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Frank Gruber

What a Difference a Few Years Make

By Frank Gruber

Last Tuesday the City Council held its first meeting on the Planning Department's 350-page draft "framework" for the City's update to the land use and circulation elements (LUCE) of its general plan.

The meeting was rather tame, and I had to ask myself: was it only two and a half years ago when a few outraged residents, responding to inflammatory flyers posted around town, stormed a City Council hearing and caused a panicked majority of the council to stop the LUCE process in its tracks? ("Council Sends Planners Back," January 25, 2006)

The image that lingers from that meeting was of then Planning Commissioner Darrell Clarke using his arm to fashion a "growth meter" in the air, to ask the council not to proceed with the update until it had decided ahead of time how much the city would grow the next two decades.

Tuesday night Mr. Clarke again appeared; this time he was still concerned with the ultimate height of buildings fronting streets and ultimate allowable floor-area-ratios and said that these were the details that the devil was in. But he seemed satisfied that these would be determined as the process proceeded, and his final words were, "It's a great framework, it's a great effort, let's go forward."

While Mr. Clarke was not the only resident who wondered whether the city could handle the amount of growth contemplated by the framework (most speakers applauded the work of the Planning Department and/or lobbied for the emphasis in the document of particular causes, like for historic preservation or for the interests of the school district, car dealerships, cyclists, workforce housing proponents, or the hospitals), the attitude was far more polite than the demands of January 2006.

So what happened in the meantime?

One difference between then and now is that then the Planning Department did not have a permanent director in place; Suzanne Frick had resigned in March 2005 and her successor, Eileen Fogarty, was not hired until July 2006.

Ms. Fogarty has made a difference. The Planning Commission is still conducting its own hearings on the LUCE framework, and statements Commissioner Julie Lopez Dad made at the commission's meeting Wednesday night caught my attention.

Ms. Dad, during several minutes of praise for Ms. Fogarty, the new consultants she brought in, and the Planning Department, said, among other things, that it was "generally accepted throughout the community" -- Ms. Dad had not at any rate heard anything to the contrary -- that Ms. Fogarty was "the best addition to the city that we could hope for, and a huge help."

While she praised the work the Planning Department had done on the LUCE before Ms. Fogarty arrived, Ms. Dad continued by saying that "in one short year the depth of the work that was done has exceeded anything [she'd] seen in the twenty some years that [she'd] been involved in things in the city."

Oh, you say, this is mere flattery. But by way of context, recall that at a commission meeting in 2003, Commissioner Dad was so upset with the Planning Department that she joined with Commissioners Kelly Olsen and Geraldine Moyle to move for the City to conduct a "management audit" of the department; Ms. Dad even wanted a "town hall" meeting for the public to discuss the department's deficiencies.

So I don't know to what extent the City Council will ultimately accept the LUCE recommendations the Planning Department has developed, but Ms. Fogarty has already achieved a remarkable change in the public's attitude toward planning staff. No doubt it's a product of the series of public meetings Ms. Fogarty organized, and the consultants she brought to those meetings who discussed planning issues with the public without dumbing down or trivializing them, but even those residents typically most skeptical of growth or even change don't extend their skepticism to her.

As Zina Josephs, of Friends of Sunset Park, said at the meeting Tuesday evening, even though her group was skeptical about development, she wanted to express her admiration for the "stamina" of Ms. Fogarty and her staff in attending so many community meetings.

Of course this doesn't mean that those who wish to trump the LUCE update by passing the RIFT initiative in November won't argue that the City's government, both the politicians and the staff, can't be trusted with Santa Monica's destiny, but for now at least we are spared the old harsh rhetoric. (Not that the ever-polite Ms. Josephs or Mr. Clarke themselves have ever been guilty of harsh rhetoric.)

So what of the substance of the LUCE framework? There's a lot of detail (too much in my view), but the basic points to consider are:

1. The framework document, which once modified by the council and the commission will provide the policy basis for the elements of the general plan themselves, is an impressive document that any student of urbanism inside or outside Santa Monica would find worth reading. It's an eloquent testimony to the proposition that people can look at old persistent problems and come up with new solutions based on common sense and real experiences.

2. Ms. Fogarty refers to the plan as a "conservation" plan, not a plan for growth (as was the City's 1984 land use plan). To a great extent she's right, in that the plan would leave about 90 percent of the city -- largely the existing residential districts and successful neighborhood commercial streets like Main Street -- alone. An explicit goal would also be to avoid a net increase in car trips.

3. The plan would allow for growth, but concentrate it in zones that are now industrial and near the planned Expo light rail line (notably near Bergamot Station and Memorial Park), and in a few "activity centers" located at major intersections along transit-served boulevards. The nature of these developments -- requiring simultaneous changes to the streetscape, for instance -- would require joint planning by the City and developers.

4. The plan would also try to have most new development be residential, and have most residential development be for either low and moderate income affordable housing or for "workforce" housing. To do this the plan authorizes residential development in zones that are now industrial or commercial and would give incentives to commercial developers to build housing.

5. Some of the building heights contemplated by the plan in new mixed use districts near Expo line stations or in the boulevard activity centers -- heights designed to allow for more residential development -- are higher than what Santa Monicans are used to these days. (But they are appropriate for the locations and the new infrastructure.)

6. Every change in the city contemplated by the plan is designed with the goal of making the adjacent area more of a complete, walkable neighborhood.

7. Any summary like that contained in the past five points inevitably misses the subtlety of the analysis I refer to in point #1 above. The framework, long as it is, must be looked at itself to get the benefit of all that it says about how to organize streets and neighborhoods better. (Also, looking at the pictures in the document reminds one of just how much of our beloved Santa Monica is a dump and could use improvement.)

My chief reservation about the framework is that it relies too much on subsidies from private developers -- "public benefits" they're called -- to pay for what should be public investments in everything from new streets to housing to shared parking to everything else residents want.

The City of Santa Monica has extraordinary sources of revenue -- per capita, for example, it collects well more than twice what Pasadena collects. We should be able to afford to build the city we want. By looking to private sources for the money needed to build what the city needs, we may find ourselves buying into kinds of development we don't need.

I'll have more to say about that as the Planning Commission and the City Council continue their deliberations on the framework.

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