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Frank Gruber

It Takes a Village?

By Frank Gruber

This week I'm back to writing about land use after a few weeks writing about the schools. What a relief. It's easier to maintain a columnist's ironic distance from people who have nothing to complain about beyond traffic congestion, than it is from parents of kids with autism, or a school district running out of money.

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As for land use, last week the City Council got back to two of its major preoccupations of the last few years -- the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) of the general plan and the City's Civic Center plan, specifically the housing being developed there on the old RAND property. The project is known as "The Village." Did the City or the developer have to call it that?

The Village may include only a village number of households, 325, but it was never going to look like the popular image of a village, unless you're thinking Greenwich Village. (And not that, either.) Couldn't the City have called it something like the Arcadia Block to honor the famed Arcadia Hotel that once stood tall and proud on the same spot (more or less)?

"Village" implies a hamlet surrounded by farms, and traditional architecture, but the apartments and condos planned north, west and southwest of the new RAND building will not be an exurban new town conjured up in the middle of nowhere -- there's a neighborhood across Ocean Avenue already, and a lot of urban history underneath.

The "Village" as a name invites ridicule, but the silly marketing is nothing compared to the exaggerations of the plan's opponents. My favorite this time came from council regular Arthur Harris, who likened the development to Hong Kong.

Have you ever been to Hong Kong, or seen a picture? Check out this link to a photo gallery of pictures of Hong Kong. None of them resemble what the City has encouraged the Related Companies and Community Corp. to build at the Civic Center.

The reason that people like Mr. Harris don't represent Santa Monica residents, even though they are always speaking for them, and even though sometimes City Council members treat them as if they do represent other Santa Monicans, is that most Santa Monicans have a firm grip on reality. They know that Santa Monica isn't anything like Hong Kong, and that there is nothing that the City or any developer could do to make it so.

In any case density is not turning out to be an issue with the Village. Council members Ken Genser and Kevin McKeown each recounted the history of the project at the City Council meeting last week.. (see story) Both of them made the point that the plan, which resulted from an extensive public process, was, is, and always has been to build (relatively) dense housing and some local serving retail near both acres of open space and an existing urban environment.

Council member Robert Holbrook pointed out that although he had had reservations about the development in the past, the opposition to it has in fact been muted. Specifically, he said, those residents who opposed the proposed Macerich towers have expressed no opinion about the Civic Center housing.

So although the issue in Santa Monica is usually density, in this case the council seems committed to the program. But the council members have a lot of time on their hands (insert smiley face) and have to agonize about something (the sad truth). In this case they are at odds over height and that most vague of architectural terms, "massing."

A difference of opinion is developing among the council members. Herb Katz and Ken Genser expressed openness to increasing the height of the project near the Viceroy Hotel, possibly up to ten stories, to reduce the amount of development along what will be the extension of Olympic Drive. This would allow for less "massing" and more stepbacks there.

Kevin McKeown disagreed. He opposes building a tower unless absolutely necessary to preserve the development program.

In this case, I side with Mr. McKeown. For one thing, although ten stories is less tall than, for instance, the Clock Tower Building, five and six story buildings are appropriate for downtown Santa Monica at this stage of its urban evolution. For another, the concerns that Messrs. Genser and Katz have about massing along Olympic Drive and landscaping are well intentioned but unwarranted.

They want to reduce development along Olympic so that the buildings that will face the new street will have stepbacks as they go higher, and so there will be room for more landscaping between the buildings.

Mr. Genser used the Broadway Deli building as an example of how setbacks can hide a tall building from pedestrians. He's right about that, but the situations are different.

On the other side of Olympic Drive from the Village there will be an urban park, not other buildings. There are great precedents around the world for wall-like, rhythmic facades that frame and define parks, piazzas and other public spaces. A five or six story façade along Olympic Drive is not going to make the street dark or unfriendly; instead it will make people in the park feel more connected to their surroundings.

Similarly, Mr. Katz's concerns about open space within the development seem unnecessary. An architect true to his generation, Mr. Katz has always had a soft spot for the modernist "tower in a park" school of planning.

Given that the Civic Center parks will be so close to the residences, however, the buildings of the Village won't need to be surrounded by large amounts of open space and landscaping. It will be more important that the spaces in between the buildings knit them together into a walking neighborhood.

In other words, the City should be not afraid to build a real city neighborhood along Ocean Avenue and Olympic Drive. It's not Hong Kong that we should be in fear of becoming, but rather bits of Rome or Barcelona or Siena that we can emulate.

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A few weeks ago I reported that two vacancies were opening up on the Planning Commission. It turned out that I made a couple of mistakes. One is that there will be three vacancies at the end of the month, not two, although one commissioner, Terry O'Day, is coming to the end of only his first term, and he intends to seek reappointment.

As I accurately reported, two commissioners concluding their second terms -- Barbara Brown and Darrell Clarke -- occupy the other two positions. But my second mistake was that I assumed that both of them would be "retiring." Mr. Clarke has decided to seek a third term. He wants to continue his work on the general plan updates and other matters.

Under the council's rules, Mr. Clarke will need to receive the votes of a supermajority of five council members instead of four to gain a third term.

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