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Frank Gruber

Sometimes Less is Less, But Sufficient

By Frank Gruber

As I said I would last week, I chose local duty over sub-regional drama and attended the Santa Monica Place re-design meeting last Thursday instead of the Cheviot Hills Expo Line right of way versus Venice Boulevard smackdown.

It's not surprising which meeting merited a front-page article in the L.A. Times' California section. While back in the day -- two years ago -- Macerich's ambitious plans to remake the mall with three towers of condominiums themselves drew attention from the Times, the current plans create excitement on the level of remodeling an old porch into a deck with a jacuzzi.

That isn't to say Santa Monica Place doesn't need a do-over, nor that the renovation won't be good for downtown Santa Monica, but after all that's gone down, it's stunning how little is going up.

Actually nothing is going up, a fact that pleases many. Fact is, that since the city-owned parking structures, Macy's, and -- more or less -- the empty Rob-May store are all staying up, there's not much room for other than little plans.

Take access. When the City Council first encouraged Macerich to proceed with plans to redevelop the mall, the one point that everyone agreed on was the need to connect the Promenade to Colorado Street, Sears, and the Civic Center.

Guess what? That's the one thing the new plan cannot accomplish. An open to the sky entrance and passageway from Colorado straight to Broadway and the Promenade is impossible because of the configuration of the southern parking structure and Macy's. All the new plan can offer from Colorado is a more inviting entranceway and a wider passageway.

Macerich's conceptual (not architectural) drawing for new entrance on Colorado

For the same reason, the view south from the Promenade will terminate at the far end of the "Palm Court," a new, oval "square" that will take shape in the middle of the mall. There is nothing wrong with what urban designers call "terminated vistas" -- significant structures or landmarks at the end of a view corridor -- but this one is not going to give anyone walking south from the Promenade the visual connection with the Civic Center that people wanted.

Macerich's conceptual (not architectural) drawing for the view from the Promenade

So you get what you pay for. Regardless how tall the buildings, a bigger development cannot occur on the site unless the City pays for underground parking and Macy's decides to rebuild. The City has a lot of money sunk into the existing parking decks, and Macy's is happy with the store it has. Nor is there a compelling logic to undo the urban renewal mistakes made 30 years ago with another round of convulsive urbanism.

The new plan is suited to the thinking in the city today, and was received with near giddiness by nearly every member of the public who commented Thursday evening. Sufficient it is.

* * *

The City Council made a good call in calling for public workshops to discuss further the idea of public financing of election campaigns. It's too big of a conceptual leap for the populace to take without more pondering, as evidenced by the defeat in November's election of a statewide plan to do much the same thing. (see story)

I will be writing more about the topic as the workshops get going, but in the meantime, as a starting point for the discussion, I recommend the report that City staff prepared for the City Council.

One thing I learned from the staff report was that this is not an issue where Santa Monica is boldly going where no city has gone before. Public financing of campaigns, at least for local elections, is a growing movement around the country, and has been adopted in various jurisdictions. Even the City of Los Angeles, hardly the cutting edge of electoral reform, is considering a public finance program.

Another point I want to make preliminarily is that public financing of campaigns need not conflict with the First Amendment. The existing programs Santa Monica is looking at are voluntary; candidates can choose not to take the money and raise all the private donations they want.

It may be unfashionable in some quarters to say so, but as a near-absolutist when it comes to the First Amendment, I have no trouble with equating money with speech. There is nothing wrong with our political system if people -- whether they are renters or hotel owners -- want to band together, form political committees and spend tax money supporting candidates.

Given the success of organizations like MoveOn, or how Democratic candidates and committees have used the Internet to raise millions from many small donations, I would think the last thing progressives want to do at this moment is take money out of politics. This is the golden age of the $25 donation.

But in Santa Monica, we members of the public also have an interest in hearing the voices of the candidates themselves, and they often cannot raise much money. It would not be unreasonable for us to choose to finance candidates who don't have access to lots of cash, by giving campaign money to those who can reach a reasonable threshold of contributions on their own.

Let the workshops begin.

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