The LookOut columns | What I Say

Frank Gruber

One Story?

By Frank Gruber

My involvement in Santa Monica politics began in 1992 with the planning process for the Civic Center Specific Plan, during which I met and got to know in particular two members of the City Council -- Paul Rosenstein and Ken Genser.

They were both on the working group that oversaw the development of the plan, and they both were active in the campaign to defeat the measure that opponents of the plan put on the ballot to overturn the City Council's 7 to 0 vote approving it. (I was treasurer of the residents group that supported the plan.)

I admired and enjoyed the company of both Mr. Rosenstein and Mr. Genser (and I still do), but they didn't like each other. They represented rival factions within Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), and their political differences had become personal. Although usually they were civil enough, I remember how shocked I was one time when, at a meeting of the steering committee for the pro-plan group, they exchanged rather angry words.

I once asked Mr. Rosenstein where this animosity came from, and he said that in the '80s when they were on the Planning Commission together, he and Mr. Genser would often clash. But when Mr. Rosenstein thought about it, he said that in fact they agreed on almost everything. It was that when it came to approving projects, they were always "one story apart" -- he was willing to approve one more story than Mr. Genser.

It was a classic case of Freud's "narcissism of small differences."

After watching last week's meeting ("Proposed Building Heights Stir Debate," July 3, 2008) of the City Council about the section of the Strategic Framework for the land use and circulation element update (LUCE) that concerns the future of our boulevards, I can understand where Mr. Rosenstein was coming from.

I found myself agreeing with nearly everything Mr. Genser said at the meeting, except that when it comes down to it, I would support a little more height than he would.

To start with the positive, Mr. Genser said what needed to be said about the LUCE framework and commercial development. For the next decade or so, the city will not need much commercial development, and it certainly doesn't need more large-floor-plan offices or other job-dense development that adds both to the late afternoon traffic crunch and to our housing-affordability crisis. Exceptions to this would be downtown, or for certain kinds of uses that don't generate a lot of traffic and have other benefits, such as hotels.

It's not that the LUCE framework advocates more commercial development -- it properly emphasizes residential development -- but it does allow, in the context of what is called "performance-based zoning," for more job-dense development than the city needs as a means of providing financing for various "public benefits," such as new streets to create new walkable neighborhoods, affordable housing, traffic reduction, or support for social programs.

The city does need more housing, and it can better integrate retail and small offices with its neighborhoods. What this means, as Mr. Genser said, is that along the boulevards (and presumably in new neighborhoods the LUCE update contemplates being built along the Expo light rail line, although they were not on the agenda last week and so he didn't speak about them) as a general matter for commercial development there should at most be allowed a ground floor of retail. If developers want to build more, the City should allow them to build residential above.

I also agree with Mr. Genser when he said that the City should not get into a bargaining position with developers to use development to obtain public benefits. The City should lay out what kind of development it wants, and then see if developers want to build it.

This does not mean that the City shouldn't specify what it wants from development (provided that there is the "nexus" required by law), but the public benefits should not be a tail that wags the dog of good, balanced planning. In the last 30 years the City has created more than its share of jobs. To pay for public benefits the City should not agree to allow the building of big job-generators we neither want, need, nor have a regional or moral obligation to provide.

For me -- Mr. Genser didn't speak about this so I don't know what he thinks -- it follows that if the choice is between agreeing to development we don't want or the City itself paying for at least some of the benefits that are in the public realm to get the development we do want, the City should pay.

As a side note, it seems that the Planning Commission understood this; in its review of the LUCE framework, the commission suggested using market-rate housing instead of commercial development to subsidize affordable housing. This not only would be good planning, but also is something that we know works in Santa Monica because of our experience with development of both affordable and market-rate housing downtown and with the "Village" development at the Civic Center.

But where Mr. Genser and I disagree is over height, but -- as with Mr. Rosenstein -- it's not by much. Maybe just one story.

It's not that I like tall buildings. I have written before that without mass transit there are few places in a city for skyscrapers. As a maximum for other situations that call for the appropriate density, I like the five and six-story heights of pre-elevator cities -- heights that in former days and different places were combined with courtyards and fine-grained networks of streets to create congenial urban districts.

As for Santa Monica's boulevards, I also suspect that except for certain nodes -- the "activity centers" proposed in the LUCE framework -- even five or six stories may be too much, although they may make sense in certain circumstances to allow for more and better open space at ground level, and where they don't adversely affect adjacent low-rise neighborhoods.

But Mr. Genser was saying that the most he could see is a partial third floor over two stories, and at the highest, a street façade of about 30 feet. Anything more than that he thought would be "not Santa Monica."

I don't see that at all. Three residential floors on top of a ground floor of retail (this would be a 45-foot façade if the ground floor was 15 feet or 48 feet if the ground floor were 18 feet) would work fine on our wide boulevards; floors above four could be set back. Here's a picture of the four-story mixed use building on the 900 block of Broadway; it hardly has destroyed that street.

900 block of Broadway (Photo by Frank Gruber)

Mr. Genser (along with Council member Kevin McKeown) also repeated the no-growth mantra that "the residents" all "clearly object" to the heights proposed in the LUCE framework. I talk to a lot of residents, and I have never heard that kind of unanimity; indeed, only one of the residents who addressed the council last week took that position, and among those who supported the framework there were many who represented broad constituencies.

Council member Richard Bloom had a more accurate take on this issue than Messrs. Genser and McKeown. He said that from what residents told him, the number one issue is not height, but mobility.

That's my impression as well. Santa Monicans don't want change in the overall heights in their own neighborhoods, but few of them object to higher heights downtown or will object to higher heights in new neighborhoods that might be built on land that is currently zoned industrial.

And to the extent that most Santa Monicans have a concern about height, I suspect that their views are closer to those of Paul Rosenstein than those of Messrs. Genser and McKeown.

More was said at the hearing than I have room to discuss; I have left unmentioned the comments of Council members Pam O'Connor and Robert Holbrook, both of whom made important points, not to mention interesting comments from the public. Ms. O'Connor in particular spoke about the role of transit and Mr. Holbrook spoke on the fact that our boulevards could be improved and that it would be important to find out what it would take to do so.

I urge readers to spend time watching or listening to the council meetings on LUCE by way of the City's streaming video service. The staff and consultant presentations are at a high level, as are the public comments and the council's own discussion. It's like a graduate course in urbanism, but much more interesting because it's all about our own beloved town.

Meeting notice: The City Council is scheduled according to its agenda to continue the LUCE discussion with a discussion about transportation at tomorrow night's meeting. But the council has a long agenda that night and I wonder if the council members will get very far. The council's meetings on LUCE will continue for the next several weeks.

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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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