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Complexity is Reality

By Frank Gruber

July 27, 2009 -- Based on comments to last week's column about the possibility of building a maintenance yard for the Expo line at the Verizon site on Exposition Boulevard, and attitudes toward it, people seemed to line up on one side or the other.

But my "takeaway" from more discussion and thinking about the issue is that the controversy illustrates something that repeats itself often in local politics, namely that people get adamant about development and public investment issues before they have what can often be the most important information about a given project: its design.

A lot of this has to do with the chronology of a project: typically it is first conceived based on projections about what the developer or public agency wants to build.  This is expressed by function and size -- so many square feet of this or that.

The project then goes through environmental review and it's more numbers -- all based on worst-case thinking.  The question the law asks is what impacts the project could possibly have -- the law being that unless the decision-makers have before them the worst possibilities, a decision to approve a project can be overturned.

It's at that stage that projects are typically put before the public and into the decision-making process, and both members of the public and public officials have to commit one way or another.

But when projects are built, what makes them good or bad often has nothing to do with the data assembled at that time.  They will work or they won't based on how they are designed.  It's not simply a matter of how pretty they are, but design has impact on how projects function.

Designers, if they are good, can add beneficial complexity to a project.  It turns out that "keep it simple" is not always good advice, because reality isn't simple.

Typically, everyone involved with a project until the designer comes aboard is looking at it from only one point of view.  For example, the maintenance yard as perceived by the Expo Authority has just one purpose -- a place to service trains.  Then the environmental reviewers analyze the project with only one criterion, impact on the environment, usually expressed in simplistic, physical terms (no matter how elaborate the metrics) .

City Council members and the neighbors, who will probably evaluate a rail maintenance yard only once in their lives, then need to try to understand all the implications, but there's a strong tendency to reduce the complex problem to one or two elements that are easily summarized ("environmental racism!," "toxic triangle!," "industrial use!", or, on the other hand, "transportation!").

But good designers aren't tied in their thinking to the simplicity of single-purpose functionality, and they bring to the table knowledge of how people in other places have dealt with the same situation.  This, by the way, was not always the case.  Urban designers in the Modernist period tended to simplify problems and come up with single-use solutions, that didn't work.  But cities are complex, and today's designers have learned from the mistakes of the past.  Good urban designers use complexity to deal with contradictions.

Designers looking at the proposed yard in context can show how, for instance, one can separate its unpalatable functions from the adjacent neighborhood with buffers that themselves add value to the neighborhood.  Good designers do this not in a bubble, but as part of a public workshop process, where they both gather and give information.

We saw this in Santa Monica with the development of the Civic Center Plan in the early '90s -- until the City had hired designers from the ROMA group to show what the plan could mean in real life, it was just a pile of scary numbers.  Once the public could see the design, they supported it overwhelmingly when the plan was put a vote.

In a sense, I was guilty in last week's column of pre-judging the alternative proposal that City staff has made to Expo by calling it a "Rube Goldberg" type design.  It's possible -- once good designers have had a whack at it -- that the proposal to straddle Stewart Street could work.  Certainly, as I think about it, the tracks between the two parts of the yard will probably only be used at night, when they won't disrupt traffic on Stewart, since during the day the trains will be in service.

But my bigger point is that the Expo Authority and Metro can't make the decisions, and the City of Santa Monica and the public shouldn't take hard and fast positions, until they see what all the possibilities are.  And that takes design.

* * *

Speaking about complexity, it is the 100th anniversary year of the Santa Monica Municipal Pier, certainly a complex place.  Yesterday I attended a lecture about the history of the Pier by James Harris, author of the just-published, fascinating, and wonderfully illustrated Santa Monica Pier: A Century on the Last Great Pleasure Pier.  (The lecture was sponsored by the Santa Monica Historical Society Museum.)

Places like the Pier must be both inspiring and depressing to urban designers -- if you're starting from scratch with a blank piece of land, how can you possibly think up all the detail that a site like the Pier inherits over years and decades of use and remaking?  Even when so much of the Pier was destroyed in 1983, the designers had past uses to look back on; they (and their clients, the City and the people who live here) could choose what to recreate.

* * *

I don't know if the Lobster restaurant on Ocean Avenue overlooking the Pier counts as part of it, but last Monday evening I attended a party at the restaurant celebrating the ten years since it opened on the site of the old Lobster diner.  The event brought back memories of one of the more interesting City Council meetings I've attended. 

That was back in 1998 when just a couple of months after the City had approved construction of the new restaurant, which would incorporate the old Lobster "shack," and after construction had begun, some City Council members had second thoughts.  They wanted to turn the property into "open space" -- a small extension of Palisades Park.

The City tried to buy the property, but the owners wouldn't sell.  City staff then came to the council with a proposal to use eminent domain.  At that moment, a remarkable thing happened in Santa Monica.  It turned out that the "people" didn't want the simplicity of more open space at the top of the Pier; they wanted a restaurant, especially one that continued the history of a place where there had been a seafood restaurant since the '20s.

Residents came to the meeting, told the council not to condemn the property, and the council listened.

My favorite line of the night came from activist Jerry Rubin, who told the council that he liked parks, but if a place wasn't big enough to throw a Frisbee, it wasn't a park to him.

Life's not simple.  Neither are cities.

Lecture notice: Tomorrow night (July 28) historian Alison Rose Jefferson will give a talk about the history of the relationship between African-Americans and the beach in Santa Monica.  The title of the lecture is "Hidden Stories of Santa Monica Beach: African American Beach Culture at the Site Controversially Known as "the Inkwell", 1900s-1960s".  Ms. Jefferson will give the lecture at the Annenberg Community Beach House, Garden Terrace Room (415 Pacific Coast Highway), at 6:30PM.  Admission is free, RSVPs are recommended; to register for the event, go to:

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