's general plan. The workshops are to discuss possibilities for "placemaking," or, as the City defines the term, "The integration of planning and people to create a place that is ideal in which to play, work and live."

Here is the schedule:

Pico Area: Mon., Mar. 26, 7:00 - 9:00 p.m., Virginia Ave. Park, Thelma Terry Room.

Wilmont/Mid-City Areas: Wed., Mar. 28, 7:00 - 9:00 p.m., Lincoln Middle School cafeteria.

Ocean Park/Sunset Park Areas: Thurs., Apr. 5, 7:00 - 9:00 p.m., Olympic High School cafeteria (721 Ocean Park Blvd.).

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