The Lookout columns What I Say H Line
Archive Columns Special Reports The City Commerce Links About Contacts
About Frank Archive Email Frank  Urban Worrier Book Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce
HLKK Attorneys Downtown Housing
Live in Downtown Sata Monica
FGruber Photo Read Frank Gruber's
Political Analysis in
"What I Say"
every Monday

I’ll take some of that Utopia with the Arcadia, Please

By Frank Gruber

November 15, 2010 -- From a long-term perspective, there is nothing going on in Santa Monica more important than the rebuilding of the area around the old heart of the city that will take place over the next five or ten or 20 years. The first stage of this is the planning currently in process for the new park at the Civic Center, between City Hall and Ocean Avenue, but that will be only the beginning.

After the parks are designed, the City will turn to the streets. Colorado Avenue and Fourth Street will both need to be reconfigured when in five years or so passenger trains return to Santa Monica after an absence of more than half a century. The terminus of the line will be at the corner of those two streets, which will become a focus for every mode of surface transportation you can think of.

Colorado will become part street, part esplanade. We’ve already seen, with the remodeling of the department-store-that-is-now-Bloomingdales, the return of a non-hostile streetscape to the north side of Colorado.

A new off-ramp from the freeway to Fourth Street may be built to distribute traffic more evenly through what will become, once Olympic Drive is continued to Ocean Avenue, something more of a real street grid through the Civic Center. At least some of the freeway may be covered over, although plans for that are somewhat longer-range.

It’s exciting, and that’s why I’m trying to cover it all.

But columnists also like controversy, and so far the design process for the parks has been lacking that (aside from the controversy in the first place over hiring the designer). I attended Saturday’s workshop (see story )where lead designer James Corner presented his team’s plans, and rarely have I seen such a lovefest for a plan in Santa Monica. Building on three conceptual plans Mr. Corner presented in September, the team put together a plan that truly did integrate the best parts of the three concepts, and nearly all of the assembled residents loved it.

I did too. In fact, the whole thing was moving. I mean one can always make refinements, and I’m sure some will be made, but it’s moving to see imagination and thought conscientiously applied to a public purpose. (Not to mention the little thrill you get anticipating what it’s going to be like wandering up, down and around the new park, with beauty at every turn.)

James Corner presents his plan for the new parks at the Civic Center. Photo by Frank Gruber.

I’ve mentioned this before, but what surprises me most from a Santa Monica perspective is how the public has encouraged an adventurous plan, to which Mr. Corner has responded with as much ambition as I suspect can be wrung out of the $25 million budget. He’s got artificial hills and ravines, dramatic palisades and places to gather, artistic lighting effects and sculptural devices; there aren’t many straight lines. (But here’s my quibble, which was pointed out a few times in comments Saturday: the highest viewpoint needs to be more than 15 feet off the ground.)

In response, I expected that “open space” fanatics and the “sleepy beach town” crowd would decry en masse anything that wasn’t a flat lawn. But the opposite has been true. Maybe the reason is that people know the location demands a park that will attract visitors.

As I watched Mr. Corner unveil the design, what came to my mind were the gardens at the Getty Center, designed by Robert Irwin. Obviously the terrain is different at the Getty -- a steep slope -- but the “artifice” is the same. Mr. Irwin took nature and improved on it. And people love it -- and spend a lot of time there, just walking around with their eyes open.

I also thought of one of the best books about Southern California: Landscapes of Desire: Anglo Mythologies of Los Angeles, by William Alexander McClung. Mr. McClung argues in the book that when Anglos came to Southern California they projected two conflicting visions on the land: one of Arcadia, the existence of a natural paradise, and one of Utopia, the potential for a manmade paradise.

Both Mr. Corner and Mr. Irwin seem to be of the utopian school, but both know how important Arcadia is, too. They don’t intend with their designs to create new kinds of landscape, but instead replicate and enhance the characteristic natural landscapes of the region.

Mr. Corner has emphatically used the arroyo as his basic concept for the park at the Civic Center. But although the image of an arroyo is basic to his designs, and the park will be located where an old arroyo led to the sea, what Mr. Corner proposes to build is not by any means a restoration of what existed on the site prior to the building of the Arcadia Hotel.

No, if any ecology will be restored by the City’s projects in this area over the next two decades, it will be an urban ecology that was obliterated and frustrated by the suburban notions of the mid-20th century: the return of trains along the very right-of-way that Santa Monica’s founders built in 1875, the restoration of streets and housing that urban renewal and redevelopment obliterated, the reconnecting of the Civic Center with downtown 50 years after the freeway was cut through.

Now, if some philanthropist would only donate the funds for a viewing tower -- there is a great spot for it in the plan, right between City Hall and the freeway -- I'd really be happy.

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

If readers want to write the editor about this column, send your emails to The Lookout at .

If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.

Lookout Logo footer image Copyright 1999-2010 All Rights Reserved.      EMAIL