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Frank Gruber

You Can't Win

By Frank Gruber

The theme of this column is "you can't win," and it's addressed to the City of Santa Monica. The message is, to the City, why bother to be progressive, ecological, compassionate, smart even, when you're just going to give holier-than-you critics more to complain about?

This theme first came to me a few years ago when the City Council passed two ordinances, one trying to restrict public meals programs for homeless people in the parks (which were being run by pious out-of-towners unwilling to be so generous toward their local homeless), and the other prohibiting people from sleeping in doorways.

Santa Monica was excoriated. The National Coalition for the Homeless ranked the city as number nine in its 20 "meanest" cities list.

The designation came notwithstanding that Santa Monica spends more per capita on social services for the homeless than any other city in Los Angeles County, and that the City has been a leader in developing conscientious and compassionate programs to help homeless people.

I can think of eight cities in Los Angeles County -- if not eighty -- that are meaner to the homeless than Santa Monica, let alone the country. They're just quiet about it.

You can't win.

Take the latest crusade in Santa Monica -- that of the "Treesavers" against the City's plan to replace one-third of the ficus trees on Second and Fourth Streets with twice as many gingko saplings. The ficus' -- the possible landmarking of which the Landmarks Commission will consider tonight -- are reaching the ends of their natural lives, and it makes sense to begin to start replacing them at the same time that the City is re-doing downtown sidewalks.

From the reaction, you would think that the City was going to burn down Yosemite, and the reaction has been fueled by rhetoric along the lines of, "How can the City of Santa Monica, which considers itself to green and ecological, cut down trees?"

Fact is, Santa Monica has been in the forefront of environmental programs too numerous to mention. When it comes to trees, the City put an urban forester on staff some years ago because of concerns that no one was taking care of the City's trees. Since then, the City has planted hundreds of trees all over the city.

The further irony is that the efforts of the ficus-lovers have already caused substantial modification -- for the better -- of the original plan that called for removing all the old trees. That's how the reiterative and multi-layered "process" in Santa Monica is supposed to work, but the Treesavers don't recognize victory when it's staring them in the face.

You can't win.

Take "Critical Mass," the monthly demonstration by cyclists that seeks to promote cycling by commandeering the streets one night a month with more bikes than motorists can ignore. Critical Mass has always, since its founding in the Bay Area, been consciously a form of civil disobedience, as the mass of riders typically cruise through red lights and otherwise take over the streets.

As reported in The LookOut ("Police Crack Down on Critical Mass," November 7, 2007) as the monthly rides have become more massive, Santa Monica police have cracked down on the riders -- last week, during the November ride, the police gave out 30 tickets.

I happen to be a bike-commuter, and have been for more than a dozen years, but I'm not sympathetic to Critical Mass, at least not in Santa Monica. I ride my bike all around Santa Monica -- once you get used to it, you realize that cycling is the best way to get around our compact city. Santa Monica adopted a bicycle master plan in the 90s, and has continued to explore means of improving the cycling experience.

It's not only the bike lanes the City has found room for on streets like Main or Broadway, where four lanes of traffic were turned into three car lanes (including a center lane for left turns) and two bike lanes, but also the other traffic-calming measures the City has taken that make riding a bike much more pleasurable and safe.

And I'll go further than that and make a sweeping generalization based on anecdotal evidence and say that even Santa Monica drivers pay more attention to cyclists than in other places. Touch wood, but in all my years of riding a bike around the city, I've had three accidents that were potentially serious, but none of them were caused by motorists. I find that if I follow the rules of the road, signal and otherwise make my intentions clear and myself visible, Santa Monica drivers treat me with respect.

Maybe others have had different experiences, and, yes, sadly, cyclists have been killed in accidents with cars in Santa Monica, but it's unfair for the Critical Mass riders to single out Santa Monica as inhospitable to cyclists. If they want to protest the bad treatment of cyclists, they should take their ride to a sprawl city where bikes are less than an afterthought.

You can't win.

The latest example of misplaced resentment comes from Sunset Park, where some residents are thundering against a mini-bus route that the Big Blue Bus has begun operating in great part to persuade Santa Monica College students not to commute through the neighborhood to the campus by car.

The route, called the Sunset Ride [link:], links the College's off-site parking lots with the campus, but residents are also using it. According the BBB, the launch of the service has been the bus company's most successful startup in history. Already, after only a few months of service, on the College's busy days (Monday through Thursday), the route is averaging 2,100 passengers a day.

At the same time, the BBB also introduced a new regular route, the number 6 [link:], with service between the College and Palms/Mar Vista, where data show many students live. Even though that route is only running six or seven buses in each direction per day, it's already attracting an average of 220 boardings.

The BBB has done this with shared funding from the College, in an admirable instance of the City and the College working on positive solutions to town-grown problems -- rather than blame and recriminations.

I don't know yet if the number of residents angry about the new buses extends beyond those who live near a few of the stops, but it would seem that some of those Sunset Park residents who frequently complain about College-related traffic in their neighborhood might step forward and commend the College and the Big Blue Bus for doing something about it.

But then again, you can't win.


As mentioned above, tonight the Landmarks Commission will be considering Treesavers' application to have the ficus trees on Second and Fourth declared landmarks. It's a big night for the commission -- also on the agenda is a contentious and complicated issue about whether it's appropriate to allow contemporary architecture into an historic zone, and the commission will also be evaluating the NuWilshire Theater. Staff reports are available by linking to the agenda.

Then Tuesday evening, the City Council will take up the LUCE issues relating to the industrial lands that it didn't get to at its last meeting. Last Wednesday evening the Planning Commission reviewed the same material, and, after making modifications, endorsed principles -- which the commissioners took pains to call "preliminary principles" -- that had emerged from the Planning Department's workshops. The commission also endorsed a recommendation to the Council to allocate funds to study traffic and mobility in more depth and using different methodologies.

A staff report and a supplemental staff report are available by way of the council's agenda.

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