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It Takes Time

By Frank Gruber

August 22, 2011 -- I’m happy to be back home from vacation, but what’s with this June Gloom we’re having in August? I was in Spain and let me tell you -- those Spaniards know how to do summer weather.

They also know how to build fine cities, although what I learned was that they take a long time to do so -- like 2,000 years.

My college-student son Henry is studying the transition between the Roman Empire and what came afterwards, and to that end he’s been part of an archaeological dig on the Spanish/Catalan island of Menorca -- it's the site of a Roman city that was abandoned during the “Dark Ages.” Henry was returning to the dig at the beginning of August and, following that noblest of passions, the desire of parents to follow their children around, my wife and I were tourists in two small cities that we might not otherwise have visited.

On the way to Menorca we stopped at Tarragona, a bustling port city about 50 miles south of Barcelona that Henry wanted to see. Today Tarragona has a population less than a tenth of that of Barcelona, but 2,000 years ago it was the most important Roman city in what’s now Spain.

Tarragona: the Roman Amphitheater

On Menorca, we stayed in Ciutadella, a town of about 30,000 residents (many more than that in summer, when Menorca’s beaches attract the proverbial hordes of tourists) that dates back to Roman times.

When you walk around Tarragona and Ciutadella, it’s like walking through a diorama of the history of Western city-building. In the beginning there was rational Roman city-planning, with impressive public buildings and well-laid out streets. Things fell apart in the Middle Ages when the few urban residents crowded around the Cathedral (on the site of the main Roman temple) in narrow streets that took over from what was open space in Roman times. Then, as a bigger world economy developed in the 18th century and the population gradually urbanized, planning returned and modern infrastructure arrived.

Neighborhood plaza in Ciutadella

Meanwhile, there was time, lots of it. Time for people to make unconnected decisions about what to build. Great city building is a combination of top-down planning and bottom-up randomness.

As I walked the two cities, I couldn’t help but think that when people in Santa Monica say that they want new development to resemble a “village,” what they are probably thinking of (assuming they are not having delusions about actual villages of the thatched-roof variety) are places like Tarragona and Ciutadella, where the layout of the streets and buildings, and the mix of uses, attract people to the streets, creating the face-to-face communication that people associate with village living.

Village life in Tarragona

So how do you create that village feeling when you don’t have 2,000 years to work with?

And that brings me to the revised plans to redevelop the old Papermate site that the developer Hines will present tomorrow night to the Santa Monica City Council, because as anyone who has been following this development knows, the site is the key property in what the City calls the “Bergamot Transit Village.”

As reported last week in The Lookout, Hines_Project_Shrinks_in
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Response_to_Criticism, August 8, 2011
, after the council sent Hines back to the drawing boards in March, Hines has come back with a plan that is reduced 20 percent in size. Reductions in scope like this are typical when developers are presented with no-growth or NIMBY opposition; the reductions often have a “less-is-less” impact, as the elements of a plan that most serve the public are typically dropped.

To a degree, that has happened here, as there has been a disproportionate decrease in the amount of retail development in the new plans. As a whole, however, the reduction in scope makes sense. The floor-to-area ratio (FAR) for the original project of 3.09 was on the high side, while the revised FAR of 2.47 is healthy and, given the building height restrictions, is necessary to allow for more and better open space such as wider sidewalks.

I wish Hines had taken the reduction in square footage entirely from the office component, so that the residential component had remained the same at more than 300,000 square feet. Nonetheless, I have sympathy for Hines, since the developer’s plans were well known throughout the process of updating the land use and circulation elements (LUCE) of the City’s general plan, and neither the City’s planning staff, the Planning Commission, nor the City Council made it clear during that process that they wanted less development than what Hines was proposing.

Indeed, the potential FAR for the site was set at 3.5 in the LUCE. I know that “greedy” is the adjective many Santa Monicans automatically apply to developers, but in this case Hines can justly complain that it was “set up.”

As for the plan’s specifics, as I said, it’s troubling that the retail component is being reduced disproportionately, which means that two of the five buildings of the project, one commercial and one residential, would not have shops or restaurants on the ground floor. While Hines would replace this retail with row houses on the residential building, which would also serve to activate the street, the ground floors of all the commercial buildings should at least be flexible enough to accommodate retail if there is a market for it.

While I can’t in this space analyze all the design issues relating to the plans, there are two that I want to comment on based on my recent travels. One is to note the use of curved streets, which Hines’ designers have used to line up the two north-south streets crossing the project with connections on both Nebraska Avenue and Olympic. As seen in this photo from Ciutadella, curved streets can be delightful to walk on because the “vista” enfolds as you walk along.

A narrow, curving street in Ciutadella

Another issue is how to deal with entrances to underground parking, which can disrupt the pedestrian environment. One thing I learned in Spain, where parking underneath public spaces like plazas and the pedestrian centers of wide “rambla” boulevards has been inserted into old cities, is that it is possible to build ramps for cars that are not fatally disruptive.

What they do in Spain, as these photographs from Tarragona show, is separate the entrances from the exits, and make the ramps narrow -- only wide enough for one lane.

Placa de la Font and underground parking in Tarragona

Although I wonder if American traffic engineers, or American motorists, would accept fewer than two lanes side-by-side, the City and Hines might look into it.

But my most basic comment about the plans, and the City’s reaction to them, is not to overdo the analysis. The most important factor for the future of the site, looking ahead to a time long after all of us are gone, is that Hines is breaking up the 300,000 square foot Papermate site into smaller building sites that future property-owners and residents can make decisions about.

You can’t plan perfection.

The harbor at Ciutadella

If readers want to write the editor about this column, send your emails to The Lookout at mail@surfsantamonica.com .


If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email frank@frankjgruber.net The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
The Lookout.

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