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Frank Gruber

The Narcissism of Ten Feet

When I wrote on July 7 about how one story of height had defined the relationship between Santa Monica City Council Member Ken Genser and former City Council Member Paul Rosenstein when they were on the Planning Commission two decades ago, I didn't know that one story -- ten feet of height -- would also be the defining measure of difference between Mr. Genser and a majority of his colleagues on the City Council when it came to the land use and circulation element (LUCE) update to the City's general plan. ("Council Goes with Ten-foot Bonus," July 24, 2008)

But last week, beginning at the meeting Tuesday evening with a series of votes on the maximum heights that should be studied in the environmental review for the LUCE update, and then in a carryover discussion at a special meeting Thursday evening at which the council wrapped up the current stage of the update process, the one-story difference became a friction point.

Rubbing together and generating more heat than one might expect were the council members' varying views about what heights "are" Santa Monica and what heights "aren't."

Mr. Genser and colleagues Bobby Shriver and Kevin McKeown generally agreed that whatever Santa Monica "is," it's one story less than the heights for various districts that planning staff was proposing to be studied. They took the view that the council members should not authorize the study of anything that they were not interested in approving.

Which seemed to put the heights of buildings in Santa Monica in a kind of a priori category, since one might otherwise think that the council would (or should) not determine what heights were appropriate for these districts prior to having the benefit of environmental analysis.

It was like these three council members didn't want to risk learning something that might challenge their views of what Santa Monica is (or might be). As Mr. Shriver put it Thursday evening, he voted against studying the extra stories because he was concerned about creating "momentum" that would result in their approval.

Or as Mr. McKeown put it in an characteristic burst of hyperbole, if the City was going to study the five, six and seven story buildings the staff was asking to be studied the City might just as well study 25-story buildings as, so far as he was concerned, it would be an equal waste of time.

Which begs the question; why not study 25-story buildings? As I recently experienced, and discussed in last week's column, Barcelona has built buildings that tall near its beach, to good effect. I am not saying that skyscrapers would be appropriate for Santa Monica; in fact I've written in the past that they are not. They are not on the current agenda.

But tall buildings are not the planning equivalent of pornography, and even if they were, who is Mr. McKeown to say that we Santa Monicans aren't mature enough to study them and draw our own conclusions?

Is the Clock Tower Building not Santa Monica?

For all I know, the council majority's vote in favor of studying additional stories might create as Mr. Shriver fears a tidal wave of momentum that leads to their approval. But why not study what impact they would have before making a decision?

There are Santa Monicans who would welcome skyscrapers; there are others who resent any building over two stories. I remember that back in 1994 when Mr. Genser and I were both campaigning for approval of the Civic Center Specific Plan we went to a local Sierra Club meeting where a motion almost passed saying that there should be no buildings higher than one story within a mile of the beach. (Mr. Genser argued persuasively against that.)

What I know is that there is no community consensus about how high buildings should be in Santa Monica. The point of the LUCE planning process is for us to determine -- which ultimately means for the City Council to determine -- what would be the best future for Santa Monica. This is a subject for rational analysis, not for mystical invocations of what "everyone knows."

I'm tired of anyone using differences like ten feet to define in moralistic terms what "is" Santa Monica.

* * *

In the "fair and balanced" department, let me remind readers that as much as I believe Council Member Genser has an unhealthy obsession with those ten feet, as I've written before it's also hard to argue with just about everything else he's said about LUCE.

He hit another nail on the head Thursday night when he ventured a definition of "workforce housing," a concept that has been hard to define during the LUCE process.

Mr. Genser simply said that workforce housing should be defined as housing that falls in the economic gap between the affordable housing government helps build for low-income people and the housing that the market provides.

I don't know if this definition is original with Mr. Genser, but I can't think of a better way to describe that housing that Santa Monica needs to make sure gets built here.

* * *

I didn't return from my vacation until Sunday, July 20, and so I missed Glow the night before. My loss, apparently, but with an estimated 200,000 people participating, 75,000 at any one time, I'm sure that my absence wasn't noted.

Just some thoughts, though. There are a lot of Santa Monicans who don't like tourists, and Glow attracted them in hordes.

There are a lot of Santa Monicans who like to use the adjective "sleepy" to describe the city, and Glow had people up to greet the dawn.

There are a lot of Santa Monicans who complain about traffic and the lack of parking, and I understand that Glow bollixed up the city big time on both counts.

There are a lot of Santa Monicans who don't want anything on the beach other than sand, and Glow turned the beach into an art gallery.

But are you telling me that putting art on the beach from dusk to dawn and attracting a couple of hundred thousand people is not Santa Monica?

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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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