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Build a Tower in the Park  

By Frank Gruber

August 2, 2010 -- Last week Santa Monica City Manager Rod Gould and Police Chief Tim Jackman recognized reality and quickly did the smart thing by referring "Oscar-gate" -- the Police Department's investigation of School Board member Oscar de la Torre -- to an independent panel to review. (See story: July 29, 2010 County Panel to Review de la Torre Investigation.)

The question now is how long the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review will take to complete its investigation and how wide the scope of the investigation will be. Unfortunately, time and scope are at cross-purposes -- the broader the scope, the more time the review will take. But since Mr. De la Torre will be running for reelection in November, it will be important to conclude the investigation soon.

We also don't know how public the investigation will be, and in what form the Office of Independent Review's report will take. We don't know how the OIR will conduct its investigation or what powers it will have. Let's hope we get answers to these questions soon.

* * *

I got my start in Santa Monica politics in 1993 in connection with the development of the Civic Center Specific Plan. Given that history, there was no way I could miss the first workshop, held last Saturday, July 24, for the design of the Palisades Garden Walk park and the new "Town Square" plaza in front of City Hall.

The workshop began with a talk by James Corner of the landscape design firm Field Operations, which the City hired to design the parks a few months ago. Mr. Corner discussed his firm's projects and philosophy, and introduced the design team for the projects. Field Operations is based in New York, but the team includes various specialists from Southern California, including architects Fred Fisher and Partners. The Fisher firm designed the Annenberg Beach Club.

James Corner (Photo by Frank Gruber)

After the talk the crowd dispersed to tour the site and visit various stations the planners had set up to gather input about different aspects of the park and plaza.

It was difficult for me to maintain any semblance of journalistic integrity, as I found myself buttonholing planners to push my own thoughts about what to do with the sites. At least I can turn those thoughts into journalism by repeating them here.

The point that I want to make about Palisades Garden Walk and the town square is that as central as the location is, effort is going to be needed to attract people to the site so that it connects the Civic Center with the Pier and downtown.


Right now, even with City Hall, the Courthouse, and RAND right there, and the Pier and beach (and Santa Monica Place before it closed for renovations) nearby, the stretches of Main Street and Ocean Avenue adjacent to the site have little foot traffic.

Nor should we expect that many people will wander between the Pier and City Hall when the mixed-use housing and retail development called "The Village" is built south of the extension of Olympic Drive, between RAND and the new park. The Village is not going to be big enough by itself to create "critical mass" for the park. The fact is that on any given day the same people don't frequent the Pier and the institutions at the Civic Center.

What I suggested to the planners at the workshop was that they take a look at the original 1993 Civic Center Specific Plan, which was the product of considerable public process. (Not to mention that the voters approved it on a 60-40 vote.) Those plans included a viewing tower. The tower was going to be part of a new municipal office building that is no longer in the plans, but the tower is still a good idea.

Think of the leaning Tower of Pisa, or the Campanile at St. Mark's Square in Venice, or countless other towers in piazzas, plazas, and squares throughout the world. A beautiful tower would be a landmark that will attract people to the park.

A tower would also create and democratize the view.

"Create" the view because if you talk around the Civic Center you realize that even though Palisades Garden Walk will be near the beach, there will be no decent views from ground level. Partly this is the effect of geography, and partly this is the effect of nearby buildings.

"Democratize" the view because unless you stand on the top of a parking structure, the only place in Santa Monica to get a good view is from the upper floors of private buildings. (I used to have an office on the 11th floor of the Clock Tower Building, facing the ocean, and I can tell the view from up there was spectacular.)

We need a tower that people can climb (or take an elevator) to the top of to see one of the finest 360-degree views in the world.

That the tower could be an architectural landmark goes without saying.

I have no idea what a tower would cost, and I know that the money is not in the current budget for the park and plaza. That does not mean a tower should not be included in the design. If it is in the design, there is no telling where the money might come from. If it's not in the design, it won't happen.

* * *

Because of a family obligation, I missed the Santa Monicans for Renters Rights convention yesterday, and couldn't write about it last night. But I'll add one note before writing more about politics next week. That note is that I was always taught that the first rule of a political party is not to disavow your candidates who win office. What does that say about your judgment if you don't support your candidates for reelection? If SMRR isn't going to endorse old stalwarts Pam O'Connor, Oscar de la Torre, or Ralph Mechur, why should voters take their endorsements seriously?


For more information about the planning process for the Civic Center parks, and to contribute your own ideas, go to this website:

Frank J. Gruber is the author of Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, available at Hennessey + Ingalls and Angel City books in Santa Monica, at City Image Press, and on

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