By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. February 08, 2016

Gaining new open green space is a major priority for our community. At the corner of 4th/Pico Bl., we have a historic opportunity to do just that.

Since the 1993 version of the Civic Center Specific Plan (CCSP), the corner of 4th/Pico Bl. has been envisioned to be open, green space, converted from the large surface parking lot there today.

Shown as open and green in all subsequent CCSP iterations – and explicitly containing a sports field since the 2005 CCSP – discussion of 4th/Pico nevertheless was reopened in 2013, when the City Council appointed and tasked the Civic Working Group (CWG) with drafting a vision for “the future cultural and community use of the Civic Auditorium as the hub of a cultural campus.”

Questions in the community immediately arose – “Would there be development recommended at 4th/Pico to partially fund costs to rehabilitate and operate the Civic Auditorium (and an associated cultural campus)? What amount of open space would remain and what uses would it be directed towards? What would happen to the sports field in the 2005 CCSP?”

These questions were a running sub-text to the CWG process and are part of Tuesday night’s City Council discussion on the future of the Civic Auditorium.

The Council avoided directly confronting these questions in 2013, when its direction to the CWG also included exploring “an appropriate mix of compatible adjacent [to the Civic Auditorium] uses, from open space to additional facilities” – but without making a concurrent Council statement about its commitment to open space square footage and/or the sports field. This left the door open, at least theoretically, for some or most of 4th/Pico to be cannibalized with new development, in order to fund the significant costs to rehabilitate the Civic Auditorium, and to potentially integrate the entire corner into a new cultural campus.

That schizophrenia needs to be addressed Tuesday night.

What kind of open space?

To be fair, CWG members have not argued for eliminating all open space on the site. But the reality is a large fenced-in sports field is not compatible with an expanded cultural campus that goes much beyond renovation or replacement of the Civic Center’s East Wing. If there is to be an enlarged cultural campus, what would make the most sense is a multi-purpose open (and substantially green) park space at 4th/Pico that functions for events, and serves as an open-space gateway to Ocean Park.

If – and that is a big if – the City were to go in that direction, many CWG members expressed the concern that the Civic Auditorium restoration process not be encumbered by the costs of finding new land for a sports field, as it would make that process more expensive and less predictable for an investor/operator. But the field people don’t want to give up their promised field on that side of town, just because someday the City may create playing field space elsewhere, especially since we’ll still have an overall deficit citywide, and a deficit in that part of town.

Development issues

When the City Council approved the 1993 CCSP, most of the land west of Main St. was owned by the RAND corporation. At the time, RAND successfully sought entitlements to redevelop its aging headquarters, and to develop the rest of the land with commercial office space and a mix of market rate and affordable housing. With so much private development under consideration, and only a sliver of green space planned to the north of the proposed new RAND headquarters across from City Hall, it was easy to argue that 4th/Pico needed to be open and green in the CCSP.

In 1999, the City purchased approximately 11.3-acres of land owned by RAND, with the goal of providing more public open space and affordable housing within the Civic Center (a historic purchase for which I played an initiating role as a councilmember). Now that the City was in direct control of more development choices within the Civic Center, the thinking included how to more appropriately transition from downtown to Ocean Park.

In an extremely positive cooperation by/with RAND, the 1999 purchase led to a revised 2000 CCSP that allowed for the new RAND headquarters to be built on the southern end of the Civic Center at 56-feet high, instead of across from City Hall at 84-feet high, leading to the beautiful open space we know today as Tongva Park. Rather than developing 4th/Pico, the thinking was that the housing density (instead of commercial office space) and heights we were going to build along Ocean Avenue, would now be balanced by a substantially increased amount of open space within the Civic Center overall.

One thing that did not change from the 1993 to the 2000 CCSP – and is still in the plan today – is the idea of making a major pedestrian linkage from Palisades Park to Ocean Park through the Civic Center, via what is now Tongva Park, ultimately to Ocean Park at 3rd and 4th/Pico.

If we are truly serious about making Santa Monica a walkable city, retaining a truly inviting and sizable open-space entrance from Ocean Park into the Civic Center (and ultimately to downtown and points beyond) is critical. By contrast, any major development at 4th/Pico would be a betrayal of the historic land use compromise between various issue constituencies that led to using $53 million of public money to buy the RAND land in the first place; and a de facto bait-and-switch that first allowed Ocean Avenue to be up-zoned and developed, with the promise that 4th/Pico be kept open, and then a “camel’s-nose-under-the-tent” breaking of that promise later.

Field of dreams

The answer is not to pit the arts/cultural vs. the sports/open space vs. the slow-growth communities (many of us are in all three!), but to think big picture and find a way to make everything happen.

On Tuesday night, City Staff is rightfully suggesting a pause from addressing the entire area considered by the CWG, and is recommending for now issuing a Request for Qualifications/Request for Proposals for reuse of the Civic Auditorium only. Market conditions have changed since the last time the City looked in that direction, and there are nearby planning processes that could shed light on an ultimate resolution.

Taking advantage of that “pause,” the Council should give direction to City Staff Tuesday night to work with the School District on joint planning between the Santa Monica High School improvement planning process (resulting from Measure ES funds approved by voters in 2006) and the Gateway Area Master Plan (GAMP), in order to site one or more new fields north of Samohi.

The world according to GAMP

The City is looking at comprehensively planning the area between Ocean Avenue and 5th Street, and between Colorado Avenue and covering the I-10 freeway; as well as realigning the 4th Street west bound off-ramp to link directly with Olympic Boulevard and then extending the useable area south of the Expo rail stop at 4th/Colorado with the space gained. That planning process is what is called the GAMP.

The school district has stayed out of the crossfire over what should happen at 4th/Pico, but has indicated its willingness to work with the City once the City is more clear about its plans there. Now is the time for the two agencies to partner to explore how a new field(s) could be added north of Samohi as part of the GAMP.

It makes great sense for a new field(s) to be located next to Samohi and near the Expo light rail stop. In 2003, at the instigation of then Councilmember Herb Katz and myself, the Council asked City Staff to explore the feasibility of a new field over the I-10 freeway, east of 4th Street. As a stand-alone project it was prohibitively expense. Now with the GAMP, new possibilities for covering capital costs exist.

Not only could this process help facilitate Samohi’s improvement and possible northward expansion, but if a bond measure to help fund the Civic Auditorium restoration is ever going to pass the voters – passage which would also lessen the need to overdevelop the site to help fund the restoration – the sports/open space community must feel its needs weren’t precluded by it, otherwise the blowback will kill the bond.

Adding one or more new fields between Samohi and the new Expo light rail station could be a win-win for our community. The Council should “think big and think green” Tuesday night and vote to explore

Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004).  He can be reached via Twitter @mikefeinstein

Inside/Outside‘ is a periodic column about civic affairs Feinstein writes for the Daily Press, that takes advantage of his experience inside and outside of government.