It’s been called the civic center for a long, long time, but that remains an exercise in wishful thinking because the powers-that-are have been consistently inconsistent. According to former City Planner James W. Lunsford, in the 1920s a graceful open spandrel bridge was built across the deep arroyo that cut through downtown Santa Monica, and the area we call the civic center finally became accessible. In 1936, the Evening Outlook and Santa Monica Realty Board sponsored a Civic Center Design Contest and received entries from all over Southern California, but none of the designs was actually used. In 1938, under the federal government’s Public Works Project, Santa Monica’s dazzling Streamline Moderne City Hall was built, designed by Donald B. Parkinson and Joseph M. Estep. In 1939, again courtesy of the federal government, Santa Monica’s first internationally renowned artist, Stanton MacDonald-Wright installed two murals in the building lobby, using a new process called petracrome. In 1951, the City sold an eight-acre parcel across Main Street from City Hall to the fledgling RAND Corporation for $250,000, and the think tank promptly built the first of two office buildings on the site, adding the second, taller “Z” building in 1961. In 1956, both the County Courthouse and the City’s Civic Auditorium were built on Main Street south of City Hall. And that was that for nearly 40 years. It was a kind of oasis in the middle of town – wide open, low-key, a block from the ocean, a pleasing prospect from any angle, untouched by the rising commotion around it, which included the construction of the 10 Freeway in the arroyo in 1965. The wide deep view across the so-called civic center to the ocean beyond that greeted drivers taking the Fourth Street exit off the freeway was a perfect introduction to this iconic beach town – a three-dimensional billboard. For a while, the biggest events in the so-called civic center were the annual Academy Awards ceremonies and some legendary rock concerts at the Civic Auditorium. But they were fleeting – brilliant flashes in the prospect, coming and going in a blink. The first permanent intrusion was Santa Monica Place, which rose like a wall, dividing City Hall from downtown Santa Monica, in the late 1970s. Soon after that, seeking more revenue, City Hall created a Hotel District on the west side of Ocean Avenue, and due west of City Hall in the early 1980s. And so it was that low, splendidly frowsy, perfect beach town motels were demolished to make way for tall, solemn hotels that stood between City Hall and the city’s primary fact, the ocean. It has occurred to us that when City Hall lost its view of the ocean, it also lost its way – since that was about the time it cranked out the 1984 General Plan and cranked up the building boom that has led to our current dilemmas. In the 1970s, RAND began buying up adjacent property on Ocean Avenue, most of which was occupied by motels, most of which it shut down, and increased its holdings to over 13 acres. But, with the end of the Cold War, RAND, which depended on the Defense Department for much of its income, fearing its revenue would decline drastically, told the City that it needed a new source of income and proposed building the largest commercial development in Santa Monica’s history on its 13 acres. Though its income not only didn’t decline, it rose, RAND and the City proceeded to conjure the original Civic Center Specific Plan. According to the plan, the west side of Main Street would be laden with RAND’s massive development, which included a new RAND HQ, apartments, offices and stores and cafes, while the east side of Main Street would include the existing buildings – City Hall, County Courthouse and Civic Auditorium, a new police building, a town square and “a water feature.” Thus, having never actually been a civic center, the area was destined to become a major commercial center. The City Council approved it, but many residents objected and put an initiative on the ballot. An intense campaign followed. Taking the advice of its consultants, RAND spent $250,000 to promote its plan, not as a commercial development, but as a “public safety” measure. The City did its own promotion, mailing an elaborate 126-page “Voter Information Pamphlet,” larded with pretty drawings and over-ripe prose, to every voter. Plan opponents spent a total of $6,000 on the counter-campaign. To no one’s surprise, 60 percent of the voters approved the plan.But, for several years, nothing happened, and then RAND announced a course change. It would build a new HQ on the southern end of its parcel and sell the remaining 8+ acres to the City for $53 million.Once again, City Hall was unable to resist RAND’s blandishments, and did the deal. It then dumped the obsolete Civic Center Specific Plan, and made a new plan, which, being a little bit of everything, was nothing much. It included the new RAND behemoth, a new public safety facility, a large new parking structure, a child care center, a new “City Services” building, an expanded Civic Auditorium, a new playing field, a town square, and a large new mixed use development, “The Village.” It also called for the closure of the north end of Main Street, the demotion of the historic Main Street bridge over the freeway to a pedestrian walkway and the construction of a new bridge to its west to connect with Second Street, and the demolition of RAND’s original two buildings. Though the 1999 plan bore only a passing resemblance to the Civic Center Specific Plan that was approved by voters in 1994, City Hall liked to say that it had the backing of the community, but, unfortunately, the new plan was as incoherent as it was costly – how costly no one knows, as City Hall has never put a price tag on it. The process has been equally incoherent, as City Hall has taken a piecemeal approach, moving ahead on individual projects and making major and fundamental changes in the plan, such as folding Santa Monica Place into it, without reconsidering the whole, much less its impacts on the immediate area or the city as a whole. The new RAND building and the public safety facility both went forward. Given its size, massing and orientation, if the RAND building were not to overwhelm the surround, the plan needed some significant and artful adjustments, but no such adjustments were made. The brutish $72 million public safety building insults the sublime City Hall, and the new parking structure seems at odds with everything. Though City Hall frequently trumpets its allegiance to adaptive re-use and historic preservation, it knocked the two RAND buildings down in the late fall. The buildings were not only historically and architecturally significant, but had lots of life left in them and were wholly compatible – in scale, size and style – with City Hall, the courthouse and the Civic. They could have been adapted and reused as the City’s new public safety and office buildings, or as live/work artists’ studios, or housing, but they were removed. City Hall, the 1950s courthouse and Civic Auditorium ride lightly on the land, in contrast to the new RAND building, the public safety building and the parking structure. For better or worse, these six buildings are now the keystones in the so-called civic center, but they are the architectural equivalent of oil and water, at fatal aesthetic odds with each other. This collision of style and scale bodes badly for the future of the area, and the City Council’s recent decision to engage The Related Companies of California to design and develop “The Village” only makes us surer than ever that the only way out of this enlarging mess is OUT. The misbegot Civic Center Plan should be abandoned and the area should simply be left alone for a while. Everything is the matter with “The Village,” as currently defined. It is too big, The City’s plan showed 325 apartments in three buildings, but Related has proposed “multiple” buildings, which will probably have to be six stories high, though the City told us “The Village” would be only five stories high. It’s in the wrong place – set tight around the westerly end of the RAND building and on either side of the Maguire office building on Ocean Avenue – like sad afterthoughts. This clumsy configuration does not a “village” make. It does not serve the purpose for which it was were originally intended – to create a significant quantity of affordable housing. In fact, City Hall has proposed about the same number of market rate apartments as affordable apartments, and the market rate apartments will, of course, have spiffier locations. When residents questioned the project, Council members explained that Redevelopment Agency funds were used to buy the RAND land, which mandated the inclusion of a “housing element,” but the so-called Civic Center always was and still is the wrong place for it. And, in fact, it makes far more sense to refinance the land purchase and use the Redevelopment Agency funds to buy existing housing, which would not only preserve existing housing, but stem the rising tide of Ellis Act evictions that have led to ever-increasing numbers of longtime residents losing their digs. If existing apartment buildings and courtyard apartments continue to be sold and/or converted into condominiums at the current rate, the City cannot possibly build enough new housing to replace the lost housing, and so more and more residents will find themselves in limbo. It makes much mote sense – economically and socially – for the City to buy existing buildings, as it would not only preserve countless residents’ homes, it would reduce the constant hubbub of demolition and construction that afflicts more and more neighborhoods. For 10 years, City Hall has tried to make something of the so-called civic center, and has managed only to diminish it. Its latest plans – “The Village,” the inclusion of Santa Monica Place – will not only diminish it further, but will diminish the entire area.The Civic Center Specific Plan was begun for the wrong reasons and has not been improved by time and tinkering. Santa Monica, its residents and visitors and City Hall itself would all be better off without this misbegot and enlarging mess in the heart if the city, so let us simply admit it’s a bad plan, dump it, and move on.The pain of admitting a major mistake is nothing compared to the pain of living with it for the next 100 years or so.
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