By Frank Gruber
The Expo line, which will return rails to their historic places -- geographic and cultural -- in Santa Monica, is not the only instance where dramatic changes will soon occur in Santa Monica's historic core.
The School District last week revealed, and the City of Santa Monica will soon reveal, plans to remake the contiguous but now separated areas of the Santa Monica High School campus and the Civic Center. ("District Presents Ambitious Plan for Samohi," March 11, 2009
One of the mantras solemnly repeated -- repeatedly! -- in Santa Monica is that the city is "built out," as if the fact that human beings have constructed something somewhere somehow signals the end of that somewhere's future. The histories of the sites of Samohi -- "Prospect Hill" -- and the Civic Center illustrate the ahistorical quality of this kind of thinking.
The physical space of the beloved high school has continuously evolved since the school was moved there nearly a century ago. The area across Fourth Street -- which contained a rail yard and an African-American neighborhood before the City developed an edifice complex in the 1940s and 1950s -- has also undergone change no less dramatic, but more convulsive than evolutionary.
Change continues. Under the 1993 Civic Center Specific Plan, as somewhat revised in the years since, the City built the public safety building and the Civic Center parking structure, and Rand built its new building. Nearing start of construction is the "Village" mixed-use and mixed-income residential development on the old Rand site, a development that will return housing to the Civic Center for the first time in decades.
At its meeting next Tuesday, March 24, the City Council, sitting as the City's redevelopment agency, will review plans that the District and the City's staff -- working both together and separately -- have developed to connect the southeast quadrant of the Civic Center with the high school campus. This will be the start of action at the council level to adopt a new five-year plan for the redevelopment agency.
As I write this, the staff report for next week's meeting, which will contain the proposals of City staff, is not yet available, but a report is available that the City commissioned last year from local architects Koning Eizenberg. This report sets forth general principles for redeveloping the area. The council reviewed the report, along with a version of the Samohi proposal, last July 23, and it gave encouragement to the general approach.
Meanwhile, the District's plan for Samohi has been released, and there is a lot to like in it. There are also a number of worrisome ideas.
The good news is that District's plan, developed by R. L. Binder Architecture and consistent with the Koning Eizenberg proposals, would reconnect the high school campus to the surrounding city, most dramatically by restoring Michigan Avenue, which now ends at Seventh Street, in the form of an east-west pedestrian promenade and bikeway that would pass through the campus and emerge at Fourth Street. The promenade would then pass through the new Civic Center park the City plans to build on the Civic Auditorium parking lot and connect to Main Street.
The athletic fields at the southwest corner of the campus would be lowered to street level, eliminating the current retaining wall that makes Fourth Street so unpleasant there for pedestrians and people waiting for the bus. School buildings would be removed that currently block the view from the Greek Theater towards the Pacific.
The idea is that except when school is in session, the school's facilities would be open to the public. This would apply not only to expanded athletic facilities such as ball fields and tennis and basketball courts, but also to Barnum Hall and the Greek Theater.
The District's plan provides for an expansion of athletic facilities for the school and the public.