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Making a Center a Center

By Frank Gruber

In case you were worried about parks in pits after reading last week's column, I can assure you, after reading the staff report from five, count 'em, five, department heads, to the City Council for tomorrow night's meeting about next steps for the Civic Center, that there were no references to any dimensions more than two when it came to parks.

But the report did make me think about the fourth dimension -- time.  What we call the Civic Center has been trying to become one for 70 years, ever since the City, with federal funds (stimulus money from another age), built City Hall in 1939 on the site of a train depot.  The county courthouse, replacing a brickyard, and the Civic Auditorium and its parking lot, which together obliterated an African-American neighborhood called the Belmar Triangle, were added in the '50s.

These buildings, fronted by lawns, constituted together less than the sum of their self-contained selves.  The words "civic center" imply "urban heart," but what developed was more like an urban appendix.

But time passes.  For me, there is personal resonance; I first became involved in Santa Monica affairs, and first started writing about land use, 16 years ago when the City conducted a public process that resulted in a new plan for the area -- the Civic Center Specific Plan (CCSP), which the voters of Santa Monica approved overwhelmingly in 1994.

The plan has been revised since, in response to changing opportunities, needs, and economics, but development of the area has proceeded largely along the lines of the original CCSP.

Now, in response to an important impending change in the urban context -- the expected arrival by 2015 of the Expo light rail, which will have its terminus nearby at Fourth and Colorado -- the City is looking at how plans for the Civic Center might be adapted both to take advantage of the light rail and deal with changes in traffic patterns the line will cause.

And this is what the extraordinary staff report for tomorrow night's meeting is about.  I don't know if it's unprecedented for the heads of five departments -- Planning and Community Development, Community and Cultural Services, Public Works, Housing and Economic Development, and the Big Blue Bus -- to co-sign a staff report to the council, but I don't recall it happening in the time I've been trying to pay attention to such things.

I can't summarize the whole staff report here -- its 17 pages touch on perhaps a dozen projects each of which would (and perhaps will) be cause for an extensive public process and debate, let alone major design, technical and financial challenges.

I will mention its most fundamental idea, which is to integrate the Civic Center's super-blocks into Santa Monica's grid of streets and by so doing alleviate the traffic pressure that will exist on the Fourth and Colorado corner when it becomes a major transit hub.

This idea builds upon one of the major but as yet unrealized elements of the original CCSP -- to bisect the Civic Center with Olympic Drive, which, by connecting Ocean Avenue and Main Street to the freeway, would reduce traffic at the corners on the edge of the Civic Center -- Fourth & Colorado, Ocean & Colorado, Ocean & Pico, Main & Pico, and Fourth & Pico.  Olympic Drive currently reaches Main and it will reach Ocean when the Village housing development is completed. 

The planners are now saying that Olympic Drive won't be enough, or could be improved upon, because motorists exiting the freeway need to take a left turn, and join the traffic on Fourth, to get to it.  They are proposing another east-west connector between Colorado and Olympic.  The idea is to build a narrow bridge across the freeway from the Fourth Street off-ramp and run a street along the northern edge of City Hall to Main Street (and possibly to Ocean).

There are a number of other ideas discussed in the staff report to integrate the Civic Center into the grid of streets, including extending Michigan Avenue as a pedestrian promenade and bikeway, as discussed in the Samohi plan, as well the biggest project of all -- decking over some or all of the freeway between Ocean and Fourth.

I have two concerns arising from the staff report worth mentioning at this stage. 

One is perhaps a small point, but it's about parking.  There's nothing that worries me more than vague pronouncements about parking, because in Santa Monica they often lead to building too much of it.

The staff report says mostly the right things about parking, including the importance of sharing it and how it's priced, to the end of minimizing the building of more.  I'm nervous nonetheless, because the report calls for evaluating parking needs "by considering peak demand days."

Building parking to satisfy theoretical peak demand leads to building too much parking, which is wasteful and only encourages more driving and traffic.  This is what the City is doing in downtown Santa Monica, by planning to build a major parking structure at Fifth and Arizona.

There is nothing in the prospective Civic Center plans -- other than perhaps replacing parking that currently exists at the Pier -- that would require building more public parking at the Civic Center.

My other concern is about process.  Ever since the Planning Commission in 1993 asked for a public design process before approving recommendations for what kind of development to permit at the Civic Center, development of those plans has involved a dialogue between designers hired by the city -- notably Boris Dramov of ROMA Design Group -- and the public. 

At the center of the dialogue has always been a "Design Working Group" consisting of members from the City Council and from the planning and other relevant boards and commissions.

As a member of the public I learned a lot from these public workshops -- I will always remember what a revelation it was when Mr. Dramov superimposed on the Civic Center map the layouts of notable public spaces around the world.  I know as a participant and observer that the ultimate designs reflected input the designers had received from their clients -- the public.

To me, it will be important for the City to reinstate this process.  Not that everything the public says is edifying; public comments often run from the unhelpfully general to the overly particular.  But the designers need to hear from the public directly and not just from the staff who hire them, and good designers know how to interpret, sift through, and incorporate the most unpolished input without checking their own knowledge and talents at the door.

The staff report is ambiguous on process.  The five department heads are asking the council to authorize a "public outreach process" that would occur before staff presents the council with an "integrated urban design concept," and that's good.  (The staff report doesn't mention the Design Working Group, but I hope the council reconstitutes it once again.)

Why am I concerned?  The reason is that the staff report itself reflects a level of analysis that I would have thought would have not have occurred until there had been at least preliminary public outreach.  The staff report says there is going to be a process, but it also says that a detailed "conceptual analysis" has been developed, and that after "council direction, additional technical studies will be performed to further refine the concepts."

There are a lot of big concepts there, and the City Council (and staff) could have benefited from hearing from the public in an informal workshop before making decisions, even decisions only about concepts to study further.

But then, I'm excited.  Let the planning, and the process, begin.

Yet again.


Event notice:

This Saturday, March 28, at the John Adams Middle School cafeteria from 9:00 a.m. to noon, the School District will be convening a forum on the topic of the District's proposed policy for the use of facilities groups for non-school events, such as PTA fundraisers.  While the topic does not by itself seem controversial, the forum is taking place in response to the canceling of a fundraising event for Edison Elementary School that was going to feature the comedian Carlos Mencia, a proposed event and a cancellation that have resulted in hard feelings among many both in and outside of the Edison community.  The forum will, according to the District's announcement, include a panel discussion as well as opportunities for the public to contribute to the discussion.

Sad note: Glenn Sundby has died. The gymnast, one of those who made Santa Monica's Muscle Beach famous, died at age 87.  I had the privilege to meet Mr. Sundby five years ago when he was part of a program at the Santa Monica Historical Society Museum -- he had a dream then of returning Muscle Beach to its former glory, with a new performance platform.  (see column )  His passing is another reminder of all the things Santa Monica has been known for.

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