Filling the worker rights vacuum

Two Thousand Nineteen seems remarkable for the number of historical events that are being commemorated with round number anniversaries. Fifty years ago, 1969, saw the Moon landing and Woodstock on the good side; the murders of the Manson Family on the bad side. One hundred years ago Congress passed the 19th Amendment giving women the vote. As the New York Times has responded to in a special series, 2019 is also the 400th anniversary of the landing in 1619 of the first African slaves in the English colonies.

One anniversary, also going back to 1969, has not been made much of. That year, 1969, was the year Republicans took over the American economy, and began to dismantle the system that had regulated capitalism since FDR’s New Deal of the 1930s. A system that had led to unprecedented stability, prosperity and economic advancement for all classes of Americans.

The picture hasn’t been pretty ever since, as the wealthy have disproportionately benefited from economic growth, leaving working people in debt and despair.

One bedrock principle and achievement of the New Deal was to establish the right of workers to organize. The resulting unionization of American workers under the National Labor Relations Act (the “Wagner Act”), overseen by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), resulted in unprecedented gains in incomes, healthcare and pensions for all employees, whether they worked for unionized companies or worked for companies that emulated union standards to compete for labor.

Once Republicans took control of the White House in 1969, control that Republicans maintained for all but 12 years through 2009, giving them control of the NLRB for nearly two generations, they stripped away the rights and protections of the Wagner Act.

As a result, although the economy has greatly expanded over the past 50 years as technological gains have greatly enhanced worker productivity, the share of the pie that workers get has not grown. For decades, income stagnation has been a problem. Ironically, the politician who has most effectively exploited worker discontent is the Republican who currently occupies the White House — and whose appointments to the NLRB are among the most anti-union in history. (Not to mention all his other plutocrat-friendly policies.)

The evisceration over 50 years of the Wagner Act has left a vacuum, and we know what Nature abhors. That vacuum is going to be filled, given that workers no longer have the ability to negotiate their conditions of employment effectively; given that we fortunately live in a society where it’s no longer okay for workers to be exploited quite as viciously as they were during the Industrial Revolution; and given that government has to pick up the pieces when workers don’t earn high enough wages to pay for the costs of living and raising families.

Even conservatives acknowledge that something must be done for workers and their families. In a disingenuous but nonetheless illuminating opinion piece that appeared in the New York Times August 4, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, Oren Cass, while dismissing “1930s-style unions” as outdated (what chutzpah, considering that to the extent, if any, that unions haven’t been able to serve workers effectively, the cause has been the conservative war against them), acknowledged that there was a crisis, and argued that “new forms of organizing through which workers can support one another, engage with management and contribute to civil society should be a conservative priority.”

Oh, that’s nice. Needless to say, Mr. Cass did not have any ideas of what these new forms of organizing might be, nor how they might simultaneously empower workers and have conservative support. That’s a combination we won’t see.

Which leaves government to fill the vacuum, which explains why governments, including ours here in Santa Monica, and voters all over the country, have been increasing minimum wages.

Next week we will see more vacuum-filling in Santa Monica. At the City Council meeting Tuesday night the council will no doubt adopt an ordinance that will govern many aspects of the workplace in Santa Monica’s hotels. Hotel owners don’t like government telling them how to run their businesses, but how they treat their 2,100 workers here, especially in a city so dependent on their businesses (Santa Monica will receive more than $68 million in revenue this fiscal year from the hotel tax), is too important to be left to them.

The proposed ordinance is based on existing laws in Long Beach, Oakland, and Emeryville in California, and in Seattle and Chicago, and will cover worker safety (particularly for female workers), protections for workers from being laid off if there is a change in ownership, worker training, protections against mandatory overtime, and, most controversial, limits on the workloads of housekeepers.

City staff has done a lot of work researching the operation of the ordinances in the other cities, and generally staff is recommending solutions that emphasize “realizability” — meaning that the regulations should be easily understood and implemented without too much interpretation or involvement by the City.

On the issue of workload, for instance, staff is recommending a relatively easy-to-understand cap, based on square footage, on the maximum workload for a housekeeper working an eight-hour shift. This is not how hotels themselves like to divvy up workloads; they prefer a system that assigns different “credits” to different tasks. Indeed, considering that a square foot of one kind of room might be easier to clean than a square foot of another kind of room, this might make sense for their operations. But basing a maximum workload rule on a credit system would entail close involvement of the city into hotel operations — something I would assume hotels would not want.

Instead, city staff, following the ordinances in other cities, proposes a “bright line” of a cap on square footage (for an eight-hour shift). The proposed ordinance, however, doesn’t require that hotels abandon the credit system to assign work to their employees; only that at the end of the day (literally), a housekeeper can’t be asked to clean more than a maximum number of square feet without hitting overtime.

UNITE Here, the hotel workers union, and staff disagree about the size of the cap. Staff proposes a cap of 4,000 square feet, which is the cap in the Long Beach and Oakland ordinances. The union, arguing that Santa Monica hotel rooms, because of various factors, take longer to clean than hotel rooms in other cities, wants the cut-off here to be 3,500 square feet. I cannot claim to be an expert on hotel maintenance with an informed opinion about whether 4,000 or 3,500 square feet is the right number. I can say, however, that I know from personal experience, and the experiences of housekeepers I’ve hired, that even less than 3,500 square feet of house is a lot to clean in an eight-hour shift.

Thanks for reading.

Where to build housing and where not

I ended my blog last week about Santa Monica’s housing policies with some good news, namely that a lot of housing was either under construction in the city or had approvals to proceed to construction. As of the end of March, 759 units were under construction and another 1,384 had received planning approvals. Most of this housing received approval under laws that are no longer in force, but it was at least good to see that the one good thing about the high rents that result from the region’s housing crisis is that they do attract investment to build apartments that will house people for 50 or 60 years.

But then depressing news came to light when the City released its annual report on housing production. The numbers showed why the state is trying to take control of land use policy. The City reported that in fiscal year 2017-18 only 46 multi-family housing units (apartments or condos) were built in Santa Monica, of which only two were affordable.

This low level of construction continued and exacerbated a trend from fiscal year 2014-15, when housing production fell drastically. While in the 2013 and 2014 fiscal years total multi-family production was 941 units in Santa Monica (of which 503 were affordable!), in the four years since then, only 478 housing units, an average of 119 per year, have been built. This number is fewer than half of the 250 units expected to be built annually under the LUCE, and less even than the average of 217 units built in Santa Monica annually over the past 24 years. (In fact, housing production wasn’t even that good: the report’s construction numbers don’t take into account demolitions. According to the City’s housing reports, from June 2014 to June 2018, the net increase in housing units, after deducting demolitions (and including data for single-family houses), was 422, an average annual increase of only 105.)

Again, the good news is that a fair amount of housing is now in the works, either under construction or approved, in Santa Monica. However, the anemic production of the past four years, and, as I discussed in last week’s blog, the apparent debacle of the Downtown Community Plan, illustrate why Sacramento is not likely to leave housing policy to local governments. Not when Governor Newson wants his legacy to include 3.5 million new homes.

I write this even as the most ambitious proposal to limit local control, Scott Wiener’s SB50, is dead for the year. Sen. Anthony Portantino, of La Cañada/Flintridge, responding to pleas from residents of single-family, suburban areas (such as La Cañada/Flintridge), used his power as Chair of the Appropriations Committee to prevent Wiener’s bill from reaching the Senate floor. The bill drew the ire of single-family zone residents because somewhere along the way a bill that encouraged in-fill urban development had become a bill that would have drastically up-zoned nearly all single-family zones in the state.

This up-zoning of suburbia not only added a poison pill to SB50, but also it was bad urban policy. Why densify sprawl? It doesn’t make sense: if you build more housing off the urban grid, isolated from decent transit, jobs, shopping and entertainment, you magnify the disaster that sprawl is. Wiener needs to bring back a bill that privileges investment in urban housing, and there is plenty of urban land that is zoned for commercial and industrial purposes where this can be done without driving residents crazy. Santa Monica showed how to do this in the ’90s by allowing double the amount of residential development over commercial development in formerly commercial zones in its downtown. A boom in housing resulted.

Downtown Santa Monica development

But cities don’t like to turn commercial and industrial real estate into housing. While no-growth politics coming from affluent homeowners has had a lot to do with California’s failure to build enough housing, a factor that has drawn national attention, another factor has been that cities prefer commercial development that generates taxes over residential development that requires the delivery of services. Cities are loath to convert commercial real estate to housing.

In the interest of promoting economic development cities don’t take into account how many more jobs per square foot of development are now created in office and retail buildings over what existed on old industrial properties, and how many more square feet can now be built in multi-story office buildings than existed in the old one-story factories. Every 1,000 square feet of office development now generates at least three or four jobs, and for those jobs, at least two housing units need to be built. But cities rarely consider that math when rezoning commercial or industrial properties.

Unfortunately, Santa Monica has been a leader in this regard as well, given how it has converted originally industrial areas to offices without sufficient housing for the many more people who work there. In a future version of his bill, Wiener would do well to require more housing to be built whenever cities entitle more commercial development.

As for the suburbs, instead of attacking single-family zoning where we don’t want denser development anyway, what the legislature needs to do is to require local governments to allow (and encourage) the repurposing of malls with added housing and offices (local jobs for suburbanites), and as nodes for transit. Leave the housing subdivisions alone.

Wiener will bring the bill back next year, and I suspect that next time a version of it will get further along in the process. Wiener learned from his mistakes with the first version of his housing bill last year, and I suspect he’ll learn from his mistakes this year. And presumably by then the governor will want to see more progress. This story isn’t over.

Thanks for reading.

Whack-a-mole housing policy

When in the summer of 2017 the Santa Monica City Council, after six years of work, adopted the Downtown Community Plan (DCP), the then architecture critic for the L.A. Times, Christopher Hawthorne, wrote an article about it. Hawthorne, after a conversation with City Manager Rick Cole, expressed guarded optimism that the plan, which Cole and the council had touted as a “housing” plan, would indeed lead to the building of more housing, for all income levels, in downtown Santa Monica.

According to Hawthorne, Cole characterized the DCP as being the result of a “grand bargain” between anti-growth and pro-housing factions in Santa Monica. Because the DCP included streamlined approvals for housing and height and density bonuses for housing development, and eliminated parking minimums, Cole was confident, based on the City’s financial analysis, that developers would build housing despite increased requirements for including affordable housing.

Hawthorne was respectful of Cole’s optimism, but the critic injected a note of skepticism in his article by including a comment from Santa Monica housing activist Jason Islas to the effect that the DCP’s high percentage requirements for affordable housing (maxing out at 30% for the largest projects “on-site,” or 35% “off-site”) would mean that no housing would be built. Islas’ comment on the affordability question was that “30% of zero is zero.”

Now nearly two years on, and according to a “Downtown Community Plan Monitoring Report” the City issued March 22, Islas’ predictions have proven more accurate that City Manager Cole’s. Since adoption of the DCP, six projects have been proposed under the DCP standards, totaling 335 units, but only 19—only 6%!—are affordable. How can that be, you say? Isn’t 20% the minimum under the DCP?

No. Twenty percent is the minimum for projects over 39 feet tall (“Tier 2 projects.”) Five of the six DCP projects are Tier 1. Under the City’s rosy financial analysis, this wasn’t supposed to happen. The City’s financial consultants, and a majority of City Council members, predicted developers would build market rate units in Santa Monica even if they had to provide higher percentages of affordable housing than were required anywhere else in the state.

Developers are proposing to build market-rate housing (but not much) under DCP standards, but not with nearly the affordable housing City Council wanted to come with it.

As I said, five of the six DCP projects are Tier 1, which means they only have a five percent affordable requirement. One project is Tier 2, but as the March 22 report points out, the developer of that project opted to build to 50 feet even though the zoning would have allowed a height of 60 feet (meaning an additional floor of apartments). By adding that floor, the developer would have increased the affordable obligation from 20% to 25%, presumably wiping out any profit for the additional density.

It’s not only that developers are not building the denser and more affordable housing that the DCP was supposed to encourage, but the housing being proposed contravenes other goals of the DCP. The five Tier 1 DCP projects are entirely comprised of small (less than 375 square feet) studio units. (These units are referred to in developer applications and staff reports as “single room occupancy” (SRO) units, but don’t confuse them with what “SRO” usually refers to, namely “congregant” housing, with shared bathrooms, kitchens and other facilities often built for residents who need supportive services. The proposed units are small versions of what are variously referred to in real estate listings as “studios,” “singles” or “bachelor” units, with their own bathrooms and cooking facilities.)

The DCP is bizarre, but I suppose typical for the product of political “grand bargains,” in that the its standards penalize the building of what the City professes to want—a mix of unit types and affordability to create a diverse neighborhood downtown—while making it easier to build what the City says it doesn’t want, namely smaller projects with 95% market rate units and only one type of unit.

These Tier 1 projects, some of which have replaced previously-proposed Tier 2 projects, have caused the typical hysteria that is the City’s response to events that are simultaneously unexpected and predictable. Tomorrow night City Council will consider an ordinance to ban the building of projects with only small studio units after having adopted an emergency ordinance to do this in March. (Which, no surprise, caused the developer of the Tier 1 all-studio projects to sue the City, since the developer understandably felt that he had played by the rules.)

The ordinance won’t solve the problem, however, since it won’t stop the building of studios that are larger than 375 square feet. Meaning that developers could still build Tier 1, all studio projects, but with fewer, somewhat larger units. These would still be profitable: according to statistics I read in a recent Lookout article, 435-square-foot studios currently rent for about $2,500 (or more) in Santa Monica. That’s more than $5 per square foot. (Meaning that whatever residents who live comfortably in big houses or securely in rent-controlled apartments say, there’s a market for small apartments. Not only young tech workers, but think of the many international students at SMC.)

What developer needs to build above 39 feet if there is that kind of money to be made, especially if approvals are not discretionary and the affordable housing requirement is minimal? Figure it this way: if you remove all the unprofitable affordable housing from a Tier 2 project, you’re probably left with the same amount of profitable square footage in a Tier 1 project. As Islas said, 30% of zero is zero.

The ordinance being proposed is a typical example of a whack-a-mole planning. You don’t like all-studio projects? Ban them: whack! But the problem is not that developers have found a work-around to the City’s Byzantine and onerous requirements under the DCP, but the DCP itself, which the City based on wishful thinking and a financial analysis that developers warned the City was flawed.

The fact that the DCP turns out not to be the housing plan the City touted is borne out by a lot of good news about housing in Santa Monica. Anyone who gets around town these days can see that a lot of apartments are under construction.

New apartments under construction on Lincoln Boulevard

According to a March 26 staff report on the City’s Affordable Housing Production Program, in the four years ending 2018 1001 units were constructed, of which 40% (402) are affordable. The 1001 is consistent with the LUCE’s modest goal that 250 units would be built per year, a one-half percentage point annual increase over the city’s approximately 50,000 housing units. Even more encouraging, 759 units were under construction, and 1,384 units had received planning approval. (Keep in mind that these figures are for the entire city, while the DCP only affects downtown.)

These are the kind of numbers that the City could try to use to justify an exemption to the “dreaded” SB50 making its way through the legislature. However, none of this housing is a product of the DCP.

It’s time to revisit the DCP. But who wants to spend six years doing that?

Thanks for reading.

The character of Vicente Terrace

As it turns out, not all politics are local, and what with one thing or another going on in the world, I’m one local news obsessive who has had a difficult time lately obsessing on local news. Thus, no posts here since October, meaning I’ve left uncommented upon elections in Santa Monica and a lawsuit that would upend Santa Monica politics completely. Matters about which previously I would have written much.

But this weekend I’ve put the Mueller report aside to write about a hyper local Santa Monica issue, namely the future of two apartment projects near the beach. I wrote about them in my last column, back in October, and I feel compelled to follow the story.

The owners of the Shutters and Casa del Mar hotels are developing two apartment buildings (with retail on the ground floors) on vacant lots near the hotels. The Planning Commission approved both projects last year, but those approvals have been appealed to the City Council. The council will consider the appeals at its meeting Tuesday evening.

The developer submitted plans for the apartments in September 2015. Even assuming the council denies the appeals and approves the projects, that means it will have taken almost four years to make a decision over two small buildings with a combined 105 apartments, including 16 affordable units. No wonder the legislature in Sacramento is frustrated by how difficult it is to get housing built in California. (Incidentally, based on the development potential of one of the sites, the hotel owners paid $13 million for one of the properties, money that went into the City’s affordable housing fund.)

Of the two projects, the larger one would replace the parking lot between Ocean Avenue and Shutters. The northern edge of the property is Vicente Terrace, a street that runs from Ocean Avenue down to the beach. Residents who live on the north side of the street have appealed the approval of the project, primarily on the grounds that having an apartment building across from their houses would be contrary to “neighborhood character.”


Vicente Terrace

Before I explain why I disagree with the neighbors’ appeal, it’s only fair to mention that they are not taking the stance of so many opponents of change in Santa Monica, meaning that they are not opposing the whole project. They seem to recognize that buildings across the street housing new neighbors would be an improvement over the parking lot that they face now. What these neighbors say they want is for the developers to make the building look like it’s a row of townhouses rather than an apartment building.

They also acknowledge that the Planning Commission approved a plan that the developer modified to respond to their concerns. The buildings on Vicente Terrace will now be stepped back considerably from the curb (from 15 to 22 feet, even though the zoning ordinance only requires a five-foot setback) and the floors above 36 feet (the height limit the neighbors say they would accept) are stepped back at least another 20 feet, meaning these upper floors will likely not be perceptible from the street below.

There is now only small difference in terms of size and massing between the approved plans and what the neighbors say they want, except that the neighbors want the façades to mimic townhouses rather than apartments. (Related to this, they also contend that apartments across the street will lower their property values.)

I say, “small difference,” but let’s not forget Freud’s concept of the “narcissism of small differences”: small disagreements can fuel passionate arguments. In this case, the neighbors in their houses fervently desire to face façades that are or at least appear to be single-family homes, not apartments.  Instead of the narcissism of small differences, what we seem to have here is plain narcissism. They want the other side of the street to mirror themselves.

As I said, these neighbors don’t seem to be hard-line NIMBYs, and judging by an opinion piece one of them wrote in the Daily Press, some at least assume a liberal political mantle (“Wall Street vs. Main Street”). (I often wonder if Santa Monicans who decry the profit motives of real estate developers don’t go to movies because they’re made by movie producers and studios obsessed with the box office.)

The neighbors, however, seem unaware of how arguments based on “neighborhood character” have historically been used to exclude apartments from neighborhoods because of fears of allowing into neighborhoods the lower economic classes.

Nor do they seem to be aware that in places where the population is generally left-wing, left-wingers have been adept at finding new rhetoric to justify the same old suburban sanctification and glorification of single-family homes vs. the vilification of apartments. (This is of course creates cognitive dissonance here in Santa Monica, where left-wing arguments against building market rate apartments are also based on phony (when coming from generally affluent people) quasi-Marxist arguments based on the expected high incomes of  future tenants who surely will be class-enemies if they can afford to rent new apartments in Santa Monica.)

In the context of the housing crisis created by NIMBYism and the environmental crisis created by sprawl, left-wing arguments against infill development, however, are now being challenged as anti-city and pro-sprawl. As Benjamin Ross puts it in his 2014 book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, a history of how restrictive land use policies aimed against apartments and the people who would live in them destroyed cities and gave us sprawl, “the rise of the antisprawl movement has put resistance to change in conflict with left-of-center social and environmental goals…. [Although] [o]pponents of urban infill are fewer in number . . . they have not abandoned the fight. The rhetoric of the environmentalist Left remains on their lips, but the substance of their agenda has begun to converge with the familiar exclusion of old-line suburbs.” (Emphasis added.) Ross calls this “left nimbyism.”

I live in Ocean Park, a once single-family neighborhood that thankfully became a mixed neighborhood of houses and apartments before the City adopted mono-culture zoning. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like the “character” of Ocean Park. On a per square foot basis, Ocean Park has some of the highest priced real estate in California. The Vicente Terrace neighbors’ argument that apartments will lower their property values is laughable.

I want to distinguish these phony leftist arguments from the genuine left-wing concerns of UNITE HERE Local 11, the union that represents hotel workers in Santa Monica, which has appealed the approvals of both buildings. The grounds for the union’s appeal are that the union doesn’t believe that the approvals include enough protections against the renting of the apartments as short-term rentals (either as Airbnb-type lodgings or as corporate housing).

UNITE HERE is right to be concerned about short-term rentals of unoccupied apartments, as they have become a scourge of the housing market. It appears to me, however, based on the staff report, that the City has included sufficient enforcement mechanisms in the conditions of approval and in existing law. (And the City has had some success recently with enforcement.) However, if it’s possible to approve the projects with more effective enforcement mechanisms, there wouldn’t be anything wrong with that.

Thanks for reading.

Tales of two more projects

Earlier this year I wrote a post about two development projects that were staggering through the approvals process in Santa Monica. One was an apartment building on Lincoln Boulevard, replacing worn-out automobile repair shops, and the other was a hotel project, the one Frank Gehry has designed for the prominent corner of Ocean Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard.

Two similar projects are now plodding towards their respective destinies. One consists of two apartment buildings that are being developed together and which are considered as one project for environmental review. The other is the redevelopment of the Miramar Hotel, for which new plans were publicly released earlier this year.

The two apartment buildings will be built near the beach on land adjacent to the Shutters and Casa del Mar hotels. They will replace two vacant lots—the parking lot behind Shutters with frontages on Ocean Avenue, Pico, and Vicente Terrace, and the space just south of Casa del Mar on Ocean Front Walk.


Vacant lot on Ocean Front Walk, just south of Casa del Mar Hotel.


Vacant lot on Ocean Avenue, behind Shutters, between Pico and Vicente Terrace.

The format and programming of the apartments, designed by local architects Koning Eizenberg, conform to that of apartments that both for-profit and affordable housing developers in Santa Monica have been building for about 20 years in commercial zones. Meaning that three or four stories of apartments sit above underground parking and (in most but not all cases) ground floor retail. This model has served Santa Monica well since new zoning that encouraged housing in commercial zones was first adopted in the 1990s for downtown.

Ocean Vicente Terrace Corner

Architect’s rending of proposed apartments between Shutters and Ocean Avenue.

Given that these new apartments on vacant lots won’t displace anyone, given that they are in a busy part of town that has been intensively developed (with many buildings much larger than these) for about a century, and given that they aren’t taller than the hotels next to them (and step back to respect the shorter buildings they will face on Vicente Terrace), one would think that getting approval for these buildings would be easy. Further, the developers have tried to make the process easy on themselves, by asking for no variances from the applicable zoning other than some minor technical adjustments to take into the account the significant slope on the Ocean Avenue lot.

However, the developers are building a “Tier 2” project, which means they have to through a development review rather than an administrative approval. This entails, among other things, an expensive and time consuming environmental review which at the end of the day, for infill projects like these apartments, doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t know already. It’s perverse to make it harder to build Tier 2 at this scale, because the public gets more from a Tier 2 project than it does from a Tier 1. Face it, we only make approval harder and more expensive and less predictable for Tier 2 because it’s expected (but not necessarily true) that a developer will make more money from a bigger building. It’s more envy than anything else.

As for public benefits, a Tier 2 project must provide affordable units at a 50% higher rate than Tier 1, and of course, a bigger project produces more affordable units than a smaller project even without the bonus. If you want to house people, you have to build housing. (Also worth noting if you like affordable housing: the City owned the property next to Casa del Mar and sold it to the developers for more than $13 million, money that the City has put into its affordable housing fund. That amount of money was only paid because the property could be developed.)

As it happens, applications for these two apartment buildings were filed in September 2015, three years ago, and they are only now (Wednesday night, in fact) coming before the Planning Commission.

No surprise, but the apartments face neighborhood opposition. A new neighborhood group, South Avenue Residents (SOAR), which represents at least some neighbors on Vicente Terrace, filed a comment letter to the draft EIR with 67 comments. I have read many EIR comment letters, but I recommend this one in particular as a definitive catalog of first-world complaints. My favorite comment in the letter is number 42: “There are multiple dogs and cats living with their owners on Vicente Terrace. How will the developers compensate owners for special care of their animals during construction?”

This attitude of the beach dwellers is nothing new. Twenty years ago when I was on the Planning Commission there was an issue about hours of operation for Pacific Park. A woman, who later became prominent in Santa Monica’s no-growth community, testified that she had recently moved to an apartment near the Pier and she was shocked at how much noise and activity there was on Ocean Front Walk. She said that when she was moving here to the beach, she thought it was going to be like Mendocino.

Disclosure: longtime readers of mine know that when I wrote for the Santa Monica Lookout News nearby neighbors on Seaview Terrace provided plenty of grist for my mill. I’ll confess that I was in part drawn to writing about these new apartments for the opportunity to check in on what was going on in the neighborhood. It was like old times to see that once-serial project opponent Stephanie Barbanell had submitted two comment letters to the EIR. Ms. Barbanell once told neighbors that she considered her opposition to development projects (in particular, any licenses to sell alcoholic beverages) a form of conceptual art, but in recent years she’s been quiet. Good for her that she’s expressing herself again!

Ultimately, building apartments and some ground floor retail on these sites makes sense because the zoning prohibits nearly everything else. The area is under the control of Measure S, passed in 1990 to stop hotel and large restaurant development. What better to be built on these vacant lots than housing? (There may be up to three small restaurants as well.) Would the neighbors prefer an office building? (I’m sure there are tech billionaires who would love to be able to take a break and surf whenever the waves are good.) Anti-development residents in Santa Monica like to go on about how much quieter Santa Monica used to be, as a “sleepy beach town,” but what if someone wanted to bring back Pacific Ocean Park? Or even just put an amusement arcade on these lots? I’m sure the neighbors would love that.

* * *

The revised plans to remake the Miramar Hotel and add condominiums that were released last April were the third major iteration of the plans. The plans are the product of nearly 10 years of controversy. The Miramar and the proposed office and housing project at the Paper Mate factory were the major catalysts for the revival of the development wars in Santa Monica after the approval of the LUCE in 2010.

The revival of the development wars climaxed with the defeat of the Paper Mate plans in 2016. Since then, however, after the defeat of Measure LV in November 2016 and the approval of the Downtown Community Plan (DCP) in the summer of 2017, there has been less heated rhetoric and fewer political battles about development. In the meantime, the Miramar brought in a new team of developers and new architects, the internationally famous firm of Cesar and Rafael Pelli.

The new team appears, with their new plans, to be committed to not igniting another conflagration. They have been more communicative with nearby residents and other locals than the earlier development team. Most important, the new plans fit inside the envelope for the site that the DCP provides. Previous plans required substantial changes to the existing land use parameters.

While the plan includes 60 condominiums, which are controversial in Santa Monica because residents who live in houses worth millions of dollars don’t like to think of their sleepy beach town as a place where rich people live, it also provides for 30 units of affordable housing. Again, as with the beach apartments, while it’s true that rich people, including dreaded Russian oligarchs and Arab sheiks looking for new pieds-à-terre, will now have new housing options near the beach, so will more poor and working-class people.

If the plan were going through the approval process now, during the lull in the development wars and not too long after City Council adopted the DCP, I suspect that it would fare well. Unfortunately for the plan, however, it’s now in environmental review jail—an EIR is being written (and yes, for a project this big an EIR is appropriate), and that typically takes more than a year. Then the plan will run a gauntlet of approvals: Landmarks Commission, Architectural Review Board, Planning Commission, City Council and Coastal Commission. It will be at least a couple more years before the plan might win final approval.

Time is the enemy of all plans because time is the enemy of certainty. The Miramar’s developers crafted their first plan (one I didn’t think was very good) in consultation with the City’s planning staff. At a City Council hearing, the plan was shot down because it blocked too many views. The council advised the developers to come back with a tall skinny building, to preserve more views. Which the developers did (with another not-very-good plan), but by then the council had forgotten what it had said about a tall tower, and that plan went nowhere.

It was after that debacle that the Miramar brought in its new team. They waited out the DCP process to see what it would allow them to build. Now they have given us the new plan, which is, by the way, quite good.

But in two years, who knows that the City will be telling them they can build.

Thanks for reading.

Putting new modes in multi-modal

The silicon-enabled “new economy” is now disrupting transportation much as it previously disrupted retail, journalism, entertainment, publishing, etc. Starting with ride-sharing, and now with dockless scooters and e-bikes, infusions of new money and new ideas are colliding with a transportation system that had been locked for decades into a 20th century model that massively privileged drivers of privately-owned automobiles. While scraps of investment were thrown to “mass” transit, culturally the norms were that for car drivers, the ideal was maximal personal freedom and choice, but if you travelled by other means, nearly all aspects of the trip would be constrained.

This even applied to walking: the demands of drivers restricted walkers to skinny sidewalks and caused the criminalizing of walking under the invented concept of “jaywalking.”

Now much of this has been turned on its head, in large part because freedom to drive became a monster that consumed itself, in the form of traffic congestion. When people finally realized that infinitely increasing road capacity and space dedicated to parking was not only impossible but also counter-productive for reducing congestion, governments started to implement policies that allowed for reducing driver freedom and increasing the cost of driving, particularly in cities.

A pivotal moment was London’s implementation of congestion pricing in 2003. While only a few cities have followed with their own direct congestion-pricing programs, many, including Santa Monica, have significantly increased the cost of parking in downtown areas, which is another form of congestion pricing. Cities have expanded car-free zones, narrowed streets, and expanded facilities for pedestrians and alternatives to cars, such as wider sidewalks and bike lanes. Car manufacturers are planning for the decline of individual car ownership.

Meanwhile, in cities and regions like L.A., the public has voted to tax themselves to invest in transit. Yet for a long time many of the controversies about transit involved how to please car-drivers. It was controversial when the City decided to provide little parking at Santa Monica Expo stations. Now, with Uber and Lyft, as well as public bike-sharing programs, and with significant reductions in the use of the City’s existing parking garages, and given at the same time the success of Expo, those debates over parking seem like what they were: from another century.

And now scooters. Like everyone else, I was confused last September when Birds first appeared lined up on downtown Santa Monica sidewalks. Then I saw people riding them. And like everyone who wasn’t riding them, I got indignant, especially when I saw scooters being ridden on sidewalks.

But I’ve come around. I mean, talk about another mode in “mixed-modal.” For years transit planners have been worrying about the “last mile” problem, and sure enough someone comes along with an option that works for many transit users (not all, of course—nothing works for all) and which requires zero public capital investment. Wow. We should be trying everything we can to make this work.


Vehicles that are not scooters blocking traffic.

Government planners are naturally uncomfortable working with for-profit partners, in a context, transit, that traditionally requires subsidy. But it’s not the first time public/private partnerships have built transportation systems. The transcontinental railroads were a public/private partnership, and since World War II America has built a tremendous continent-wide transport system consisting of airlines, airports, interstate highways, and rental cars. (But open only to those with credit cards.)

As for the criticisms of scooters and scooter riders, one need not wage generational war to realize that scooter use needs to be subject to rules. But non-riders should calm down. Frankly, while as a daily cyclist my hackles were at first raised by having to share “my” bike lanes, my attitude started to change when I realized that the complaints about scooter riders were often the same complaints made against us cyclists.


Vehicles that are not scooters blocking an intersection (during the scrambled-walk phase).

Two things to remember are (i) that these scooters are a new thing and if Bird had asked to be regulated ahead of time, no one in City Hall would have known what to do with them, and (ii) that with education and outreach, people can change behaviors, particularly if the admonitions to change come from the peer group.

Put it this way: if dog owners can learn to clean up after their pets, and if smokers can learn not to smoke everywhere they want, two advances in social etiquette no one would have predicted 30 years ago, scooter riders can learn not to ride on sidewalks.


Behavior modification in process.

Also, we have to be mindful of how people exaggerate the importance of new and recent occurrences. A few weeks ago, there was outrage on Facebook because of an accident on the beach bike path that involved a scooter. Accidents are bad, and motorized vehicles shouldn’t be on the bike path, but every weekend there are accidents on the bike path. As a cyclist who rides the bike path, let me say that three pedestrians walking side-by-side, blocking a lane, or racing roller-bladers sweeping from side-to-side, shouldn’t be on the bike path, either.

People didn’t need scooters to do stupid things.

And if the City is so concerned about helmets, how come it doesn’t make Breeze bike users wear them?


Parked vehicles that are not scooters taking up valuable space.

I only have a few things to say about the competition over which two scooter companies get to participate in the City’s pilot program. To begin with, the City gets points for having the program, rather than reacting to scooters by banning them or making arbitrary limits on them as other cities have done. You can’t regulate something you don’t know about.

As for the competition among the companies, I’m less sure that the City is taking the right approach. (By way of disclosure, I’m friends with three locals who work for Bird.) As has been reported, the City asked interested companies to submit applications, answering a series of questions. A staff committee then graded the applications and made recommendations based on those grades. Unfortunately, it seems that the committee limited its review to the applications, without, it seems, considering the “real world.” (The final decision will now be made by the Director of Planning, David Martin, who apparently is not limited to the applications or bound by the recommendations.)

The result was that the committee recommended two companies for the pilot, neither of which has operated a scooter business previously. One company is owned by Uber, and the other by Lyft.

Uber happens to be one of the most reviled companies in the real world, a company that seems to treat everyone badly. I can’t see why Santa Monica would want to enter into a pilot program with an Uber company.

I’m a fan and user of Lyft’s car-sharing service, and the company is in business already with the Big Blue Bus on a program to give last-mile access to low-income transit users. As I said, however, Lyft has never operated a scooter program before and it shows in Lyft’s application.

The advantage of filing an application when you don’t have experience in a field is that you can say anything. Lyft’s application is full of clauses like, “we are committed to working with the City,” or “Lyft looks forward to working with the City,” or “Lyft proposes to work with the City.” The application tells us that Lyft “is in the process of acquiring” a company it expects will “maximize the quality of our Santa Monica presence.” It’s all air.

The City committee graded Bird’s application low, and after reading it I’m not surprised. It’s shorter and sparser than the Lyft application. Their motto seemed to be, “just the facts, ma’am.”

I also detect, however, in the committee’s shunning of Bird and Lime, the two existing scooter companies, a tendency in Santa Monica to ignore realities in the service of an ideal of fairness. This tendency does not in fact guarantee fairness, and along the way it tends to screw up results.

Ignoring the realities of Bird and Lime reminds me of how, when evaluating proposals to redevelop the Bergamot Station art center, the City ignored Wayne Blank, the master lessee of the galleries for decades, and truly the inventor of the art scene there. Blank was also the owner of important adjacent properties. When the process of determining the development team the City would work with began, it was hard for me to envision the City choosing any team that didn’t include Blank.

But that’s what the City did, and the whole process crashed and burned. The City has had to start all over at Bergamot. That’s what happens when you ignore reality.

Thanks for reading.

My Jonathan Gold story

Along with everyone else in L.A., I am mourning Jonathan Gold, and like it seems nearly everyone, I have a Jonathan Gold story. It’s a small one, as stories about Mr. Gold go, but it is true to character.

But first some necessary back story. Some years ago a cousin of mine went to China to teach English. He met a woman there, from the city of Liuzhou, in Guangxi province in the far south of China. They fell in love, and married. After a few years in China, my cousin returned to the States with his bride. They settled in the Bay Area, but they have visited us here in Santa Monica a couple of times.

Southern California is, of course, the home of many immigrants from all regions of China, who have, particularly in the San Gabriel Valley, opened many, many restaurants that feature seemingly infinite varieties of Chinese food, varieties based on specific regions, ingredients, cooking techniques, etc. Jonathan Gold famously wrote about those restaurants and the restaurants of many other diasporas that have reached our shores (and valleys).

Knowing this, prior to visiting us, and because he wanted to be a good husband to his somewhat homesick wife, my cousin would research the Web to find restaurants here that served food from Guangzi. In particular he was looking for the specialty of his wife’s hometown, Liuzhou, a noodle stew called luosifen that is based on a snail and pork bone stock. The first time they visited my cousin found a restaurant, not surprisingly, in the San Gabriel Valley. For the second visit, however, a few years ago, he shocked me by finding a little restaurant in a strip mall on Westwood Boulevard that served luosifen. It’s called Qin West, and it is as tiny (so tiny that it doesn’t have its own restrooms) as it is authentic. Needless to say I’d never heard of it.

Flash forward a few years, to last year, when City of Gold, the documentary about Jonathan Gold, was playing at the Laemmle theaters on Second Street in Santa Monica. My wife and I went to a screening that featured a Q&A afterwards with Mr. Gold and the director of the film. My wife and I loved the movie and very much enjoyed the discussion afterwards.

When we walked out of the theater onto Second Street, Mr. Gold and the director and friends of theirs were standing around on the sidewalk, talking. I screwed up my courage to ask Mr. Gold a question that had been on my mind for years, namely, why are there no truly good and authentic Chinese restaurants on the Westside?

Now, before you say that the answer is obvious—because there are few Chinese, let alone immigrant Chinese, living on the Westside—let me point out that there are good restaurants representing other immigrant communities here. We have good Thai restaurants, good Japanese restaurants, good Mexican (including Oaxacan) restaurants, good Korean barbecue, etc. Restaurants run by immigrant families cooking what they know.

So I asked Mr. Gold my question. He looked at me kindly, but without a moment’s hesitation, he said, “You mean, other than Qin West?”

Thanks for reading.

Tale of Two Projects

It’s been a while since I’ve written about a specific development project in Santa Monica. About a year ago I was busy writing articles about the Downtown Community Plan (DCP), and after that I had my fill of F.A.R.’s and levels of review, etc. I’ve mostly been writing travelogues since then. In the past week, however, two projects, of quite different scale, and located in different parts of the city, caught my eye.

One is a small, apartment complex, only 47 units, with ground-floor retail, on a typically skinny Lincoln Boulevard parcel at Ashland Avenue. The project survived development review last week when City Council members, claiming (accurately) that state law limited their power to block the project, rejected an appeal by neighbors of a Planning Commission approval of the project back in January. (Neighbors Lose Bid to Stop Apartment Complex on Santa Monica’s Lincoln Boulevard).

I live not far from the site and I either drive or walk past it often. It’s a location of classic crudscape, an ugly lot with several decrepit garages that look like they were built with stucco and tin foil.


The current site at Ashland and Lincoln

It’s incredible to me that neighbors would fight a new apartment building, with attractive ground-floor retail, on that stretch of Lincoln, but then I know it shouldn’t be incredible to me that a few neighbors will do anything to prevent people from moving into their neighborhood.

I remember when City Council, during the hearings on the LUCE, was debating standards for the boulevards. Council members were succumbing to anti-development arguments about “character” (that vague quality that has historically been used to keep apartments and apartment-dwellers out of insular communities). I remember, though, Bobby Shriver, who was sympathetic to the anti’s on other boulevards, admitting that Lincoln Boulevard was pretty ugly and needed new development. Almost ten years later, after another whole planning process for Lincoln Boulevard, a developer is finally building something—an improvement.

For the appeal staff had to prepare a 29-page staff report, which on top of myriad other documents, including a 50-page staff report for the Planning Commission, means that hundreds of pages of reports were created for . . . a 47-unit project that fits within Tier 2 of the applicable zoning. Months and years go by even with a state-law required “project streamlining” and an exemption from environmental review: the application for this little project was filed in March 2016 and “deemed complete” in May 2016. Already two years ago.

I’m shocked that the developers proposed a Tier 2 building. If they had made it a little smaller (a 1.5 F.A.R. instead of the 1.81 it has), it would have qualified under Tier 1, and they could have avoided this review. I’m glad they were brave—if they can make it to the finish line, the site will have another 10 or 15 apartments. (By the way, the development standards still require an insane about of parking—the project will have 151 expensive underground parking spaces for 47 apartments and about 17,000 square feet of retail. On a transit corridor. Crazy.)

Need I mention that the project replaces commercial zoning with residential development? Isn’t that what we want in jobs rich, housing poor, Santa Monica?

Naturally, the process is not over. The developers still need to take the project back to the Architectural Review Board for a formal review and no doubt another appeal to the Planning Commission. After informal ARB review, and comments from the Planning Commission, the developers and their architects must now deal with the usual litany of vague nostrums about “variation” and “visual breaks” and “modulation” and “granularity.” It’s like the ARB members and Planning Commissioners are wine connoisseurs. Here’s a rendering of the current design.

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As seen in this elevation, the building presents a bold statement on an ugly street. While the ARB and Planning Commissioners (and the anti’s) often complain about bland architecture in Santa Monica, their practice is to screw around with any architects who try to use formal structure and rhythm. They make the same amorphous demands on every project, and then complain that buildings are indistinguishable.

The second project that caught my eye—this one was hard to miss—was the return to the planning process of the Frank Gehry designed hotel project at the corner of Ocean Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard.

I’m not going to write much about this now—surely there are still years to go on this one and I’ll have more opportunities to write about it later. But as the political class settles down to patting itself on the back about how this project now “fits” the new standards in the DCP, and since the developers have made their peace with the DCP, I’ll be perhaps the one person to talk about what we’ve lost.

Which are 60 condominiums. The new plans are pretty close, in terms of programming, to the old plans, except that 60 condos were sacrificed to make the project fit the new zoning and political standards.

Okay, no one is going to shed a tear for the condos, but let me ask—what was bad about them? In a city of 50,000 housing units, they weren’t going to add to traffic in any measurable way, and they weren’t going to destroy the “character” of anyone’s neighborhood. Yes, rich people were going to buy them, but then we already live in a city where many of the critics of the condos live in houses that are now worth $1,000 per square foot as teardowns.

What the condos would have done is turn thin air into millions of dollars each year of taxes for schools, healthcare, public safety, housing and services for the homeless, etc. Yes, the proverbial bogeymen of Russian oligarchs and Arab sheiks or—Heaven forbid—young Silicon Beach entrepreneurs, might buy some of the condos and only use them a few weeks a year, but others might be bought by elderly Santa Monica homeowners wishing to downsize but stay put.

What was bad about the condos is that they disturbed the false halo of radicalism that the political class in Santa Monica believes crowns their heads. Santa Monicans are mostly on the Left, and so the rhetoric that comes from the most conservative voices in town must use the language of revolution. Oh, those greedy developers! The neighborhood activists and their politicians use words like “community character” and act as if they’re about to storm the barricades of their own privilege, but it’s all about pleasing people who, in the opposite of a progressive agenda, fear change.

Thanks for reading.

Santa Monica in 2018: Are All Politics Still Local?

(Note: I haven’t written here about Santa Monica politics since my last blog last summer on the Downtown Community Plan, but I was invited to give a 20-minute talk to the Santa Monica Rotary International Club about the current state of politics here. I gave the talk last Friday, March 23. What appears below is a slightly edited version of my remarks to the Rotary. Much like the travelogues I wrote in the fall about my trips to Norway and Spain, my opinions about the current state of Santa Monica are illustrated—mostly with headlines, to prove to the Rotarians that what I was talking about truly happened.)

Greetings and thanks for inviting to share my thoughts about Santa Monica.

To review my credentials, I’m a former columnist, sometime blogger about Santa Monica, and twice-defeated candidate for City Council. Losing makes me, of course, an expert to talk about Santa Monica politics and issues. In fact, you’ll find during my talk today that losing city council election or two here is a basic qualification for anyone who think he knows how to make Santa Monica government better.

I’m going to start with an update on the development wars. Local governments in California have more control over land use that they have over most issues, and therefore it’s no surprise that development has often been the most contentious issue in local politics, especially in affluent communities where government otherwise does a good job delivering services. Santa Monica has been no exception.

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The most recent wave of anti-development activism crested in 2014 with the defeat of plans to redevelop the Paper Mate factory site. This came after a then new anti-development group, Residocracy, had gathered signatures to put the City Council’s narrow approval of the redevelopment plan on the ballot, and the Council revoked its approval rather than have the plan go to a popular vote.

Flush with that victory, Residocracy again gathered signatures, and put a restrictive development measure, Measure LV, on the ballot in 2016. The anti-development wave then, however, hit a seawall when Measure LV lost decisively.

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It shouldn’t have been a surprise that LV lost, given that a similar measure in 2008, the “Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic,” (“RIFT”), had also lost.

What the votes on both initiatives showed is that that while there is a large minority of Santa Monica voters who are motivated by the anti-development message—a bit less than 40 percent of all voters who show up at the polls—those voters are, nonetheless, a minority. It’s telling that no city council candidate running on an anti-development platform has ever won election on his or her own, meaning without an endorsement from Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), the most powerful political group in the city.

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In fact, what we’ve seen in the past two elections is that if SMRR withdraws its support from an incumbent it previously endorsed because SMRR’s anti-development wing sees the incumbent as too friendly to development, the incumbent — Pam O’Connor in 2014 and Terry O’Day in 2016 — nevertheless wins reelection. Meaning that following the views of SMRR’s anti-development wing has cost SMRR two seats on the City Council. It used to be that O’Connor and O’Day owed their election to SMRR; now they don’t.

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Getting beyond the politics of development and into the substance of development decision-making, the 13-year process—I have called it “Santa Monica’s long municipal nightmare” —to update the City’s land-use plans finally climaxed in 2017 with passage of the Downtown Community Plan, the “DCP.” We can at least hope that the DCP is the final major plan to come out of the process that started in 2004 with the update to the City’s General Plan. That process was supposed to take two years but took six. Then it took another five years to pass a zoning ordinance to implement the General Plan, then another couple of years for the DCP. Thirteen years—kind of amazing when you think that the plans themselves are supposed to guide the City’s development for only about 20 years. Not to mention that with the defeat of the Paper Mate project, which was the key project for redeveloping the old industrial properties near Bergamot Station, the most important parts of the General Plan update, which focused on the industrial zone, are now irrelevant. We may as well start over now, but the idea of another 13 years is frightening.

The DCP itself was an uneasy compromise. Pro-housing activists did in certain contexts get the theoretical possibility of more development, but by a 4-3 vote the council included financial burdens that developers say as a practical matter will prevent new construction.

In the context of the state and regional housing crisis, which has put on the spot anti-development politicians, especially who those consider themselves to be progressive, the council members who voted to impose the burdens on developers agreed to revisit the plan if it didn’t result in housing being built.

This has led to a de facto truce while people wait and see.


In that regard, three hotel projects in downtown, including this one designed by Frank Gehry, are coming back with plans that conform to the DCP; but there is always discretion, and we’ll see if they get approved.


At the moment there is considerable apartment construction going on under the old standards — this photograph shows the groundbreaking for an affordable housing apartment building on Lincoln that was financed by the developer of a market-rate project — but it’s still an open question whether anyone will build under the requirements of the new zoning ordinance and the DCP. So — stay tuned.

Going beyond the development wars, Santa Monica has a lot of purely political news recently.

For one thing, we’re seeing something that has not been much of an issue in Santa Monica for a long time, perhaps not since the days when Raymond Chandler channeled Santa Monica into his crime novels as the corrupt “Bay City.” I’m talking about political corruption, alleged, possible, and real.

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One set of possible cases of malfeasance have been significant enough to garner coverage in the L.A. Times, not to mention investigations by the District Attorney, the California Fair Political Practices Commission (the FPPC), and the School Board. The allegations involve the Santa Monica power couple of City Council Member Tony Vazquez and his wife, School Board Member Maria Leon-Vazquez. While it’s been well known that Tony Vazquez has made his living as a political consultant and lobbyist, it was always assumed that he was careful enough to keep his day job out of Santa Monica. Well, it turned out that companies that he lobbied for to get school contracts applied for work in Santa Monica, and he at least neglected to tell his wife, the School Board member, so that she would recuse herself from voting on those matters, which she didn’t do.

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From there the investigation snowballed to include another school board member, and allegations of unreported income and gifts. It’s all being investigated now, so, again—stay tuned.

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Then there have been violations of the Oaks Initiative, a law the voters passed about 15 years ago that prevents public officials from benefiting from people or companies who received contracts or other benefits from the City while the official is in office. It’s like a retrospective, rearview mirror bribery law, and the law is complicated because it’s hard to keep track of who received benefits and the time frame for the restrictions. In the past few years the law has ensnared a couple of Council Members, Pam O’Connor and Terry O’Day, who received campaign contributions from disqualified contributors.

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But the most drastic impact of the Oaks Initiative was not on a politician, but on Santa Monica’s former City Manager, Rod Gould. After retiring from the City Gould accepted a job with a company that the City had hired while he was in City Hall, and Gould really paid a price for that. He was sued by the Santa Monica Transparency Project, a watchdog group that pays particular attention to the Oaks Initiative. Gould, saying he didn’t have the resources to fight the suit, settled the litigation by quitting his job and paying the Transparency Project $20,000 to cover their costs.

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The most manifestly illegal and corrupt political shenanigans, however, came from the Huntley Hotel, which sits on Second Street across from the Fairmont Miramar. The Huntley opposes the Miramar’s plans to rebuild and in 2012 the Huntley poured money into an extensive campaign to stop the Miramar project. Parts of the plan involved making illegal campaign contributions to City Council candidates and organizing and funding a fake grassroots residents group. It turns out that the FPPC was investigating, albeit slowly, and last year the FPPC hit the Huntley with penalties of more than $300,000: the second largest fine in the history of the FPPC. The Huntley’s scheme also involved the prominent law firm of Latham & Watkins as well as a former Santa Monica Malibu School Board member, Nimish Patel, who had his then law firm conceal illegal political contributions made by the Huntley. The FPPC fined Patel’s law firm $10,000, the maximum fine available to the agency.

I hate to say it, but from the Huntley’s perspective, the money, including the fine, was well spent. It’s six years later, and the Miramar has yet to get a rebuilding plan approved. The Huntley’s financing, organizing and energizing of the campaign against the Miramar revitalized the anti-development movement in Santa Monica, which, after the 2008 defeat of the RIFT initiative, had been relatively quiescent. The 2010 General Plan update had been approved by all the council members, including those from the anti-development side, and even the backers of RIFT generally accepted it. The plan update was the basis for the Paper Mate plan that Residocracy defeated in 2012, after the Huntley had fanned the flames over the Miramar plan.

Meanwhile, although it may seem like nothing ever changes in Santa Monica politics, two major changes to how Santa Monica chooses its elected officials are in the works. I’m referring to district elections and term limits.

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As for district elections, School Board member Oscar de la Torre has sued the City under the California Voting Rights Act saying that the City’s at large elections violate the voting rights of minorities, who, because of historical segregation, live predominantly in the Pico Neighborhood. (By the way, like me De la Torre has been a losing candidate for City Council.)

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Then this year activists from the Santa Monica Transparency Project—yes, the same group that sued Rod Gould over the Oaks Initiative—began a signature gathering campaign to put a term limits initiative on the ballot.

When it comes to these efforts to change the City Charter, I’m torn. Usually I’m in favor of district voting, so long as there isn’t gerrymandering, not only because it can diversify who is elected, but also because it’s easier for candidates to run in smaller districts. I usually oppose term limits, since in general I believe that anyone should have the right to run for office, and voters are better served by having more choices, not fewer. Also, as we saw was the impact of term limits on the California legislature, term limits can result in too much turnover, giving us legislators who lack experience and knowledge about how to govern.

So those are my usual positions. But as I said, I’m torn, because in Santa Monica the fact is that incumbents can stay on the council for as long as they want. This is not a one side or the other side issue: council members of all political persuasions have remained on the council term after term. So I’m thinking about term limits in a more positive way than usual, although I haven’t made up my mind.

But what about district elections? As I said, I usually favor districts, but I’m not sure we need them in Santa Monica. Why? Because those same council members who get elected over and over are so paranoid about not being reelected, that they try to please anyone who votes, and that includes, for all of them, residents of the Pico Neighborhood. In that sense, the neighborhood is well represented. And, if you include the school board and the college board along with the council, we have a good record of electing minorities. As a result, I don’t see the logic for the lawsuit, although if districting comes, it would make it less expensive and easier for new candidates to run, which would be a good thing in and of itself.

Now that there is, at least for a time, less of a political focus on development, what are the issues, more or less real, that face our community?

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How about crime? Rising crime is the issue that Residocracy and its leader, Armen Melkonians (also like me a two-time loser when running for City Council), are trying to use now to gain political power given that development didn’t work. Reported crime, particularly property crime, is up in Santa Monica over the past few years, and there have been some particularly violent crimes, including a murder and a home invasion, in normally low-crime, upscale neighborhoods that have people in those neighborhoods rattled.

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However, by historical standards, even with the uptick crime rates are down in Santa Monica. But the historical levels were quite high: I’m speaking as one whose homes have been burglarized twice. Yet I for one don’t sense that people are fearful as they move about the city, not as fearful as the cities I lived in before coming to Santa Monica, namely Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston. But maybe I’m missing something, and I don’t live in the Pico Neighborhood, where there has been gang violence going back decades. Significantly, however, gang violence has considerably decreased over the past four or five years, although in the past year or so there have been several shootings, including one murder, that have the hallmarks of gang violence although the victims are not necessarily gang members.

Let me make an aside here, which possibly ties local politics into national politics. Why is it that a political group that wants to gain power finds that it needs to focus on grievance? Residocracy is explicit that it’s looking for an issue that will motivate voters to vote based on fear. Yet by all measure, Santa Monica is a wonderful place to live — something the leaders of Residocracy will admit, given that they say they are trying to preserve Santa Monica the way it is. Let’s face it, the politics of fear and anger pervade our society, at all levels and, let me make this clear, all sides of every argument use the politics of fear, instead of promoting themselves on the basis of, dare I say it, hope and faith in the future.

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In any case, as for crime, the City has hired a new police chief, who was known to have reduced crime her previous job, in Folsom, and so stay tuned on that as well.

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Another issue is transit. In a certain sense, with the opening of the Expo line and its great success, this should be the new golden age of public transportation in Santa Monica. Those tens of thousands of Expo riders must mean that more people than ever are using transit in the city. However, those riders don’t count when the Big Blue Bus is tabulating its ridership, and that ridership is down.


This is a regional issue, as the same thing is happening with Metro bus service, but I can’t help being annoyed still whenever I see Santa Monica’ artsy bus shelters (if you can call them that), one of which you can see in this picture. Whenever I see them, which is all the time, I’m reminded that one of our council members, when voting for this design, said it was more important for the bus shelter design to be creative and—quote—whimsical than utilitarian. If you want people to ride the bus, you have to treat them like customers.

Another big issue is the future of Santa Monica Airport.

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The City and FAA entered into an agreement a year ago to close the airport in 2029. This timetable disappointed many opponents of the airport, including many like myself who want to turn the land into a big park, especially because if previous agreements with the FAA had been written less ambiguously, the City could have closed the airport in 2015. But as a settlement of confused litigation the deal made sense.

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And because the agreement allowed the City to shorten the runway, jet traffic has been drastically reduced—down about 80% from a year ago.

And another 12 acres have been opened up to park expansion. Because the City has taken over leasing at the airport, the City is making a lot of money from rents that will pay for some park construction and ultimately operating costs for the big park.

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But let’s face it, the big issue confronting Santa Monica as well as the rest of the region is homelessness, and that’s not getting better.

The title of this talk includes the question whether, as the immortal Tip O’Neil once said, all politics are still local. There’s no question that with homelessness you finally get the answer, which is — yes and no. Yes, because the attitudes of most voters are still made up most of all with how they see their own daily reality. But no, because those realities, whether they are homeless people living on the streets of Santa Monica, or abandoned factories in the Midwest, are products of decisions beyond the purview of any particular local government.


Homelessness, which not only is a moral disgrace but also costs the City of Santa Monica millions in direct and indirect costs each year, is the product of a statewide housing crisis, state and national policies on treatment of, and funding for, the mentally ill, a catastrophic national policy on drugs, and other forces beyond the purview or pay grade of Santa Monica’s elected officials and staff.

Yet, the lack of ultimate power to effect change does not diminish our responsibility as citizens to continue to seek change. We need to solve the homeless crisis, or risk failing as a society.

Thanks for reading.

Seven Days in Spain

If you read my Norway travelogue, you may recall that my wife Janet is a professor and that this year she’s on sabbatical, which means that she’s been free to accept invitations to give papers at conferences around the world. That’s why we were in Norway, because the conference was in Oslo. I’m the lucky “plus one,” and in October as such I accompanied Janet to Spain. This time the conference was in Barcelona.

In planning the trip we tried to balance the distance factor—we didn’t want to go 8,000 miles for only a few days—with the “haven’t we been vacationing a lot lately” factor and not use the invitation to Barcelona as an excuse for another long vacation. We settled on nine days, which would give us about seven days in Spain after netting out the travel time. We flew over Monday night, Oct. 23, arriving Tuesday afternoon, and returned Wednesday morning, Nov. 1.

October 2017 was exciting in Barcelona. No kidding. A couple of weeks before we arrived the Catalan government had defied the Spanish government and conducted an election on whether to declare independence. Ninety percent of the votes were “Sí,” but only 43% of voters voted.


The no-shows and polls showed a divided populace, but nonetheless, and while we were there, the Catalan parliament voted for independence. This triggered the government in Madrid to invoke Article 155 of their constitution and take over the regional government. The government threatened the Catalan leaders with prosecution for treason, and as we were leaving Spain Carles Puigdemont, the deposed Catalan leader, had fled for Belgium, saying he would not return unless he believed he would get a fair trial.

If the Catalan crisis provided the current events context for our trip, the historical context was provided by George Orwell’s chronicle of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, which I had begun reading before I’d left Santa Monica and finished in Barcelona. Orwell described a violent and desperate time. Today Barcelona is cosmopolitan, prosperous and peaceful. It’s everyone’s favorite city, inundated by eight million tourists a year. It is rather different from the city Orwell chronicled, but as usual when you read Orwell, every word seemed relevant.

Fortunately, we had two other, very-much-alive, sources for what had been going on in Barcelona. Two friends from Santa Monica, Mike and Lou, had spent most of the previous month there in a long and long overdue vacation. They hadn’t quite gone native, but they had been there during the voting and had been eyewitnesses to the attempts of the national government to stop the vote. We met Mike and Lou for dinner the night we arrived (Tues., Oct. 23). We were staying in a hotel near the university (where Janet’s conference would take place) on the Ronda Sant Antoni. This was near where Mike and Lou were staying, and they chose a great nearby place for dinner: the Moritz brewery. Moritz is a Barcelona brewer that began brewing in a brewery on Ronda Sant Antoni in the mid-19th century. In recent years they hired architect Jean Nouvel to turn the upper floors of the brewery into a bistro, while keeping the brewing going downstairs. We had a great meal of fried fish and draft beer (brewed on the premises).


Our friends Mike and Lou at the Moritz brewery restaurant

The next day, Wednesday, would be Janet’s only day of tourism in Barcelona before the conference began on Thursday. We’d made plans to do two things: visit Gaudí’s La Sagrada Familia in the morning and the Picasso Museum in the afternoon.

We’d last been in Barcelona in 2016, and missed going inside La Sagrada because we hadn’t known enough to buy a ticket in advance. We’d been there in 2008, and gone up in the towers, but at that time the nave had not been completed and wasn’t open to the public. This time we made sure to get tickets in advance (which is easily done on-line).

La Sagrada is not a cathedral, but it’s cathedral sized. The interior is beautiful, even better conceived (IMO) than the outside. The metaphor inside is of a forest, with “trunks” of trees holding up a ceiling of branches. Colored stone is used to great effect, as are the colored windows. In the center, there are four massive but elegant pillars, one for each of the evangelists, rising above the altar. These pillars, it’s hard to believe, will support the tallest of Gaudí’s 18 towers—the “Jesus” tower that will rise 560 feet. Here are some pictures.




All four sides of the church are now nearly completed. My reaction to them is that I hope the new stone that the architects are using will weather as well as the old stone. Otherwise, the exterior is going to look a lot like a Disneyland version of a church.


After La Sagrada, we made our way to the Picasso Museum by way of the Metro. The museum is in the medieval part of town, the Barri Gòtic, and on the way we stopped in a little bar for a couple of tapas. I don’t have any pictures from the museum, because they don’t allow photographs, but just as everyone loves Barcelona, everyone loves Picasso, and the young Picasso is particularly endearing. The museum has mostly work from when he was young and living in Barcelona and then from when he was old (notably his paintings based on Velázquez’s Las Meninas and ceramics). In both cases, young and old Picasso, you have to say to yourself, “Wow, I would like to have known this guy.”


Barri Gòtic street

The next day (Thurs., Oct. 26 if you’re keeping track) I was on my own as Janet had her conference to go to. (One note on that: when Janet and her colleagues arrived at the university for the conference, there was a student demonstration going on about the independence issue; that was as close as either of us came to any demonstrations for or against independence.) I headed straight up to Gaudí’s Park Güell. As with La Sagrada, to enter the “monumental zone” of the park one now needs a ticket, and my ticket was for 10:00. I decided to go earlier so that I could start at the top of the park and work my way down to the monuments. This entails taking the Metro to the Vallcarca stop and then walking up and up many stairway-streets to get to park entrances high above the city. The rewards are great views. Here are two pix: the color is from my iPhone, and the black and white one is from my 35mm camera. In both you can see La Sagrada with its telltale cranes.



One reason I wanted to go to Park Güell this year was since the last time, in 2016, that I’d been in Barcelona I’d digitized negatives from pictures I’d taken from my first trip to Spain, in 1973, and I wanted to see if I could take pictures from the same angles now to compare. Here are some of the 1973 pictures and new ones from my iPhone.



A lot more people now.

From Park Güell I took a long walk, ending up at La Boqueria Market, the famous one off La Rambla. I try not to take too many food photographs, or at least I try not to show them to strangers, but food is an important part of culture, and the lunch I had at a counter in the market, of a whole grilled fish, with a glass of the local Moritz beer, says as much about Barcelona, or as much about Mediterranean culture, as a museum.


While I was in the market, the Catalan parliament was meeting, and TV screens around the market were broadcasting news reports. I saw this screen, and photographed it, because it seemed to show the big news that Puigdemont had decided to defuse the crisis by dissolving parliament and calling new elections. After all, that’s what it says. But that is not what happened. Puigdemont did not call for new elections, and the next day the parliament passed Catalonia’s declaration of independence. Then Madrid invoked Article 155, Puigdemont and other Catalan leaders fled, and the air seemed to escape from the independence balloon. At least for the present….


I then embarked on a bit of historical tourism. As I mentioned above, to prepare myself for this visit to Barcelona I read George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Whenever I read Orwell it always seems like he’s writing for us today. Reading about his half-year in 1937 spent first fighting fascists in the trenches in Aragon (northwest of Catalonia) and then escaping arrest by a loyalist government doing the bidding of Stalin, was strangely helpful in understanding what was going on today in Catalonia.

In January 1937 Orwell joined a militia organized by the POUM, an anti-Stalinist Marxist party. POUM had joined with the Anarchists in a proletarian revolution that had taken place in 1936, after Franco’s fascist coup and revolt, and were now part of the government and resistance against Franco. In the winter of 1937 Orwell served in the (cold and miserable) trenches, in the front opposite the fascist-held town of Huesca (more on Huesca later) until late April, when he got a leave and went to Barcelona. His wife was there, staying in the Hotel Continental on La Rambla. Orwell’s leave was ill-timed: it put him in the middle of the “May Days” of Catalonia, violence that took place in Barcelona in the first week of May 1937 between, on one side, the Spanish Republic and the Catalan government, supported by the Communist Party (allied with the Soviet Union, which was the major source of arms for the government and thus had great influence), and, on the other, the Anarchist labor unions and the anti-Stalinist Left.

This was the civil war within the Civil War that eventually doomed the Spanish Republic. While Orwell found himself on the side of, and was loyal to, the Anarchists and POUM, he recognized that the strategy of the Republic (and Communists) made more sense. Their view was that defeating Franco was the first priority, and revolution could come later. The Anarchists and POUM said revolution had to come at the same time. Unfortunately the motives of the Communists also reflected Stalin’s preoccupation with annihilating the influence of Trotsky—the Kremlin considered the POUM to be Trotskyite—and of course there was never any love lost between Communists and Anarchists. (Meanwhile, today in America’s Trump era the lessons about the Left consuming itself with doctrinal conflicts while the Right wins need to be remembered.)

During the May Days a detachment of guards from the government took over a café on La Rambla called Café Moka that was next to the POUM headquarters in the Hotel Rivoli. In turn Orwell was assigned by the POUM to take a position with a group of militiamen on the roof of the Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts across La Rambla from Café Moka. Orwell referred to the building by the name of a theater in its ground floor, the Poliorama. The government guards and Orwell and his fellow militiamen warily observed each other—both sides agreed that they would fire only if fired upon, and shared beers. Orwell wrote that he spent the time he was on the roof reading Penguin paperbacks.

That afternoon I couldn’t resist retracing Orwell’s steps. Everything is still there. Here are picture of the Rivoli Hotel and Café Moka, which have been remodeled:



And here’s the Poliorama theater, followed by a shot looking up at the roof where Orwell was positioned to look down on the guards in Café Moka.


Poliorama Theater in the Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts


Looking up at the Royal Academy roof, where Orwell read Penguins and watched the guards sent to watch POUM headquarters.

Orwell also describes fire coming from an “octagonal” tower, namely the Church of Santa Maria del Pi; here’s a picture of the tower today, as it terminates a vista between two modern buildings:


The May Days conflict ultimately, if temporarily, was resolved, and Orwell returned to the front, where he was wounded seriously. (He was shot in the neck; a doctor told him that if the bullet had been one millimeter to one side, he would have died.) After recuperating in Barcelona he was released from hospital just in time for a much more serious crackdown on the Anarchists and the POUM. When he reached the lobby of the Hotel Continental to rejoin his wife, she immediately told him to vanish, and he went into hiding. For several days and nights Orwell was on the run, until with the help of the British consul he was able to get his papers in order to escape to France.

The Hotel Continental still exists, although, according to desk staff I spoke to there, it is much smaller than it was in the 30s. Here’s a picture of its entrance on La Rambla.


In the hotel lobby, there is a cabinet displaying a copy of Homage to Catalonia opened to a page where Orwell writes about the hotel.


It was wonderful to commune with Orwell, and mind-blowing to try to imagine today what La Rambla was like in such desperate times. A time when La Boqueria was not a huge tourist magnet, but simply a market where Orwell bought a hunk of cheese that kept him going for a few days.

I read that since the 1992 Olympics the number of tourists who visit Barcelona each year has grown from one million to eight million. Surely it’s a good thing that tens of millions of people move around Europe in peace today, but the stresses on cities that absorb the love are real. Here’s a poster I photographed in a neighborhood between La Rambla and the university.


That evening Janet was going out to dinner with colleagues from the conference, and I was on my own. I decided to go back to the Moritz brewery restaurant. On the menu there is a section called “The Great Brewery Classics” with “recipes from all over Europe that have become part of beer-drinking lore and legend.” The first item is “Cockerel a la Moritz with chips, an “FMB specialty” described as “Poussin roasted in a tin of Moritz. Recipe by Montse Guillén and FoodCulturalMuseum.” That sounded interesting, and somehow Catalan, and so I ordered it.

What did I get, but one of my favorites: beer can chicken!


Which made me consider the limits of localism. Catalans celebrate their culture, while in the U.S., Louisianans take credit for beer can chicken. Today aren’t we all globalized?

The next day was Friday, Oct. 27, and I had nothing scheduled except a lunch with the only two Catalans I know, Andreu and Rocio, whom I met through a friend in L.A. I was looking forward to hearing some insights from them about the political situation.

But I wasn’t meeting them until 1:30, and I spent the morning wandering around town. My path took me back to La Rambla and it was on a street just off La Rambla that I lucked into a sight to see that I should have had on my list in the first place, namely the Palau Güell. The Palau is the urban mansion that the young Antoni Gaudí designed for Eusebi Güell, the industrialist and developer who became Gaudí’s great patron. The palace was restored and opened to the public in 2011. Here is a slideshow of a few photographs from a spectacular place.

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After the Palau, I rushed over to the restaurant that Andreu and Rocio had chosen, Casa Leonardo. I had told them I wanted to eat Catalan food, and they picked Casa Leonardo not only because it served traditional food, but also because it was a place where, over the decades, writers and artists had hung out. It was in a neighborhood near the port with many Islamic immigrants—many men and women in traditional Islamic clothing, and halal butchers and grocery stores on every block. I have no idea what immigrants in Barcelona think about Catalan nationalism.


Andreu and Rocio did have views about the independence question. Andreu’s family has been Catalan forever. He said he voted for Puigdemont’s party, the conservative pro-independence party. Rocio’s family only moved to Catalonia in 1940, from the Cantabrigia region on the north coast of Spain. She had not voted for a separatist party, but she said she was now ready to leave Spain after Madrid’s reaction to the referendum on independence. However, what I found most interesting was that they both said that “no one” (or, at least not people they knew) had voted for the independence parties with the expectation that they would in fact declare independence. The idea was to strengthen the position of the regional government in negotiating more autonomy. They thought that Puigdemont had overplayed his hand, and they said he had done so because of pressure from the left-wing separatist party. Catalonia was not going to become independent simply because it wanted to. Now it was all a mess.

I can’t say I’m sympathetic to the Catalans who want independence, notwithstanding that I admire them and their history. As a citizen of the U.S., I am steeped in the virtues of a federal system and somewhat constitutionally (in both senses of the word) allergic to nationalism based on ethnicity, or language, or self-defined notions of “culture.” The Mediterranean cultures seem similar to me; although as a blundering American I surely miss the subtleties. I don’t believe the world needs to have more countries.

However, when I got back home I did some reading that put the Catalan case in perspective. I hadn’t seen anything about this in the U.S. press (not that I can claim to have followed the story exhaustively), but from my new reading I learned that in 2006 the Catalans had negotiated broader autonomy with the socialist government then in power in Madrid. But in 2010 the Supreme Court of Spain invalidated much of the deal. Now the conservatives are in power in Madrid, and they don’t want to make a new deal that would give the Catalans more autonomy and pass muster constitutionally. If I were a Catalan, I’d be frustrated, too.


Another Barri Gotic street (showing 800 years of change?)

The next morning, Saturday the 28th, Janet and I picked up a rental car and started a drive across northern Spain. We had four more days in Spain, and had made plans to meet friends of ours in Bilbao. This was one of those serendipitous things, where we found out after we’d made our travel plans, but didn’t know what we were going to do with those four days, that these friends would also be in Spain. Not only that, but these friends were Stefanos Polyzoides and Elizabeth Moule, two of the best and most knowledgeable urbanists and architects in, dare I say it, the world. I expected not only to have a lot of fun, but also to learn a lot about the cities, Bilbao and San Sebastián, where we’d be spending time with them.

Our route across the foothills of the Pyrenees also allowed for more George Orwell memorializing. In the winter of 1937 Orwell was in a POUM militia unit in the trenches opposite the town of Huesca, which the fascists held. The slogan of the Republic was, “tomorrow we’ll have coffee in Huesca;” Orwell, in Homage to Catalonia, ruefully expresses the hope that someday he’ll have coffee in Huesca.

As it happened, our visit to Huesca was something of a modern touristic disaster. In our car we followed Google Maps directions to the town’s cathedral located way up in the medieval center of the town, which turned out to be a monumental mistake, since there is no parking there and naturally we were ascending by way of narrow and twisting medieval streets. We kept going and descended more medieval streets to a level that must have been the 19th century expansion of the town, complete with a long plaza, where we found a place to park (which turned out to be a mistake, because I got a parking ticket for reasons I could not figure out). There we had lunch, and yes, there I had a coffee in Huesca.


Homage to Orwell and to the Republic: me having coffee in Huesca

From Huesca we drove to Bilbao. There we were going to meet Stefanos for a special experience: attending a soccer game at San Mames, Bilbao’s new, urban-core-adjacent stadium. Stefanos is a fan of FC-Barcelona, known as Barça, perhaps the most beloved fútbol team in the world. (Stefanos gets his devotion to the team “honestly,” as he once lived in Barcelona.) Stefanos was spending a few weeks in Spain on various types of business, and had carefully scheduled his travels so that he could take in a couple of Barça games, including the one in Bilbao. When we joined the Polyzoides-Moule expedition, we naturally went on-line and got tickets ourselves. (Liz, unfortunately, was flying into Bilbao from Italy the next day, and so she missed the game.)

Getting into the hotel in Bilbao was a little adventure. As we arrived, following Google Maps’ directions, we found the entrance to the hotel blocked by a huge bus and a crowd of people surrounding it. The bus said “FCB” on the back: it was the team bus for Barça. The team was staying at the hotel and was about to head to the stadium. We had to circle the block a couple of times before finding out what to do with our car, so that we could check in. After checking in Janet and I took a cab to the stadium, arriving just as the game began. Stefanos was already there. The stadium is directly accessible to the downtown grid of streets, not separated by a parking lot. Here’s a picture showing the scene as we approached.


Arriving at the Bilbao stadium on foot

I recently experimented with walking to Dodger Stadium from Chinatown. That experiment will someday be the subject of another blog, but in the meantime, here’s a picture showing the comparable approach.


Arriving at Dodger Stadium on foot.

The game was tremendous fun. The Bilbao team played tough, but they were (and their fans knew it) ultimately outclassed by Barça, with its world-class players exemplified by Argentinean Lionel Messi. Messi scored a goal about halfway through the game, but nonetheless it was a hard fought 1-0 contest, with Bilbao making many strong attacks on goal, until Barça sealed the victory with a second goal only a minute or so before time ran out. Here’s a picture of the Barça attack just before Messi scored his goal.


After the game, around 11:00, Stefanos, Janet and I wandered into the city on the way back to our hotel. We hadn’t eaten dinner, and late at night is when Spanish restaurants start filling up. We found a wonderful, traditional place, La Cocina de María Antonia, on the main east-west street a block or so from the stadium. The Basque country is considered the heart of gastronomy in Spain, with the best traditional food and the most innovative chefs, and this restaurant was a great start. I immediately liked it because there was a long table where people were eating family style. It was kind of a bistro, very much on the traditional side. I had a sirloin steak (un solomilo) that was among the best steaks I’ve ever eaten.

Next morning, Sunday, Oct. 29, Janet and walked around the hotel’s neighborhood, which was in the center of the 19th century expansion of Bilbao. After some looking (it must be a neighborhood where folks like to sleep late on Sundays) we found a bar open for coffee and pastries. After that we walked across the center of town to meet Stefanos and Liz (who was arriving that morning from Italy where she’d been working on a project there with the American Academy) and some of their Bilbao friends and colleagues for a tapas lunch.

It was kind of coincidence, but one reason we were meeting Stefanos and Liz in Bilbao is that Stefanos is working on a project to study 19th century urban expansion in Spain. What he told us was that in the 19th century, with population increasing because of industrialization, scores of Spanish cities adopted formal plans to expand beyond their medieval centers. (As was the case in Oslo, too.) The most famous of these plans is Cerda’s for Barcelona, but the contrast between narrow medieval streets, which were themselves often (but not in Bilbao) corruptions of Roman urban grids, and the expansive grids of boulevards, avenues and streets emanating from them, is evident in cities all over Spain, including Bilbao.

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In Bilbao the division is clear. The old city, the Casco Viejo, is on the right bank of the river and is built around seven closely-spaced narrow streets emanating from the river (Las Siete Callesˆ—on the map they are right under the “Bilboko Donejakue katedrala”). The railroad station is on the other side of the river, and the new city, El Ensanche (literally, the “enlargement”), extends from the tracks and fills in the great bend the river makes. As you can see the streets are straighter (not that the Siete Calles aren’t straight) and the blocks are bigger, and there are grand boulevards emanating from a central oval.

One thing about those 19th century planners, they either loved the convenience of diagonal boulevards for transportation purposes, or for the opportunities for terminated vistas they create, or both (probably). Here’s a picture that shows, for better or for worse, the varieties of architecture that can sprout on a grid in a century or so. Massively terminating the vista is César Pelli’s Iberdrola Tower (completed in 2012 on formerly industrial land between the formal 19th century grid and the river), but the closer buildings at street level (this is at the San José Plaza) are worth looking at, too. Moving around the intersection from right to left, on the right is a traditional pre-modernism bank of buildings, then there’s the church (Iglesia de San José), a circa-1900 pastiche of styles, mostly neo-gothic, and across the street from the church is a mid-century building that hasn’t, to be kind, aged well either in terms of its materials or its style (and which happens to contain offices of the UGT, the socialist labor federation).


The continued vitality of these neighborhoods and districts more than a century after they were laid out and subdivided, regardless of architecture and particularly after the advent of the automobile, shows that it’s easier to adapt a good grid to the car and maintain a good urban environment than it is to design a city to accommodate cars that will be serviceable for any kind of living other than one that is automotive. It’s entropy: once you dissipate human energies over a wider landscape to accommodate cars, those energies cannot be harnessed again to make something more synergistic. “Suburban retrofits” are beyond difficult to pull off. But a good grid can, with some jury-rigging, like this underground parking lot in Bilbao, accommodate automobiles well enough to satisfy modern life, while maintaining the human energy of a city.


We kept walking and met our friends for lunch at a tapas bar, Café Iruña, crowded with families; we mostly stood at the bar eating, although at a certain point Janet and Liz found room to sit.


The bar was adjacent to a delightful little park, Las Jardines de Albia, the kind of one-block urban oasis with a little fountain, benches, and two statues of historical figures.


Las Jardines de Albia

On the north side of the park is one of the few pre-19th century buildings in the Ensanche, a village church from the 16th century (which itself replaced a 12th century church), La Iglesia de San Vicente Mártir de Abando, that the expanding city swallowed up.


After lunch we were ready for the big event: the Museo Guggenheim, Frank Gehry’s most famous building and the building that launched … the Bilbao Effect.


Entering the Bilbao Guggenheim

Of the four of us, only Janet had previously seen the Guggenheim, on a trip she’d made with her mother about 10 years ago. I don’t want to write in detail about what Stefanos and Liz thought about the building, since they might write themselves about it and I’m not likely to do justice to their views if I try to summarize them, but I believe I can safely say that the building knocked all of us out. (Stefanos and Liz can correct me if I’m wrong.)

I’m a frequent user of Walt Disney Concert Hall, which Gehry designed prior to designing the Bilbao Guggenheim, but which was built after it. I love Disney Hall and bask in that love every time I attend a concert there, but the building in Bilbao is even more impressive. It’s an exploded and expanded Disney Hall. Disney is one major space, the auditorium, surrounded by a skin of much smaller spaces. That’s form following function, but it makes for a cramped and dark form. A museum building functions differently. The Bilbao program consists of a collection of large galleries, one after another, surrounding the core atrium. Since the core didn’t have to be sound and (largely) light proof as with the concert hall, the central atrium of the Guggenheim could be open and, let’s say, cathedral-like.


Which makes sense since museums are, when it comes to public and monumental buildings, the cathedrals of our time. Every city has to have one (or more). Compare this picture of the central atrium of Bilbao with my photo above of the nave of La Sagrada Familia. Or compare this picture of windows in the Guggenheim with Gaudí’s windows in the Palau Güell.


If the key to modernist architecture is architects using the new structural tools that were available to create nontraditional forms, the connecting tissue between an “artisanal” modernist like Gaudí and a contemporary architect like Gehry is obvious.

Stefanos, Liz and I spent a lot of time discussing a particular feature of the Bilbao atrium, a sculptural covering Gehry placed over an elevator (and there is another covering a stairway). In my view this is decorative architecture and is evidence of the distinction between what we call contemporary architecture and both high and post modernism.


One of the most impressive great rooms in the Guggenheim is the large space that the museum has given over to a series of Richard Serra’s massive steel sculptures. I love Serra’s big sculptures, but I dislike it when they are cooped up inside, such as in the Broad pavilion at LACMA. Serra’s monuments demand the outdoors: the center of a large plaza or, even better, I’d like to see one in a field of wheat. But they work in the big and long space in Bilbao, especially from above. (Much was made of the fact that as an old steel town, Bilbao is a suitable location for Serra’s big works.) Here are some pictures.



Variations in scale also work well in the Guggenheim. The transitions between the big spaces were nicely intimate, and the “horde” of visitors seemed to find the place quite comfortable.


We spent a couple of hours inside, touring the building and viewing the collection. The collection is fine, except that it’s more or less the same collection of artists you’ll see in any contemporary art collection in the world. The world is full now of billionaires who want to be the Albert Barnes of their generation, but they don’t have the individualistic perspective that Barnes had. They buy from the same dealers and listen to the same experts, who also tell museums of contemporary art what to exhibit (and, not coincidentally, legitimize the valuations when the collectors on the boards of trustees donate the art and get the tax deductions). Cynically I know that these massive investments in museums to house these works will influence future judgments about was the good art of our era, but nonetheless I expect that future historians of art will be iconoclastic, as historians usually are, and some of this stuff, perhaps a large amount of it, will end up in storage. I ask: who will be the first art historian to demolish the pomposity, excessive self-importance, and implied moral superiority of post-War art that was stripped of content so that it wouldn’t offend corporate collectors?

When we exited the museum, it had begun to drizzle. The building (and Louise Bourgeois’ sculpture “Maman”) looked good wet.


Finally here’s a picture showing Stefanos and Liz in a characteristic pose: taking a picture of architecture.


That night we ate at a social club affiliated with the Basque nationalist political party, with entry to it courtesy of a friend of Stefanos and Liz, a massively erudite urbanist and historian. I can’t recount the whole of the conversation, but I remember being impressed that this fellow felt that Spain should host a conference to commemorate the 1900th anniversary of the transfer of power in 117 from Trajan to Hadrian, two Roman emperors who were both Iberians. I mean, why wait for the 2,000th anniversary?

The next morning, Monday, Oct. 30, the four of us walked around the old city of Bilbao, on the other side of the river, the zone of the “seven streets.” Those streets are narrow, as this photo shows.


When we were there, a teacher was taking a bunch of kids on a walk. Yes, people still live there.


There were more terminated vistas, but the angles were much different, because of the close quarters.


To get an idea about how valuable space was in the old city before its expansion, look at this picture, which shows how shops were built into the spaces between the buttresses of a medieval church.


Here’s a final picture from our tour of the old city.


Dried and/or salted fish, bacalao, was integral to the history of Europe and, as in Bergen, Norway, that was particularly true with respect to the Basque Country. Basque fisherman were fishing the Grand Banks off Newfoundland even before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and salt harvested from the waters of the Bay of Biscay was crucial to preserving it. Given how depleted cod stocks have become, I was pleased to see that bacalao was still a staple, as the store window shows.

From Bilbao we were headed to San Sebastián up the coast towards France. Our first stop was in the little port town of Bermeo. By now we were in two cars, as Stefanos and Liz had picked up their rental, and when we arrived there we had the usual comical experiences of trying to find (i) parking, and (ii) each other. But ultimately we managed to eat lunch in a restaurant that Stefanos and Liz found on the second floor of a municipal building. It was some kind of club, but open to the public, where the “burghers” of the town and (assuming the burghers are still mostly men, which seemed to be the case) their wives, meet. It was a wonderfully bourgeois experience (people who know me know that I mean no condescension when I use the word bourgeois). The prix fixe menu included two substantial courses, dessert, and wine, and service was decidedly unhurried. My first course was memorable. I ordered soup, thinking that soup would be relatively light, as for nearly a week I’d been eating way too much, but what arrived was a tureen with easily enough soup for three people. It might have been the best bean soup, heavy with bacon and sausage, that I’ve ever had. Janet had a Basque pepper stuffed with mushrooms and she said it was the best thing she’d eaten on the trip so far. The good people of the Basque Country know what’s good.

It was late by the time our long lunch ended, but we had just enough time before dark to stop in Gernika, better known as Guernica, on our way to San Sebastián. We arrived as a festival was ending, and local farmers and other food purveyors were tearing down booths where they’d been selling their goods. We walked around the center of town, nearly all of which has been rebuilt since the bombing in 1937, since the bombing destroyed nearly all of the city center.


Rebuilt Gernika/Guernica

One can’t hear the word Guernica without its conjuring up Picasso’s painting. This made me think back to the Bilbao Guggenheim’s collection, and post-War art in general, neutered as it was of political content, made safe for corporations, foundations and plutocrats. Other than perhaps Diego Rivera’s destroyed mural at Rockefeller Center, there’s no painting that better than Guernica marks the dividing line between the days when artists engaged themselves directly in their social, economic and political contexts and a time when museums of modern and contemporary art, their employed curators and the attendant dealers, became the gatekeepers, denaturing art along the way; when expressing political and social ideas in art, or even using art to describe or respond to reality, became passé, and artists primarily expressed their dissidence not with their art, but either by self-destructive alienation or by becoming part of a contrived “counter-culture.”


Seen in Gernika

By the time we left Gernika/Guernica it was dark. We headed directly to San Sebastián along the coast road. San Sebastián is the gastronomic epicenter of Spain; perhaps, if you believe some experts, of the entire western world. This status is predicated on a top-to-bottom food culture, from the pintxos in a local bar to the highest per capita count of Michelin stars in the world. Part of this is because the Basque Country is so well favored when it comes to food itself: it’s a green and fertile land of small farms that also has a great fishing tradition and a history of trade that brought in foods and flavors from around the world.



Vegetables and fish for sale in San Sebastián

Another part is cultural: while Basque home cooking by women must by all rights be at the heart of the food culture (I wish I had a way to get some of that!), there is also a longstanding tradition of male cooking clubs (las sociedades gastronómicas) that supported the professionalization of cooking, resulting in a great tradition of (often innovative) restaurants. Food and cooking is everywhere; jumping ahead to the next day, here’s a photo I took of a kids cooking class taking place in front of the big San Sebastián market.


Liz took this culinary tradition into account when she planned the visit to San Sebastián, booking reservations at two of the great restaurants there, for dinner the night we arrived and for lunch the next day.

Dinner (this was Monday night, Oct. 30) was at Rekondo, a restaurant that describes its food as alta cocina vasca, i.e., “haute Basque cuisine.” And that’s what their food was: we walked into the restaurant and passed on our left a grill over a wood fire, an appetizing way to start a meal. I can’t remember what we all ordered, but it was from a menu that celebrated the ingredients themselves.

The next morning we walked around the town. Our hotel was located near where the big beach, one of the beaches that made San Sebastián a famous summer resort for royalty and those who hung out with royalty, meets up with the avenue that marks the dividing line between the medieval town and San Sebastián’s own 19th century expansion. Since I live in Santa Monica, another city on a beach, also famous for tourism, it was fun to consider the similarities and the differences.

Like Santa Monica, San Sebastián has a beautiful beach, with a walkway and park, and hotels, overlooking it, playgrounds and a carousel (theirs in the park, ours on our pier), and a City Hall nearby. Here’s a picture of San Sebastián’s City Hall, as seen behind a playground in the park:


That’s a grand edifice, I’d say, for a little city’s town hall. San Sebastián’s population of about 186,000 is about twice that of Santa Monica, but the situations of the two cities are quite different. San Sebastián is the most important city in its immediate, mostly rural, hinterland, while Santa Monica sits on the edge of, and provides the biggest beach for, a metropolis with a population nearly half that of Spain.

One benefit of traveling with architectural experts like Stefanos and Liz is that they can point out architectural history that would otherwise escape my notice. Just across the ocean promenade from the ornate City Hall is, it turns out, one of the treasures of modernism. It’s the Club Náutico from 1929, designed by José Manuel Aizpurúa, at the dawn of modernism, and a building that, as Stefanos explained to me, encapsulates all the rules that Le Corbusier was establishing for the new architecture.


Club Náutico de San Sebastián

Turning around to look in the opposite direction, here’s a picture of the beach at San Sebastián with the hotels that face it.


At some point in history someone, probably in that City Hall, had the good idea of declaring a height limit, so that all the hotels would create a uniform (and pleasing) façade facing the beach. The hotels all max out at the same height, which corresponds typically to eight or nine stories. At home in Santa Monica, the height of new hotel buildings proposed along Ocean Avenue, facing Santa Monica’s Palisades Park, has been, for about 10 years, the subject of much controversy. There have been several proposals for towers, at least one as high as 22 stories. As I look at this picture of the wall of hotels lining the beach in San Sebastián I, as a Santa Monican, can’t help but smile—but ruefully. While on one hand the hotels in San Sebastián show that one should not need to exceed nine stories to build a nice hotel, on the other hand the scope of development along the beach there would horrify the opponents of the hotel towers in Santa Monica.

Meanwhile here’s a picture of San Sebastián’s carousel. Aside from its beauty it’s something of a metaphor for urban development in a European town vs. urban development in America: its diameter is much less than the carousel in Santa Monica, meaning it sprawls less, but it’s two stories, meaning it’s more dense.


The medieval district of San Sebastián is small, about 20 tight blocks. If the best food is in Spain is in the Basque Country, and if San Sebastián is the Basque food capital, then these blocks are the absolute ground zero for gastronomy in Spain. That status is based on pintxos, snacks that by the time lunch is starting are piled up in bars throughout the old city. We had a big lunch planned (more on that coming up) and in anticipation of that none of us wanted to fill ourselves up, but we agreed that in any future trip to San Sebastián we would have to schedule a grazing tour of pintxo bars for one meal.

As for that lunch: Liz in her understated manner had simply told Janet and me that she’d made a reservation at a good restaurant for lunch that day. But that morning Janet and I were doubtful. We had a long drive ahead of us, about six hours to Barcelona, from where we’d be flying back to L.A. the next morning. We were thinking that maybe it wouldn’t be a good idea to have a big lunch and not get on the road until late afternoon. (You know how those Spanish lunches are.) So when we met Liz and Stefanos for breakfast, we were saying that maybe Liz should drop us from the reservation, and that we get on the road.

Fortunately Liz got back to us and said, something like, “well, you know, the reservation is at one o’clock, and maybe you should come and have a first course. It’s going to be good.” She didn’t overplay it, but that was perfect. We kind of looked at each other and said, “Sure, let’s do it. The drive is going to be mostly in the dark anyway.”

That was a good decision. It turned out that the reservation was at the most famous and historic restaurant in San Sebastián, Arzak, the three-star restaurant of chef Juan Mari Arzak, who runs the restaurant with his daughter Elena. (Elena is the fourth generation Arzak to cook in the restaurant.) I don’t follow the world of celebrity or celebrated chefs much, and so I learned all this later, but Arzak, at 75, is the dean of Spanish chefs and the mentor and/or inspiration for the next generation of them.

I respect chefs who make food into something artistic and experimental, but the food needs to stay real, and the everyday holiness of meals with friends and family should never be sacrificed to pretension. Having declared that (somewhat pretentiously, I know), I loved Arzak. To begin with, the staff genuinely wanted us to enjoy what we were going to eat. The first thing the waiter said to us was that they wanted us to try as many dishes as possible, but that they knew this was lunch and we might not want to each so much, and for that reason nearly every dish on the menu was available in a half-portion. They did this because they hoped that each of us would have an appetizer, a fish course and a meat course. This was so solicitous of the customer’s comfort (and also kind to the credit card).

The other aspect of Arzak that I appreciated was that even though the food was elaborate in its preparation and presentation (Señor Arzak has described his cooking as “evolutionary, investigatory, and avant-garde”), the food was fundamentally Basque, made from the ingredients the region is famous for. We had dishes made from sole, prawns, lobster, squid, monkfish, pigeon and what we had learned (at Rekondo the previously night) was a particular Basque favorite, kokotxas, namely the bit of meat at the bottom of a fish’s head. Many of the flavors were exotic, and the food, particularly the amuse-bouche snacks, was artfully presented, but the food was certainly identifiable as . . . food.

It was a memorable meal, shared with friends, and what with the half-portion policy, when Janet and I hit the road around 3:30 (Señor Arzak himself wishes you well when you depart) we were not incapacitated.

Our six-hour drive to a hotel we had booked near the Barcelona airport was mostly in the dark. For some stretches, when I say dark I mean absolutely dark. Janet took the wheel for the middle stretch, which included the road between Zaragoza and the coast, and there were times when looking to the south from the passenger seat I could not see one light. Spain is a big country with some wide-open and empty spaces.

Our hotel was an “airport hotel,” but in a real neighborhood. After checking in we found a tapas bar nearby where, fittingly, the TV was playing a cooking competition show that looked like the Spanish version of Top Chef. For our last dinner in Spain we ordered anchovies, olives, mussels and a lamb stew. Here’s a photo of our meal halfway through our consumption of it. Different from our meal at Arzak, and also delicious.


The next day we returned to L.A.

Thanks for reading.