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Not an Insult

By Frank Gruber

Jan. 24, 2011 -- Mental illness is in the news nationally and locally. In Tucson a young man on his way to a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia attacks a congresswoman and kills six bystanders. In Santa Monica, a from all accounts sweet and well-liked 15-year-old, but one likely suffering from depression, leaves baseball practice, says he’s going to kill himself, and does so by leaping from the 10th floor of a hotel across the street.

Mental illness has such a stigma that I worry I’m insulting both Jared Loughner and Matthew Mezza by describing them as mentally ill. When can we get it in our putatively sane heads that mental illness is just that, an illness? Or rather many illnesses, of varying severity, that exist cross-culturally. It’s estimated that in any given year about one-quarter of Americans suffer from a mental illness or disorder.

Just as in every population babies smile, in every population schizophrenia and depression exist. Our ancestors must have carried those genes out of Africa.

I don’t know whether any treatments could have prevented Jared Loughner from picking up his Glock, or saved Matthew Mezza’s life. Especially with Matthew, who was so young, one wonders if anyone could have anticipated and prevented his abrupt act. The number of people who contemplate suicide at some point in their lives is many times the number that commit suicide. Some mental illnesses come and go, making it hard to predict what anyone will do at any given time.

But what if everyone was more aware of how prevalent mental illness is? And how dangerous? What if the mentally ill could acknowledge the symptoms of their mental illnesses as easily as they might recognize the symptoms of the flu? (Matthew’s parents are to be commended for asking that donations in Matthew’s memory be made to Teen Line , a “teen-to-teen” suicide prevention program run out of Cedars-Sinai Hospital.)

What if Jared Loughner’s family and the grown-ups he interacted with at the community college he attended felt more comfortable reaching the obvious conclusion that he had a life-threatening illness? Mental illness is a serious public health issue; suicide ranks third as a cause of deaths among teenagers. What if there were public health agencies with the power to intervene when a young man like Jared exhibited disturbing behaviors? What if they had enough funding to do so effectively and humanely, with appropriate respect for civil liberties?

But as we saw with Loughner, it was easier for many to blame anything other than mental illness for what he did. Liberals jumped on right-wing rhetoric. Conservatives said it was a matter of personal responsibility and that he must be executed.

We humans operate in a world in which not everything, no matter what we do, is going to be right. Even with the best intentions, and as much knowledge as possible, the nature of mental illness is such that we’re not going to be able to control all outcomes. Tragically, the most unpredictable outcomes, precisely because they are the most surprising, involve teenagers and young adults -- all of whom we expect to be happy and healthy.

Children grow up to be adults, and adults have mental illnesses. The suicide rate for adults is about 12 per 100,000; the suicide rate for ages 15 to 19 is about seven. The rate for children under 15 is near zero. Adolescents are children in the process of becoming adults, and sometimes, to everyone’s heartbreak, the transition happens in an instant, before real adults can get them help.

* * *

For reasons I do not understand, tomorrow night at the City Council meeting the Planning Department will be making a potentially devastating attack on the extremely successful standards that have governed development in downtown Santa Monica for about 15 years.

This attack is under the rubric of an interim zoning ordinance (for 60 days, but sure to be extended indefinitely) that the department has proposed to cover the time from now until the City Council adopts a new permanent zoning ordinance that would implement the new land use and circulation elements (LUCE) of the City’s general plan that the council adopted last summer.

I don’t have a problem with the provisions of the interim ordinance that would apply to those areas of the city that the LUCE covers, but as was made quite explicit during the whole of the LUCE process, the LUCE does not apply to downtown. Any changes to development standards downtown are to be considered in a new specific plan, the process for which is at best only beginning.

The department’s proposal is that any developments downtown taller than 32 feet, which would mean any good development with housing, would require a development agreement. Effectively, given the additional environmental review and other uncertainties development agreements would entail, this would constitute a moratorium on mixed-use development downtown until adoption of the specific plan, which could be years in the offing. Two-story retail buildings could still be administratively approved -- a perverse result.

As I said, I don’t understand the reasons for this and unfortunately the department’s staff report doesn’t provide a coherent rationale either. The report talks about making downtown development meet “community expectations expressed in the LUCE,” but, again, the LUCE specifically did not apply to downtown, where, as it was expressed during the LUCE process, expectations are different from elsewhere in the city and where, in addition, development under existing standards has proceeded in a manner that achieves LUCE goals of inclusion and trip reduction.

The staff report sounds like a reprise of the attacks on downtown development that were made eight or so years ago, before Eileen Fogarty became planning director, with added rhetoric regarding planning for the coming of the Expo light rail line. Perhaps Ms. Fogarty is unaware of how the downtown standards came to be. In any case, there is nothing that’s been built or could be built downtown that would be inconsistent with either the light rail or with good urbanism. (Except perhaps the façade that the City gave its bus yard on Colorado between Sixth and Seventh.)

The current downtown development standards as originally adopted and as amended were the product of intensive public process, debate and action at both the Planning Commission and the City Council. To implement them, the Architectural Review Board has developed good precedents over the years. Pursuant to these standards, the City finally achieved its housing goals as required by the state, and downtown became a neighborhood as well as a commercial center.

The City Council should leave these standards alone until a public process shows that they can be improved. Throwing them out by means of an interim ordinance would be a travesty of public and political processes.

* * *

I will be writing more in the future about the pros and cons of redevelopment in Santa Monica, but given what I wrote last week about the history of bad decisions by redevelopment agencies, I cannot resist commenting on a doozy the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles (CRA/LA) made last week.

The CRA/LA, in a meeting hastily called to circumvent a possible future dismantling of the agency by the state (as called for by Gov. Jerry Brown), agreed to spend $52 million to build parking for the museum Eli Broad is building across Second Street from Disney Hall to house his collection of contemporary art.

This is like an advertisement for Gov. Brown’s plan. You can’t tell me that there aren’t better uses for $52 million dollars of tax revenues than to build another parking structure in downtown Los Angeles -- let alone one that will subsidize parking for people who work at or visit an art museum exhibiting works collected and owned by a private foundation. If Mr. Broad wants more parking for his museum, let him build it and then charge enough for parking to get his money back.

This is all occurring an area where there have been and will continue to be massive investments in mass transit, including a subway stop at Second and Hope; why is the CRA/LA subverting that investment by subsidizing more parking?

The Broad Museum is a prime example of a downtown building that should be built without parking. Okay, that might be too radical for L.A., but to subsidize its parking makes no sense.

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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