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Where Change is Gonna Come Because Change Already Came

By Frank Gruber

July 11, 2011 -- This month two development projects in Santa Monica’s historical industrial corridor -- the district that is the focus of so much of the City’s new general plan land use and circulation elements (the LUCE) -- are receiving scrutiny at various levels.

The two projects are the “creative office” project at the corner of Colorado Avenue and Stewart Street known as the Lionsgate project because that independent film studio has worked with the developer, Jack Walter, on the plans, and the mixed office and residential project on the large lot next to Mr. Walter’s property, at 2848-2912 Colorado, known as the Roberts Center project. (Meanwhile, an environmental impact report for a third, contiguous project on Colorado, on the present site of the Village Trailer Park, is expected to be released in the next few weeks, and that project will go before the Planning Commission in the fall.)

Of the three projects, “Lionsgate” is furthest along. Last week the Planning Commission made comments to the proposed development agreement with Mr. Walter before sending the agreement to the City Council for consideration and (likely) approval. ("Planning Commission Scrutinizes Lionsgate Project," July 8, 2011) Roberts Center is at a more preliminary stage, as it will be the subject of a “float-up” before the City Council at the council’s meeting tomorrow night, to identify issues for the negotiation of a development agreement.

To begin analyzing these projects, the place to start is not the future, but the present, which is of course the product of the past. Sometimes people have this idea that change is a theoretical concept, that it doesn’t have to happen in real life. But when you look at the existing buildings on these sites -- the leftovers of a different economic age in a city and region that are still young -- you have to know that although change may not occur everywhere all the time, on these properties, change is gonna come.

2834 Colorado Avenue today, the proposed site for the Lionsgate project

The Roberts Center today

Once Santa Monica was an industrial town where neighborhoods of modest homes were built near factories and workshops to house the workers who worked there. As described in Magnetic Los Angeles: Planning the Twentieth-Century Metropolis, an illuminating book by Greg Hise, this pattern of development characterized the L.A. region when its economy was primarily industrial.

That economy is now gone, at least in Santa Monica, replaced by an office and studio economy that can fit more jobs than the old economy on the same amount of land. Financially, the beneficiaries of this change have been the old property owners of Santa Monica, particularly the homeowners, who have seen the value of their in-demand homes skyrocket without their having to invest more money in them.

In this column I have over the years often chided people concerned about growth for being “fearful of change.” My criticism of this fear is not that there aren’t, based on experience, reasons to be fearful -- yes, change has often been for the worse -- but that you’re not going to make change better by fearing it. Change is gonna come because change has already come. Better to be brave and confront change, with eyes open, and try to make it better.

But then, this trying to make it better -- let's call that endeavor planning -- adds yet more complexity. When it comes to planning, the history of city building presents a mixed message. Some of the best urban places got that way without the benefit of a plan, through incremental private decisions, and the most “advanced” planning -- think urban renewal -- often resulted in urban disasters.

Yet there are counter-examples where planning has resulted in good places and individual decision-making has resulted in awful places.

Cities need a mix of planning and individual initiative. A city founder may lay out a grid of well-proportioned streets that creates a good structure for a place, but that place will become great only if individuals make, over time, good decisions about what to build on those streets.

So where does that leave us with those industrial relics on Colorado and the plans to replace them? And with the LUCE update itself, as an example of planning: how well is it working?

To begin with, score one for planning. If it weren’t for overriding government intervention, the Colorado Avenue projects would likely not be coordinated, and if they weren’t coordinated, we the public and the property owners would miss out on the single best aspect of these plans, namely that they will result in the building of new streets to break up the old industrial superblocks -- an extension of Pennsylvania Avenue east of Stewart that will connect with Stanford Street, and a new north-south street between Yale and Stanford that will connect Colorado with Pennsylvania. (Maybe it should be called “I-80 Way.”)

You can also credit planning with an overall vision for the area that makes sense -- generally low-rise, three-to-five story, buildings that mix offices, studios, housing and small-scale retail with accessible plazas and streets. I know many Santa Monicans don’t consider five story buildings “low-rise,” but think about other underutilized properties in the region that have been converted to much taller buildings -- such as Century City, or along Sepulveda Boulevard, or in Culver City.

And think about how much better this vision is than that of 25 years ago -- the planning vision that gave us nearby suburban style office parks like the Arboretum or the Water Garden, which maintained the superblocks and separated public from private and pushed traffic out to surrounding arterial streets.

Interior of the Water Garden

Planning is a field that benefits more from trial and error than from theory. It’s instructive that one of the goals for the area articulated in the planning process is to “create a neighborhood that looks and feels like it developed organically.” Easier said than done, because most attempts to do something that isn’t real end up looking not real.

The worry I have about planning under the LUCE is that there is a tendency to micro-manage; the concept of trading “public benefits” for allowing developers to build beyond a certain baseline -- a baseline that is lower than the density that would best serve the area -- results in a tit-for-tat calculation that obscures what is important.

For instance, housing of all types is a benefit in Santa Monica, because we don’t have enough of it. We need more flexibility when it comes to building housing, not less.

And we should avoid requiring benefits that are not intrinsic to the development. As much as I hope students at Santa Monica College studying film have successful careers, does it make sense to evaluate Mr. Walter’s development on how many internships Lionsgate gives to SMC students?

The public benefit of change should come from the nature of the change itself.

Meeting Notice:

Wouldn’t you know it but Wednesday evening the Planning Department is hosting the next public workshop for the plans for the whole area around Bergamot Station, which includes the Colorado Avenue sites. This workshop will focus “on the Bergamot Station Art Center as the nucleus of an expanded creative economy that extends to the Mixed-Use Creative and Bergamot Transit Village Districts.” The workshop begins at 6:30 p.m., and will take place at the Pier 59 Studios on Michigan Avenue. For more details, go to:

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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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