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Frank Gruber

Do You Want Fries with that Urbanism?

By Frank Gruber

I would like to use this column as every other columnist in America seems to have done in the past week, to express my views about Barack Obama's speech about race in America and his pastor Jeremiah Wright, but I'll concede that this is one of those topics where there's been so much ink and so many pixels spilled that there's nothing for me to add.

And besides that, I need to write about the new McDonald's on Second Street.

Every day for years I've gone home by way of the block of Second Street between Broadway and Colorado, and everyday I've noted to myself just how forlorn that block is. It's an important block, connecting as it does the Promenade and the Pier, but it was always an unpleasant block to walk.

There was the stand-alone McDonalds that although well maintained seemed to have been transported directly from a suburban highway, and the street still has the back of the Pacific Sands Hotel annex that takes seediness to a new level.

Back of Pacific Sands. Second Street today (Photos by Frank Gruber)

And then across the street is a side of Santa Monica Place dominated by a parking garage and the fortress wall of the old Robinson's.

There are people who say that Santa Monica is perfect, and that it doesn't need development or even change. I don't believe that, and as evidence I'd cite this block of Second Street as a corner of town that could use a little progress.

Fortunately, progress is coming in three pieces: (i) the mixed use building at Second and Colorado that replaced the old McDonald's and which is just opening (in the midst of the sewer replacement project on Colorado), (ii) the new modest-price hotel that the Farzam family plans to build to replace their Pacific Sands and Travelodge motels (and which just received approval last week at the Planning Commission level), and (iii) the re-do of Santa Monica Place that will not get rid of the parking structure but will improve the rest of the Second Street frontage.

And now I'm going to do something I never thought I would do -- praise McDonald's, or at least a McDonald's -- the new one on the ground floor of the building at Second and Colorado.

But first, a disclosure of a conflict of interest, and one that resulted in this column. Fact is until Friday night I hadn't been inside a McDonald's for years. I'm not only a food snob, but also opposed to fast food on social and ecological grounds. I buy into the whole Michael Pollan critique of a food system based on corn -- corn as the key ingredient in beef and in soft drinks (by way of high fructose corn syrup). Beef and soda happen to be two of the dominant food groups in fast food.

So I wouldn't ordinarily have been inside the new McDonald's on Second Street, and if I hadn't been inside, I wouldn't have thought to write about it. But -- and here comes the conflict -- the management of the place has hired musicians from the Samohi jazz band, including my son, to perform there, and there I was, this past Friday evening, listening to my son play his saxophone as I snacked on a bag of those famous McDonald's fries.

The reason the management of the new McDonald's knows about the Samohi jazz band is that one of the managers, Serafin Rodriguez (a member by marriage of the Lardas family that owns the franchise as well as several others in the Santa Monica area), is a soccer coach at the high school. Mr. Rodriguez is what is generally known as a "good guy."

But I'm not going to praise the new McDonalds because the family that owns it plays an active role in the community. I'm going to praise it because it's good urbanism.

Huh? A McDonald's that makes a city better?

Well, for one thing, it looks good. Here's the inside.

McDonalds Interior

It's got tables outside, too, on Second Street, just a block from the Ivy and the other fancy restaurants on Ocean Avenue. Point being that one shouldn't have to be rich to be able to eat outside on a restaurant patio in Santa Monica.

Now I know that some readers may object to my praise for a McDonald's, the epitome of the corporate approach to food. I'm not going to get into the issues Michael Pollan raises or in the book Fast Food Nation, except to say that when I went back to the new restaurant on Saturday to take photos, I met another member of the Lardas family, Rita Lardas, who gave me a tour of the kitchen (and treated me to an excellent espresso from their new machine -- the new McDonald's is one of the first in the chain to serve espressos and cappuccinos). Ms. Lardas told me that the press will soon be invited to attend a discussion at the restaurant about nutrition and the McDonald's menu.

I hope to attend that and perhaps discuss the food issues afterwards.

In the meantime, one lesson for people who plan cities to keep in mind is that on the local level we cannot have much impact on national or global trends. For instance, local governments can't set agricultural subsidies or decide where clothes are manufactured.

But local governments have control over the physical form of development, and on practices -- like waste disposal -- that have a local impact. We can insist, for instance, that new buildings work for our streets, and we can decide what gets thrown into our trash (or, let's hope, recycled).

In the case of the new McDonald's, the developers of the site originally wanted a drive-thru, but the City turned that down as being inconsistent with the pedestrian-friendly context the City wanted to foster downtown, particularly near the Pier. Santa Monica has now banned Styrofoam takeout containers, and the new McDonald's complies with that -- they now use recyclable paper containers.

The building at Second and Colorado that replaced the old suburban McDonalds spent years in the Santa Monica planning process -- it was one of the fabled stories among developers of the difficulty of building in Santa Monica. (" McDonalds Developer Gets Break," January 4, 2006") I hope for their sake that the result of that process is a building that will be profitable for the developers.

But from my perspective as a Santa Monican who trusts in good urbanism, the result in any case is good. The streetscape is a lot better, and the offices above the McDonald's will provide locations for jobs that will be well served by transit.

I hope that the McDonald's ultimately converts its restaurant-only parking to the "park once" model, where fees are charged after an initial free period, so that their customers who drive don't have to move their cars once they finish eating, but we'll see how that works out over time.

Of course I'm really happy that this is a McDonald's that hires high school jazz musicians to entertain its customers.

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The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
The Lookout.
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