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Change in Historic Contexts

By Frank Gruber

The Expo line, which will return rails to their historic places -- geographic and cultural -- in Santa Monica, is not the only instance where dramatic changes will soon occur in Santa Monica's historic core.

The School District last week revealed, and the City of Santa Monica will soon reveal, plans to remake the contiguous but now separated areas of the Santa Monica High School campus and the Civic Center. ("District Presents Ambitious Plan for Samohi," March 11, 2009)

One of the mantras solemnly repeated -- repeatedly! -- in Santa Monica is that the city is "built out," as if the fact that human beings have constructed something somewhere somehow signals the end of that somewhere's future.  The histories of the sites of Samohi -- "Prospect Hill" -- and the Civic Center illustrate the ahistorical quality of this kind of thinking.

The physical space of the beloved high school has continuously evolved since the school was moved there nearly a century ago.  The area across Fourth Street -- which contained a rail yard and an African-American neighborhood before the City developed an edifice complex in the 1940s and 1950s -- has also undergone change no less dramatic, but more convulsive than evolutionary.

Change continues.  Under the 1993 Civic Center Specific Plan, as somewhat revised in the years since, the City built the public safety building and the Civic Center parking structure, and Rand built its new building.  Nearing start of construction is the "Village" mixed-use and mixed-income residential development on the old Rand site, a development that will return housing to the Civic Center for the first time in decades.

At its meeting next Tuesday, March 24, the City Council, sitting as the City's redevelopment agency, will review plans that the District and the City's staff -- working both together and separately -- have developed to connect the southeast quadrant of the Civic Center with the high school campus.  This will be the start of action at the council level to adopt a new five-year plan for the redevelopment agency.

As I write this, the staff report for next week's meeting, which will contain the proposals of City staff, is not yet available, but a report is available that the City commissioned last year from local architects Koning Eizenberg.  This report sets forth general principles for redeveloping the area.  The council reviewed the report, along with a version of the Samohi proposal, last July 23, and it gave encouragement to the general approach.

Meanwhile, the District's plan for Samohi has been released, and there is a lot to like in it.  There are also a number of worrisome ideas.

The good news is that District's plan, developed by R. L. Binder Architecture and consistent with the Koning Eizenberg proposals, would reconnect the high school campus to the surrounding city, most dramatically by restoring Michigan Avenue, which now ends at Seventh Street, in the form of an east-west pedestrian promenade and bikeway that would pass through the campus and emerge at Fourth Street.  The promenade would then pass through the new Civic Center park the City plans to build on the Civic Auditorium parking lot and connect to Main Street.

The athletic fields at the southwest corner of the campus would be lowered to street level, eliminating the current retaining wall that makes Fourth Street so unpleasant there for pedestrians and people waiting for the bus.  School buildings would be removed that currently block the view from the Greek Theater towards the Pacific.

The idea is that except when school is in session, the school's facilities would be open to the public.  This would apply not only to expanded athletic facilities such as ball fields and tennis and basketball courts, but also to Barnum Hall and the Greek Theater.

The District's plan provides for an expansion of athletic facilities for the school and the public. 

By concentrating the school's academic buildings on the south and east sides of the campus, and by building indoor athletic facilities and parking underground, the plan generates room not only for a new football field with a tournament-quality track, and seats for at least 2,000 fans, tennis and basketball courts (with lights so that the public can use them at night), new gymnasia and a new swimming pool, new baseball and softball fields, and a bonus soccer field.

(Question at the level of detail: why does the high school need a big grandstand for the football field?  What's wrong with continuing to play its half a dozen or so home football games each year at Santa Monica College's Corsair Field?)

Presumably the City will like the athletic facilities part of the Samohi plan, because by generating a "bonus" soccer field, the plan will enable the City to justify not building a soccer field in the new Civic Center park.  A recreational field was added in a later amendment to the original Civic Center plan after agitation from soccer moms and dads, but it was never popular with planning staff.  They want a park that is more open to a variety of uses.

So far so good, but the District's plan goes off the rails when it gets to the subject of parking.  The plan starts off by replacing the school's existing 392 parking spaces with 490 spaces under the new football field.  Then it adds another 450 spaces in a level underneath the baseball field proposed for the corner of Fourth and Pico.

The first 490 spaces make sense, because these replace the spaces currently on the school's surface parking lots, and the expense of building the underground spaces (estimated at $44,000 per space, or a total of $21.5 million!) can be justified by the value of the land converted to sports facilities.  This was the rationale behind the City's building of the Civic Center parking structure: it provides parking to replace the spaces on the Civic Auditorium parking lot that will become a park.

It's conceivable that the 450 spaces proposed to be built under the fields at Fourth and Pico could be justified on similar grounds.  I have my doubts, because I wonder if parking revenues from a lot that would only be used on special occasions could come anywhere near paying for the capital costs, but I'll withhold judgment until the District publishes its parking study.

Where the plan goes nuts for parking, though, is when the District floats the idea of digging deeper at both the football field and Fourth and Pico sites to build second levels of underground parking for nearly another 1,000 spaces.

These ideas are straight out of the mid-20th century, automobile-obsessed planning mindset that created the bad traffic we have by facilitating and subsidizing driving and parking.  The plan aims to provide enough parking for the peak theoretical demand, when "there are events utilizing all the joint-use venues during the same time period (e.g. festivals, tournaments, etc.)."

This when the beach lots, not to mention the future terminus of the Expo line, numerous bus stops, and a new bike path, are or will be nearby, within walking and/or shuttle distance.

But the Samohi plan enters utterly bizarre territory when it suggests connecting the proposed two levels of underground parking at Fourth and Pico with a pedestrian connection underneath Fourth Street to a Civic Center park that would be sunk 15-20 feet.  Fourth Street would become a bridge, and that part of the park would be a pit.

The plan says that this would make the park "three-dimensional."  Hmmm.  Rather than strolling in a three-dimensional hole, wouldn't park users prefer a two-dimensional experience where they could look around and see where they were?

I'll write more about this next week, when the City's staff report is available.

(The District's plan for the Civic Center/Samohi joint use project is available at the District's Web site. The Koning Eizenberg report is available as Exhibit A to the staff report for the July 23, 2008, City Council study session.)

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