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What I Say About Frank Gruber

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Off the Top of Your Head Planning

By Frank J. Gruber

Why do I feel glum after the City's settlement with the 415 PCH neighbors? (see story)

Honestly, I should be happy. Better to be done with it, move on, have certainty, etc., and the terms -- to keep certain operating conditions in effect for up to ten years -- are, in the big scheme of things, no big deal. And the settlement will save the City money and free up lawyers in the City Attorney's office.

Winning may not be everything but it sure is something, and I thought the City was in a great position to win the lawsuit after the State Historic Resources Commission last month unanimously approved the City's request to de-list the locker building at 415 PCH from the California Historic Register. It was the accidental listing of the building on the register that gave the neighbors their best (if weak) argument that the environmental review had been inadequate.

With a victory, the City would have more flexibility to change operations in the future should the use of the facility turn out to be different from what has been predicted, but it would probably take the City seven or ten years to get around to that anyway.

Of course it pleases me no end that the neighbors had to spend so much money fighting to get nothing of importance that the City wouldn't have done for them if they had just asked.

But that's what galls me. They didn't just ask. They threatened, and threats backed up with bank accounts have unjust impact. The City agreed to lower the "scope" of the project not because of the neighbors' irrational fears, but because of their obnoxious threats.

There was one huge silver lining, however, which was the public response to the threat to the project. How refreshing it was to see residents form a powerful grassroots group to be in favor of something. I am referring, of course, to Friends of 415 PCH, led by Joel Brand, who were the city's heroes.

* * *

"I think that this needs study, Ken. I don't think you can come off the top of your head with that stuff." -- Council Member Herb Katz speaking to Council Member Ken Genser at the Sept. 12 meeting when the latter was trying to come up with a formula for how many bedrooms market rate apartments should have to qualify as "preferred projects" if the building also can achieve a LEED sustainability rating of silver or better, at which point, figuring they would need "two or three more hours," the City Council decided to table until October 3 its decision on just how much to down-zone in anticipation of the possible passage of the Prop. 90. (see story)

Council Member Katz's comment sums up perfectly what a complete mess the City Council hearing was on their attempt to preempt Prop. 90 by hypothesizing about what consensus the city has reached about future development.

While I wrote last week that certain aspects of planning staff's proposal had merit -- namely the belated (by years) attempt to encourage the building of rental apartments -- watching the council debate issues like whether and what kind of LEED certified projects should be "preferred" was like watching a documentary about political sausage stuffing.

After two years of process on the update to the land use and circulation elements (LUCE), there may be general agreement on certain broad themes -- particularly that the City doesn't need to create a lot of new jobs in the next 20 years -- the ordinance that staff has proposed resembled an appropriations bill Christmas Tree in Congress more than a narrow attempt to make some fixes.

I have followed the LUCE process closely and no one has ever discussed details or even issues like those the Council was noodling about last week. There's never been a discussion whether to give preference to any kinds of apartment buildings, based on number of bedrooms or how much electricity a building uses.

Nor has there been any discussion about the future of Main Street -- it was one district that in the LUCE process was considered not to need much work -- yet a few Ocean Park residents who were in the minority that opposed the Boulangerie (rental!) and the Community Corporation Main & Pacific (affordable!) apartment projects have persuaded planning staff that Main Street needs to be down-zoned.

The whole politics of this latest down-zoning effort became apparent watching Council member Kevin McKeown at the Council meeting. Taking the word of the Ocean Park Association as gospel that Ocean Park residents want to change the zoning on Main Street -- zoning that was the product of a long community process -- he kept on pressing planning staff to add to the areas of Main Street that staff had already agreed to down-zone.

It was truly offensive, though, to watch Council Member McKeown badger Tom Larmore and John Bohn, representatives of the Chamber of Commerce. Mr. McKeown cross-examined Mr. Larmore trying to get him to answer "yes or no" to a question about whether the chamber opposed the "consensus" that supposedly exists.

But it was with Mr. Bohn, the current president of the Chamber of Commerce and a former council member from the 60s, that Mr. McKeown was most unpleasant. In comments encouraging the City Council to increase housing for nurses, teachers, police and other public service workers, Mr. Bohn had suggested studying a workforce housing home-ownership program in operation at Playa Vista.

Mr. McKeown's response? He asked Mr. Bohn if that meant he thought Playa Vista was a good development model for Santa Monica. Mr. Bohn -- who showed he hasn't lost a step in the 40 some years since he was on the dais -- told the sitting council member that he "resented" the question, as he had not said anything about Playa Vista except that the development had an affordable housing program worth considering.

Mr. McKeown was the originator of this Rube Goldbergian attempt to preempt Prop. 90. Given the trivial nature of the points being argued over, the chaos of dealing with these complexities on an "off the top of your head" basis, and Mr. McKeown's grandstanding, it's impossible not to look at the whole thing as Mr. McKeown's attempt to shore up his political base in the neighborhood associations for the upcoming election.

Think Bill Frist agendizing a debate on gay marriage.

The evening wasn't a total loss. It was the first City Council meeting I could recall -- I'm not saying it's never happened before -- when all seven council members talked seriously about the importance of developing affordable workforce and low income housing.

All the council members appeared motivated, no matter where they stood on the issue of growth in the abstract, to create housing that would allow Santa Monica to remain an economically diverse community -- certainly one of the "consensus" goals that emerged from the LUCE process. Both Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, represented by Denny Zane, and the Chamber of Commerce, represented by Messrs. Bohn and Larmore, agreed that Santa Monica faced the same problem. (Might they get together and talk about solutions?)

Even Diana Gordon, from the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, told the council that as skeptical as the Coalition is about development, it is in favor of workforce and affordable housing.

Since it's hard to imagine how the little changes the City Council is contemplating could constitute much of a "taking" even if Prop. 90 passes, the council should just table the whole thing and return to the LUCE process so that the City's future can be addressed in a conscientious and balanced manner.

One last note -- it was good to see Council Member Ken Genser returned to the dais after his recent convalescence.

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