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Frank Gruber

Portable Landmark

By Frank Gruber

After getting myself all excited about attending last Monday night's Landmarks Commission meeting, I was felled by a bad cold that kept me home in sweatpants and slippers all day. Turned out I didn't miss the commission's decision on the ficus trees, but I regret missing the deliberations and verdict on the Quonset hut.

Possibly I'm the only person in Santa Monica who cares whether the Quonset hut is landmarked. After the meeting I spoke to one of the commissioners to find out what happened, and he told me that the commission voted 4-2 to accept planning staff's recommendation to landmark the hut, but not the land it is sitting on. One reason, he told me, that it was easier to vote for landmarking was that the owner of the property didn't contest it.

So what can you do? If the owner is not going to complain, then I can't imagine anyone else appealing the decision. But for my journalistic vow of noninvolvement, I would be tempted to appeal myself. The situation of this unmoored, floating, portable Santa Monica landmark seems ridiculous in some Monty Python-like way.

The Landmarks Ordinance allows "objects" to be landmarked, which I find unnerving. Shouldn't "landmark" imply a physical connection to the land, i.e., Santa Monica? What kind of thing will staff and the commission next sentence to eternal preservation? If I left an Eames chair out on my porch, could that be landmarked?

What happens now? Perhaps the owner has a plan to incorporate the hut in his design for a four-story apartment building (a rooftop enclosure for the heating and air conditioning units?), but what if he finds a good home for it outside of Santa Monica? Will the Santa Monica Landmarks Ordinance follow the hut to the far corners of the earth?

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In fact, if a Quonset hut is a landmark, what about a mobile home? The question may not be academic. It's not a long shot to bet that the Village Trailer Park, or various mobile homes in it, will be on the Landmarks Commission's agenda in the not distant future.

It's been a few weeks since the City Council authorized staff to proceed with negotiations with the owners of the Village Trailer Park, which is located on Colorado Avenue, just west of Stanford, and I've been thinking about what to write about it ever since. (see story)

It's a tricky situation. The City meant to protect the residents of the trailer park by giving it a special zoning category, which limited the uses on the site to either a mobile home park or child care facilities. A special state law applicable to mobile home parks, however, gives the owners of parks specific rights to evict mobile home residents. New owners of the property gave the required twelve-month notice to tenants in 2006.

The City responded by trying to slow the process by invoking provisions of Santa Monica's rent control law. Ultimately, however, both the City and legal aid lawyers advising the residents on how to avoid eviction concluded that the best they could would be to delay the inevitable, and the better course would be work a deal -- a development agreement -- with the developer that would give the residents better relocation benefits and options, including the possibility of moving into affordable apartments on the site.

Village Trailer Park (Photos by Frank Gruber)

It seems to have been like a game of chicken. The new owners purchased the property knowing that the current zoning did not allow for their redevelopment of the property. Yet they proceeded to buy the land, and give notice to the tenants, on the premise that they would hold the land vacant.

This situation led to a fascinating moment at the City Council meeting. Community activist and growth-skeptic Zina Josephs told the council members that uniquely in this case they had the opportunity to stop a large development. Council Member Ken Genser asked what made the situation different. Ms. Josephs answered that in this case the council did not have to change the zoning -- i.e., the council could leave the developers with an unusable piece of land.

True enough, and I admire Ms. Josephs for her principled stand, but what she said was not the whole reality. As discussed already, the City doesn't want to see the residents evicted with nothing to show for it but a moral victory.

But there is also a question about the future: is it reasonable to expect the trailer park to last forever? Should it? That was the question a neighbor from one of the college streets asked. He wasn't wildly enthusiastic about new development, but he looked at the trailer park and questioned whether it was permanent. Having recently walked through the park, I have to ask the same thing.

Now planning staff will start negotiations with the developers. As represented by Marc Luzzatto, the developers appear to be mindful of what Santa Monicans expect to see in new development, and at least to a degree solicitous of the needs of the current trailer park residents.

Both the Planning Commission and the City Council have criticized the developers' plans because of the size of the proposed apartments for displaced residents are only about 250 square feet. This is about the size of the typical mobile home, but that doesn't take into account the outside space available to tenants.

To remedy this, the commission and the council have recommended increasing the size of these apartments to 500 square feet. But I wonder if a little more indoor space is going to give the tenants what they want. I wonder if it might be better to get a good architect involved who could design a complex with the smaller units, but with more "outdoor room" space for each apartment. This might keep building costs down, and provide tenants the "indoor-outdoor" living they apparently now enjoy.

But the issue that most concerns me about the developers' proposal is their inclusion of 40,000 square feet of "studio commercial" space -- i.e., more facilities creating jobs -- in their initial proposal. The development agreement is going to be on hold until the land use element update currently underway settles on principles for the industrial lands, but I hope that those principles do not include more job-creating uses, particularly on land that like the mobile home park is currently zoned residential.

All the benefits of building more housing near the job-creating office parks and post-production facilities that were built over the past twenty-five years will be lost if the City zones for more jobs. More than 8.5 million square feet of office space was built in Santa Monica between 1980 and 2000 -- more than 4.5 million square feet beyond what the 1984 general plan called for!

We'll be building residential for a long time before we catch up with that.

* * *

I need to say a word about Bob Gabriel. He was not only a Santa Monica institution, and a big piece of our institutional memory, but also my insurance agent. But not for all my policies. When I first asked him about getting insurance for our house, I told him I also had an old disability policy that I was sure should be updated, as I had been paying the premiums since I first became a lawyer. Bob looked over the policy. I was ready to switch to a policy he recommended, but he told me no, that the policy I had was great, and that I should stick with it.

Okay, maybe I shouldn't be so impressed with finding an honest businessman. I don't mean to imply an insult to other insurance agents. But that was the kind of guy Bob Gabriel was -- plainspoken, matter of fact, generous. Condolences to his wife, Louise, and the rest of his family.

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