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Council Explores Big Plans for Civic Center


By Jorge Casuso

March 26, 2009 -- Saying it should be “vibrant,” “world class” and have plenty of “Wow!” the City Council on Tuesday gave staff the unanimous go-ahead to explore an ambitious makeover of the Civic Center.

The plan -- which pivots on a light rail terminal potentially swarming with hundreds of passengers every hour-- could include capping the freeway with a grassy park, carving a roadway through the City Hall parking lot and reinvigorating the Civic Auditorium.

The preliminary plan hatched by five different City departments and given generally positive reviews by the council will undergo an extensive public process to fine tune or discard the key components before the council gives a final go-ahead.

“We need a thoughtful and comprehensive approach,” City Planning Director Eileen Fogarty told the council. “We have an opportunity to create a spectacular space.”

“This is a great opportunity to leave a legacy for the City of Santa Monica,” said Council member Richard Bloom. “We have the pieces in place now. We’re really gaining a head of steam.”

Key concepts of the Civic Center plan (Images courtesy of the City of Santa Monica)

The key piece is a proposed Expo light rail terminal at the corner of 4th Street and Colorado Avenue that will serve as the end of the line for trains carrying between 200 and 400 passengers that could begin rolling in as early as 2015.

"That's a lot of people to put on this little intersection," said Bob Odermatt, a planning department consultant.

Unless steps are taken, the terminal – which is near the 10 Freeway’s 4th Street exit -- will create “traffic congestion and slow speeds for the Big Blue Bus,” Odermatt warned.

Among the solutions being explored is creating a new street from the freeway off-ramp to divert traffic away from the busy intersection and possibly connect to Main Street via a westbound bridge over the freeway.

It could also extend west through a proposed park to Ocean Avenue, an option several council members vocally opposed.

“This piece of land is a block from the beach,” said Council member Bobby Shriver. “The idea of running a street through that is horrifying.”

Mayor Ken Genser said he had “strong reservations about a road to Ocean Avenue,” adding that the park “should be a lush place” that could maybe accommodate a cobbled street for pedestrians.

Staff also presented a plan – pushed a decade ago by former Mayor Michael Feinstein – to cap the freeway with a 5-acre stretch of grass that would reduce noise and pollution and create a pleasant green space.

Staff, Odermatt said, wanted the council to tell them if it was “a crazy idea.” He said that Caltrans, which has jurisdiction over the freeway ”is encouraging the capping.”

The park above the freeway – much smaller than a similar one being planned in Hollywood -- would help “integrate” the civic center area into a “cohesive whole.”

“This is a chance for a legacy, to not only create a world-class park and cultural center, but to have it all interconnected, to have it work.”

Proposed Freeway Deck

The council had some key questions: How much would the project cost when land Downtown goes for $500 a square foot? And who would own the land, the City or Caltrans?

Funding questions seemed to douse some of the grand visions the council was asked to explore.

Council member Kevin McKeown warned against getting “sparkly about building a legacy” if it “can lead to overdeveloping the area to pay for it.”

And Genser cautioned against forging a proposed public-private partnership to help spur the rebirth of the Civic Auditorium as a major cultural venue that once hosted the likes of Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie and the Doors.

“I’m okay with looking at options for the Civic Center, but it goes against my grain to partner with private entities,” Genser said.

The City, he said, needs to “look at the balance between community use and access and the requirements of private partners.”

Fogarty noted that the proposed redevelopment would be done in stages. “We don’t have to pick all the pieces. We pick a couple of pieces to start to phase in.”

Despite the concerns, there was plenty of room for the council members to let their imaginations roam across the 50-acre site.

Council member Gleam Davis, who was appointed to the council earlier this month, envisioned a thriving cultural center that would be integrated with the Santa Monica High School campus that is the subject of an ambitious redevelopment plan being hatched by School District officials. (“District Presents Ambitious Plan for Samohi,” March 11, 2009)

The City and School District could join together to host cultural festivals that would take advantage of three stellar venues -- the Civic Auditorium, the Greek Theatre and Barnum Hall.

Council member Pam O’Connor envisioned an open space connected by walkways that featured different “use areas” she likened to “different rooms people could pass through.”

Before ending the discussion, the council unanimously authorized City Manager Lamont Ewell to negotiate with Santa Monica College to build and operate an
Early Childhood Education Center (ECEC) on the civic land.

To be designed and built with $7 million from a 2004 college bond, the center will serve as a laboratory and teaching program for SMC’s Early Childhood Education students. A private operator will be selected by the college to operate the facility, which will serve as a preschool for 100 children.


“We have an opportunity to create a spectacular space.” Eileen Fogarty

“The idea of running a street through (the land) is horrifying.” Bobby Shriver

Getting “sparkly about building a legacy. . .can lead to overdeveloping the area to pay for it.” Kevin McKeown

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