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The Dead Hand of the Present

June 6, 2011 --. In 2002 the Landmarks Commission designated the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium a city landmark. After an appeal by the late City Council Member Herb Katz, the City Council approved the designation.

As a consequence, a decade later the City, with limited alternatives for what to do with the Civic, is spending nearly $50 million, and possibly forgoing the building of a park that has been planned for nearly 20 years, to make a building that was a failure from the start somewhat more comfortable.

Now the Landmarks Commission is at it again, but this time at the other end of the Civic Center. Last month the commission turned the nondescript plaza in front of City Hall into the equivalent of a landmark. This gives the commission control over the design of the new “Town Square” that the City is planning for the site.

City Hall has been a city landmark since 1979, but the landmark designation does not include the building’s surroundings, which on their own are not noteworthy.

Last year, when the City began the public process to design Palisades Garden Walk and the new Town Square, and engaged noted landscape designers James Corner Field Operations, the designers were thought to have a rather free hand. Nonetheless, recognizing the context, City staff began showing designs to the Landmarks Commission early on, beginning last July, returning in October and December as plans emerged from the process.

Apparently, according to people I’ve spoken to who attended the meetings, at first the commissioners liked what they saw, but gradually they began to try to exert more control. However, since no elements of the landscape were included in the landmark designation of City Hall, the commission did not have much legal authority.

To fix this, in January the commission made itself an applicant in a procedure before itself to expand City Hall’s landmark designation to include its surroundings. In response, the City ordered a historical analysis, which was ready in time for the commission’s May 9 meeting.

The 70-page report is a great example of circular reasoning: a landmark building to be a landmark must have “character,” and thus must have character defining features; therefore whatever elements co-existed long enough with the landmark must be character defining regardless whether they in fact have anything to do with the character of the building that justified its being a landmark.

The report points to only one feature of real historic interest, the rose garden that was dedicated by the Gold Star Mothers in 1951 to honor Santa Monicans who had given their lives for our country. The rose garden should be preserved (and it is in the current iteration of the design, with a beautiful fountain surrounding it); not because it is “character-defining” for City Hall, but because it continues to have meaning for our community.

Crucially, the report does not analyze the features to be preserved against any of the criteria in Santa Monica’s landmarks ordinance that are required for designation of a landmark, even though in effect the report was declaring that those elements -- which include, by way of example, various trees, lawn areas, concrete sidewalks, and the city council members’ parking spaces -- should be landmarks and thus preserved for all posterity.

Nonetheless, or, I suppose, predictably, the commission loved the report and added 16 landscape elements to City Hall’s landmark designation. These include the “symmetrical configuration of the landscape and hardscape elements at the front of City Hall,” which, unless the City Council intervenes, gives the commission control over the design process for the Town Square.

Trying to appease the commissioners, the design consultants returned to the commission at a special meeting May 23, and presented revised plans that they believed satisfied the legal requirements for preserving the new elements of the landmark designation, but the commission was not satisfied. I’m told the discussion ranged to such historic issues as the color of blossoms that commissioners preferred to see on trees.

Historical preservation plays an important role in the growth and evolution of cities, but when blindly applied to anything old, preservation has a negative effect. Attention must be paid, especially when it comes to public places, to the quality of what will be perpetuated. Much as the Civic Auditorium has been a failed venue for presenting cultural events, the landscape in front of City Hall has been a failed civic space.

Do you ever see anyone congregating in front of City Hall, meeting friends, talking over the business of the day? Let’s face it -- City Hall’s front yard is inhospitable and boring. Thinking of plazas in front of municipal buildings, this is not the Campo in Siena or the Campidoglio in Rome that the Landmarks Commission wants to preserve forever; what we’re talking about is a sterile remnant of Santa Monica in the ’60s.

Santa Monica City Hall and its front yard. (Photo by Frank Gruber)

The place cries out for a re-design. From the plans I have seen, the designers understand that, and have come up with plans, including water elements and shade trees, that will make the area more interesting and welcoming.

Some architects claim, wrongly in my view, that they should not concern themselves with context when they design buildings, because context can change. What the Landmarks Commission is seeking to do -- make the context of an important building unchangeable -- is equally misguided. In fact, it’s a dangerous precedent and expansion of the commission’s authority.

Consider: if the lawn in front of City Hall is necessary to define the character of City Hall, then doesn’t the Civic Auditorium’s parking lot define it? What if the commission included the parking lot in the Civic’s landmark designation? Should we need the commission’s approval to replace the parking lot with a park?

Times change, and the front yard for City Hall that was created from the 1940s to the 1970s, may have fit the context then, but now that everyone wants to integrate the Civic Center better into downtown Santa Monica, we need something different.

The design process for the park and the Town Square has been one of the best-attended public processes the City has conducted in my memory, and the public and the City Council have acclaimed the results. In the context of that process, the commission should be one voice among many. The commissioners should contribute their ideas, but they should not have a veto over the design.

But I’m not optimistic. Although I have heard from a few residents who have participated in the design process for the parks about how outraged they are, politically it is difficult in Santa Monica to oppose landmarking, as it’s an apple pie and motherhood issue. City staff never likes to challenge boards and commissions, and the design will probably continue to be watered down.

What this reminds me of is the situation a few years ago when staff and City Council were ready to cave in to the demands of a few residents who lived near the site of the Annenberg Beach House to weaken that design and downgrade the program for the project. Residents rose up to demanded that the council hold firm.

What we need now is for park supporters to tell the council they want the Town Square design process to be open to all, not just the Landmarks Commission.

* * *

What do Sarah Palin and the initiative to ban circumcision in Santa Monica have in common? This columnist won’t write about either one until she or it is actually on the ballot.

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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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