Mansions and Rails Lead to Top Planning Post
By Elizabeth Schneider
August 22 -- It was those darn "monster mansions" and his love of light rail that managed to lure Darrell Clarke into the thick of Santa Monica planning and set him on a path that eventually landed him the post of chair of the City's powerful Planning Commission
As a board member of the North of Montana Neighborhood Association (NOMA) with a self described "anti-monster mansion" attitude, Clarke rallied to create new standards that would ultimately reduce the size of new homes and lessen the "impact of a really big house on the neighbors."
As co-chair of Friends4Expo lobbying the city for a light rail line along Exposition Boulevard, Clarke began to familiarize himself with the city and it's inner workings.
It was the culmination of his two passions -- public transportation and a desire to create a more livable city -- that three years ago landed Clarke on the commission he chaired for the first full meeting Wednesday night.
"I started out as an outsider," said Clarke, a San Fernando Valley native who moved to Santa Monica in 1979. "But I've gotten to know people and I'm trying to do good things from the inside. That's the great thing about Santa Monica - you can be involved in the process."
Armed with the knowledge that there has been "long standing tension between neighbors wanting to preserve the quality of life in the city and new development" Clarke believes that the "progressive zoning" standards established by the City Council continue to act as a fine balance.
"We are a built city," he said. "And the zoning ordinance, which specifically encourages new housing in commercial areas, such as downtown and along the boulevards that was done in part to protect existing residential areas."
Still, challenges remain. For instance, the state mandate to increase housing is a difficult task, given the dearth of available land and the need to stay away from "putting up a some huge highrises," Clarke said.
"What we do know is that old downtowns are nice places to walk and go from shop to shop, instead of getting in the car and parking in a giant parking lot."
While Clarke said the commission's focus is on "neighborhood compatibility" and code enforcement, he gladly embraces a diversity of architectural styles when the commission sits as the design board after an Architectural Review Board decision is appealed.
"Style becomes so subjective," said Clarke, whose commission heard an appeal of a major Main Street development's design Wednesday night. "I like a variety, and if anything, I would like to see more interesting things done.
"We want something special that really signifies that this is a special place that deserves a higher quality of design," Clarke said. "When you go to Santa Barbara, you know you're not just anywhere - it's a visually strong city."
Santa Monica, he said, is much more eclectic, with its mix of craftsman bungalows and modern designs. "Even though there is no one style, we don't want to get the same designs you could find anywhere else,' he said.
As for the future, Clarke would like to concentrate on making the city more livable - "green spaces, nice places to walk the type of commercial places that one would like to go to."
As a commission, "we have a lot of processes," he said, "but is it getting us to where we want to go?"
And with that, Clarke raises a key question: "Where is it exactly that the city wants to go and how do we get there?"I think we can use the planning commission as a way to articulate some of those questions," he said.
Copyright 1999-2008 surfsantamonica.com. All Rights Reserved.