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More Reasons to Live Here

By Frank Gruber

September 19, 2011 -- Last week my wife and I had Dodger tickets. She teaches at USC and the plan was for me to take the Number 10 bus to downtown L.A.; she would pick me up at Pico and Olive and we’d drive to the stadium.

While I was waiting for the bus at the Promenade stop on Santa Monica Boulevard, there was a couple from Australia, with a boy who looked about six or seven, who were also waiting for the 10. (I could tell they were from Australia because of their accents and because the husband had a shirt that said “Australian Association of Professional Photographers.”)

We boarded the bus and they took seats right behind me. I couldn’t help but overhear them talking about how they were going to Dodger Stadium, and I couldn’t help but turn around to ask why Australians were going to a baseball game. The woman turned out to be a travel writer, one who likes to write about local sporting events in the towns and cities she visits.

The result of all this was that a long conversation ensued, about travel, Santa Monica, local politics here and there, the trip they were going to make to Yosemite and through the Sierras, etc. But the first thing was that they asked me to explain the rules of baseball. Have you ever tried to do that? It’s like teaching English to someone from Tibet.

I started with the concept of an out, and how outs can be made. After I had explained the difference between a force out and a tag play, but long before I could get to the infield fly rule, the woman suddenly interrupted and said, “this sounds like softball!”

I like living in a town that’s a tourist attraction.

* * *

Another thing I like about living in Santa Monica is that you are never going to meet anyone involved in local politics with whom you disagree all the time.

In this column I have often taken issue with City Council Member Kevin McKeown, and therefore it is only fair that I salute him for the effort he made last week to make sure that in planning the route of the Expo line down Colorado Avenue, the planners would take into account the needs of pedestrians.

Under the Expo construction authority’s current plans, pedestrians will be able to cross the street only at the signalized intersections, which are, east of Lincoln, three blocks (about a quarter-mile!) apart. (See Council Gets Expo Rolling, September, 15 2011.)

While the City’s planning staff also supports increasing the number of pedestrian crossings, Mr. McKeown deserves credit for posting, in advance of last week’s council meeting so that they could be included with the staff report, a collection of photographs from around the world showing trains and streetcars operating safely in the middle of streets. Although, as Expo CEO Rick Thorpe pointed out, the Expo line is a “light rail” line, rather than a streetcar, and light rail trains travel faster and make fewer stops than streetcars, it should still be possible to have signalized crossings for pedestrians at the corners that don’t already have lights.

Santa Monica has, since initially pushing for the Colorado Avenue alignment for Expo instead of the massive Olympic Boulevard flyover plan, bucked conventional thinking along the Expo route. All along the line, local residents have been agitating for more grade separations at intersections where the amount of traffic doesn’t justify building a flyover. They talk about safety for pedestrians, but they don’t realize how disruptive the overpasses are to walkability.

Santa Monica will have a hard time persuading the Expo authority, and the California Public Utilities Commission, which oversees safety issues, to approve more access for pedestrians, but it’s a fight worth making. Maybe Mr. McKeown’s photos will help.

* * *

Wednesday evening the Planning Commission has two important projects on its agenda, a 49-unit apartment building with ground-floor commercial and underground parking at 7th and Arizona downtown, and a single-story Walgreens drugstore at the important corner of Pico and Lincoln Boulevards with surface parking covering half the site.

Respectively, these projects are (i) the good, and (ii) the bad and the ugly.

As for the apartment building, it’s only going through development review because the City, through the interim zoning ordinance City Council adopted after adopting the updates to the land use and circulation elements (the LUCE), applied to downtown LUCE standards even though the LUCE doesn’t apply to downtown. The project is exactly the kind of development that fits downtown and the Planning Commission should do everything it can to facilitate its prompt construction, notwithstanding niggling by planning staff over what constitutes a public benefit.

While at 7th and Arizona planning staff wants to burden good development -- downtown housing -- with additional costs, at Pico and Lincoln staff is arguing that a retrograde project, a chain drugstore that would destroy several small businesses that already front Lincoln Boulevard (including perhaps the best tacqueria in Santa Monica), conforms with the LUCE because Walgreens has agreed to add a door at the corner, bigger windows on Lincoln, and some shrubbery (and five more trees than required by code!) around the parking lot.

Even the City of Los Angeles now gets developers of chain stores to build parking on the roof or underground. Whole Foods put parking underground at 23rd and Wilshire. Lincoln Boulevard deserves the same.

There is more to planning than sales tax revenues. I hope the Planning Commission can find means to stop this project.

* * *

Last week I wrote about all the landscape architecture and urban design going on in Santa Monica, what with development of the Colorado Avenue Esplanade and the new Civic Center parks. Recently the City rediscovered, through a bit of “landscape archaeology,” a nearby landscape from an earlier time.

The City is preparing to build the Civic Center parks, and a few weeks ago the City began transplanting trees that had been “warehoused” on the site after they were removed from other places in the city. Some of the trees were planted along the top of the embankment leading down to the freeway just north of City Hall. In the course of the work, workers removed the ivy that covered the slope down to the freeway and in doing so uncovered a series of terraces that apparently, based upon how they were constructed, pre-date the freeway.

Here is a photograph of the terraces as they now appear.

Photo by Frank Gruber.

When Olympic Boulevard rather than the freeway connected Santa Monica to Pacific Coast Highway, these terraces were landscaped with flowers. Here’s a postcard from the Santa Monica Public Library’s image archives that shows what the embankment looked like:

From The Santa Monica Public Library Image Archive.

Although the ravine leading down to the beach was deep enough to require a bridge at Main Street and the McClure Tunnel, the terraces are a reminder that downtown and the Civic Center were more closely connected before the freeway was built. At that time Fourth Street and Olympic crossed at grade.

The new Civic Center parks and the Esplanade will face each other across the freeway, which the City hopes to cover, so that downtown will be connected to the Civic Center by more than the Main Street bridge. That would be a case of “restoring an urban ecology.”

In the meantime, if the City still has those work crews prepping the park site, maybe they can be given the job of clearing the ivy from the Main Street Bridge. I feel like a mom telling a pretty daughter to pull the hair from off her face, but this photo shows that under that ivy there’s a good-looking bridge.

Photo by Frank Gruber.

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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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