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The Convenient City

By Frank Gruber

What became the major focus of the City Council's review of the Expo line last Tuesday evening was the maintenance yard the Expo Construction Authority proposes to build on the Verizon property on Exposition Boulevard east of Stewart Street.  Nearly every other issue -- in particular, the choice of Colorado Avenue over Olympic Boulevard for the final leg of the route which once was expected to be the biggest issue in Santa Monica -- turned out to be largely non-controversial.

The maintenance yard was also non-controversial -- in the sense that all the council members and the residents of the nearby neighborhood who spoke agreed that the authority should find another location.  There was considerable back and forth, however, between the council members and the authority's representative, Steve Polechronis, about whether the authority had adequately reviewed alternatives to the site.

I have expressed my opinion about this before, which is that the City should do everything it can to persuade the authority to find a different location, but that if none is available, all should not be considered lost. ("WHAT I SAY -- Transit and Good Urban Design Unite," February 17, 2009)

There is a lot that design can do to separate the yard from the neighborhood and add elements that will enhance the neighborhood, and connect it better to the future Expo station at Bergamot Station and the rest of the city.  I was pleased to see in the staff report for the project that staff was advising the council that if another site could not be found, that the City should work with the authority not only to mitigate environmental impacts, but also "to identify possible opportunities that could benefit the City and the adjacent residents."

The City Council chose to drop this language encouraging cooperation to find opportunities from the directions the council gave staff, because the council members thought that this would rhetorically weaken the City's argument against the authority.  Although I can understand this as a matter of tactics, it's important not to let anger about the yard blind one to possibilities.

Expo as a whole will be great for the nearby neighborhood, which was cut off from rest of the Pico Neighborhood to the south by the Santa Monica Freeway.  There are no retail stores to walk to in the neighborhood, except through a narrow tunnel under the freeway.  The neighborhood is isolated, surrounded by the freeway, the Verizon site, and the remnants of other industrial uses, as well as the City's own maintenance yards, and uninviting streets to the north, east and west. 

Those industrial or post-industrial sites, as Council Member Pam O'Connor pointed out at the meeting last week, exist at these locations because they were located originally alongside a railroad -- the railroad that "made" Santa Monica when it was constructed in 1875.  It's also worth remembering -- when we're talking about justice, environmental or otherwise, that in the days of racially restrictive covenants, the adjacent neighborhood and the rest of the Pico Neighborhood to the south were "across the tracks." 

The freeway, as many speakers mentioned, is a huge source of particulate and noise pollution (much worse than any impacts that would emanate from a maintenance yard), but it doesn't make any sense to saddle Expo with the immorality of the freeway.  The freeway diminished the neighborhood; Expo will add value to it.

In fact, the residents quite fairly acknowledge the benefits of the Expo line; none of speakers against the yard opposed Expo and most of them went out of their way to express their support for it.

If the Expo authority won't budge from the Verizon site, it needs to come back to the neighborhood with a good, detailed plan for the site.  It will be worth spending some money to hire an architect and a good urban designer now to do this, as well as someone who is an expert on noise and other environmental impacts to design the mitigations of the impacts and then explain those designs to, and take advice from, the community.

If the authority and the City get together -- along with Santa Monica College, which owns the important site to the west of the Verizon site -- they can design the north side of Exposition Boulevard so that it contributes to, rather than detracts from, the quality of the neighborhood.

One thing I didn't understand about Mr. Polechronis's presentation was that the authority is saying that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will need 65-70 parking spaces for the workers at the yard.  That seems to be a case of Metro not being one with its own program; what kind of statement is that for a transit agency to make?

And what about walking to work?  One of the benefits the City should push for from the authority, if the authority insists on the Verizon location, is a program to train and hire workers from nearby neighborhoods.  These jobs are the good, union, blue-collar jobs that used to be the economic lifeblood of Santa Monica.

* * *

People have for millennia expressed their frustrations with life in dense, urban areas.  Today, among middle-class people in America, it's mostly about the traffic.  Santa Monicans are no exception.  I don't mean to minimize the "horror" entailed these days in trying to drive east or south from Santa Monica in the late afternoon, but recently I had occasion to notice the counter-balancing benefits of living here.

It's the convenience.

Last weekend we were doing a lot of entertaining.  Saturday night we had a dinner party, and for reasons having to do with the fact that two of the guests were old friends we hadn't seen in years -- friends who have since started a business importing olive oil from Tuscany -- I wanted to cook a special meal.  I decided to make quail from a recipe I found in an old Italian cookbook.

But where to get quail?  No problem in Santa Monica, which benefits from good "grocery store urbanism" I can order nearly anything in the way of meat from the butcher shop at Bob's Market on Ocean Park Boulevard.

Then on Sunday we were hosting a birthday brunch for my dad and a few of his friends.  Regular smoked salmon is okay, but I like to get some of the smoked fish specialties they sell at the Ukraina delicatessen on Wilshire, like mackerel or "hot smoked trout."

It turned out that on Saturday morning I had five errands to run from my house in Ocean Park: stop by my office on Fourth Street in downtown Santa Monica to pick up something I'd forgotten to bring home; get the fish at Ukraina at 12th and Wilshire; then go to Snyder-Diamond, the great plumbing supply store, at 14th and Olympic to pick up a water filter; then Bob's Market at 17th and Ocean Park for the quail; and finally pick up laundry at our cleaners at Lincoln and Pico.

I left at 9:50 and I was back home by 11.  And those 70 minutes included a chat with the woman behind the counter at Ukraina about herring (the upshot: go with the Lithuanian), a discussion about kitchen faucets at Snyder-Diamond, talk about cooking small birds, etc., with the guys behind the Bob's meat counter (as well as some general shopping), and the usual exchange of pleasantries at the cleaners.

The only surprise was that I didn't bump into anyone I know shopping at Bob's.

Not only was all this very efficient, but if I lived in a less interesting urban place, where maybe there would be less traffic congestion (although traffic's bad in the suburbs, too), would I be able to buy exotic smoked fish, like I do at Ukraina?  Or would there be a good butcher shop like the one at Bob's?

And I haven't even mentioned the new Santa Monica Seafoods at 10th and Wilshire, and the new bakery a couple of doors away.

Event notices:

Next Saturday evening, 6-8 p.m., the 18th Street Art Center (1639 18th Street) will host a gallery walk through for a current show that I haven't yet seen, but which looks rather interesting.  It's called "SHANGRI L.A.: architecture as a state of flux," and it features speculative models about the way our built environment might be or have become.

For more information, go to the art center's webpage for the event.

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