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Making Connections between the Carts and the Horses

By Frank Gruber

April 18, 2011--As reported in The Lookout: City Council Discusses LUCE Connectivity Projects, April 15, 2011, last week the Santa Monica City Council held a hearing to discuss ideas and proposals the Planning Department is making for changes to the circulation network in downtown Santa Monica and the Civic Center.

The proposals have a particular focus on knitting downtown and the Civic Center together better with improved connections over the freeway for pedestrians and cyclists. Some of the ideas are for temporary improvements -- such as adding amenities to the Fourth Street bridge to make it more pleasant for walkers -- while some look forward to major capital projects that would cover or bridge the freeway itself.

While the council members largely agreed at a conceptual level with the approach that the Planning Department was taking, Council Member Bobby Shriver stressed that the City could not make any of these decisions without evaluating the financial costs.

Mr. Shriver is correct, of course, but as an aside, it’s interesting how he has become, without abandoning his liberal politics, the council’s conservative when it comes to spending. There is hardly an issue that comes up where he doesn’t remind everyone that the City needs to look at the price tag.

I’m starting to wonder if Mr. Shriver might be channeling something bigger: the day after last week’s City Council meeting was the day that President Obama gave his big speech on the long-term federal deficit, and in the speech he addressed his fellow Democrats to tell them that if they believed in a progressive vision, then they “have the obligation to prove that we can afford our commitments.”

In my view, however, the most important element missing from last Tuesday’s hearing was not the budget analysis, although surely that needs to come. One way or another, redevelopment funding is on the way out. Even if Jerry Brown doesn’t eat up the money the City thought it still had coming its way from the 1994 earthquake redevelopment district, that gravy train is coming to an end in any case as we approach the 20th anniversary of the quake.

Sooner or later, probably sooner, the City is going to have to return to pre-1994 techniques for financing capital improvements. While there will be partial federal or state funding for some of these projects, I suspect that ultimately the City is going to have to look at forming an assessment district or issuing bonds, or a combination of the two.

But my problem with the proposals on the table last week was that as good as they are, and the high-priority projects of remaking Colorado Avenue between Ocean Avenue and Fourth and adding bike lanes and pedestrian amenities make a lot of sense, they do not reflect the impact of the most important change that is going to happen to downtown circulation, namely the Expo rail terminus on Colorado Avenue.

True, planning staff spoke generally about circulation options around the station, and they made an interesting proposal to connect the southbound lanes on Fifth Street to the Fourth Street off ramp to make a loop around the station. This would enable drop-offs and pickups on the Fifth Street side, removing those activities from Fourth Street, which is expected to carry the burden of transit connections to the station.

Nonetheless, I had the feeling that no one knows yet how the station is going to function.

I do not know if the Expo Authority, which is planning the route, is in communication with the Planning Department. Whether they are or not, however, the two need to get together to present to the public a model of what is being considered and what the alternatives are. The station is not the kind of facility that can be planned in the abstract, and the planners and designers need to listen to as many critiques as possible, even if the critiques will inevitably conflict.

On this subject, I have already heard a radical alternative that deserves to be analyzed by Expo and the City. It comes from someone who knows downtown Santa Monica well -- retail consultant Rob York, who for more than 20 years has been an advisor to the Bayside District Corporation (now Downtown Santa Monica Inc.). Mr. York has become convinced that it would be a mistake to locate the station at Fourth and Colorado, on the former site of the Sears automotive center.

Mr. York believes that trains slowing down to make the curve into the station located south of Colorado will jam up Fifth Street, which will be a more critical street for downtown once the station opens than it is today. Instead, he suggests that the station be located on a new plaza in the Colorado right-of-way between Fifth and Sixth Streets. This would block Colorado (Mr. York says there won’t be much through traffic on Colorado in any case), but lessen pressure on Fourth and Fifth Streets.

I do not have enough information, nor enough expertise, to evaluate Mr. York’s proposal against the existing Fourth and Colorado proposal, but in talking to Mr. York about it, I came to realize that there has not yet been a detailed public conversation about how the station would be integrated into the street grid, the transit network, etc. Frankly, I’m worried that Expo will show up one day with a detailed, completed design they say can’t be substantially changed.

And in the meantime, we need to know how the station is going to work before the City can make big plans for downtown.

* * *

This column has never been about arts and culture, and that is not going to change, but back in the column’s early days I wrote often in favor of building the Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center, including what is now called the Broad Stage, on the old Madison Elementary site.

Built with college bond funds and endowed with $10 million from the Broad Foundation, the 500-seat theater and concert hall has now been open for three years. Although I have been enjoying programs at the Broad since it opened to the public, I am moved to write about it now because of the production I saw there Friday night of “The Merchant of Venice.”

Wow. Starring F. Murray Abraham, this production was simply topnotch. I do not know if tickets are available for this week’s performances, but if they are, I suggest trying to get one.

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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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.


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