BETTER CITIES: FOR WHOM?

By Sam Hall Kaplan

What seems like just a few years ago a gaggle of planning and design critics and pandering politicians were bemoaning the death of public space, a victim of municipal neglect, overt commercialism and media disinterest.

Apparently we had surrendered the weaving of our urban fabric to an unholy alliance of myopic traffic engineers, duplicitous developers, disingenuous elected officials, and undiscerning pedants. Pedestrians were suspect, sidewalks shunned and parks avoided. Pervading all except perhaps a policed shopping mall or a monitored amusement park was a fog of civic unease. 

        And today, in a notable change of personal perception and popular fortune, our privileged urbanists are fervently celebrating the crafting and care of public spaces as a harbinger of a more open and inviting city, a place where people can come out from behind their computer screens to experience a rare sense of community, however fleeting, and share a cup of coffee, however pricey.

To this chorus of the mostly comfortable and civil are the swarms of ubiquitous tourists, their communal ardor feeding local coffers and conceits. As for urban designers and planners, there is an encouraging new awareness and appreciation for context and community, the purpose and potential of public space, and a need to hone the cryptic craft of placemaking.

       Cryptic indeed, for the diversity of cities, the fracture of communities, and shifting demographics are very much a challenge to those in search of a “genius loci.” and an inviting place to perhaps live, work or visit.

To that both personal and professional quest recommended is a copy of “Envisioning Better Cities,” by Seattle urban consultant Patricia Chase and University of Washington academic Nancy K. Rivenburgh.  Published by Oro Editions, the paperback is as its subtitle states, “A Global Tour of Good Ideas,” a bucket list if you will of an orchestrated journey to well grounded places, projects and programs that make their host cities more “livable and sustainable,” and hopefully inspiring to others.

       The tour is understandably derivative, and respectfully echoes the wealth of the previous insights of Jan Gehl, Jane Jacobs, Holly Whyte, and Charles Montgomery, among many others, and cites a host of the iconic landmarks, such as the High Line in New York City and the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome, and a familiar few hundreds more.

 But there also are more modest other places and projects, both novel and suggestive, though captions rather an index of credits would have been appreciated. So would have an index, as well as better photos and some illustrations.

     Whatever, there are a lot of good ideas in this practical text, presented in an informative, unvarnished narrative that the authors immodestly state hope “results in a book that will inform and inspire.” It does, not only to advocate professionally in a host city, but also to include in a personal sojourn, if you had the means.

       To be sure, these people friendly fixes focused on public places make our communities more livable. Though increasingly being raised by the authors and others is the question of how selectively is this celebrated, given the harsh reality of the nation’s income inequitabiity.

This growing gap indeed has become a principal socio-economic and political problem that in time undoubtedly will undermine the democratic hope for a diverse and sustainable city, urban design initiatives not withstanding as well as democracy itself.

Putting this and in general gentrification into a prescient perspective is the “The Divided City: Poverty and Prosperity in Urban America.” by Alan Mallach (Island Press)) Noted by an insightful and progressive Mallach is the demise in many major and notably middle sized, middle America cities of the middle class, pronounced homelessness and the increasing lack of affordable housing. It should be added this is very much at present grist for academic conferences, and think tanks, but little action. 

        Some varying solutions are however offered in a recently published and welcomed third book, “Affordable Housing, Inclusive Cities,” edited by Vinayak Bharne & Shyam Khabdekar, (Oro Edition.) Collected in a well-organized, informative and illustrated text are 36 essays of actual case studies and real projects tackling inclusiveness in housing and public place. Though the perspective is world wide, the focus is refreshingly local, with in-your-face and on-the-ground realities that affect a staggering nearly one billion people.

The scattered efforts everywhere, described by the discerning editors lend some hope for a more livable future and social justice for all. One likes to end these reviews not with an after thought, but with a note of optimism.

9.8.19

MALIBU CITIZEN ALERT

Received a notice that this THURSDAY at 1 PM at City Hall a council subcommittee will be taking up the controversial issue of short term rentals.
The fear of course is that a wily recalcitrant Reva smelling the $ the rentals bring to the city will somehow pervert the review process, and delude the council members.
Those concerned are urged to attend, and that unfortunately includes me,
I say unfortunately for having in the past (ad nauseam?) expressed my concerns over the pathetic governance of our small sea coast village and the need for reform, I had promised to give it a rest and turn to other pursuits. These include tending my monarch butterfly refuge, reviewing books, and pursuing some innovative urban design projects elsewhere.
But I just hate seeing the city’s residential character and its noble mission statement insidiously compromised.

MALIBU SHOULD FIRE ITS CITY MANAGER

Like nothing ever before in the history of Malibu, the furious Woolsey Fire not only torched nearly a thousand homes, but also the landscape, laying it blackened and bare. Tragic.

But from a political perspective, the fire also laid bare the conceit of government, notably the embarrassing failures of the first responders, the bumbling County and State bureaucracies and most exasperating, our local bureaucracy.

And that is no matter what the reviews of the various official governmental responses to the fire will eventually conclude, be they convoluted explanations or bland fabrications, as the guilty connive to cover their asses and the compromised media parrot the press releases.

There is of course the bureaucratic bungling during the fire; not advocating for the city, closing the emergency control center, the lack of communications, and the blocking supplies to those who stayed. These have become a sorrowful litany in the social media and wherever residents gather.

But beyond not being transparent and truthful and apologize for its failures, City Hall under the heavy thumb of Reva Feldman continues to be disingenuous. This includes making back door deals with the SCE and special interests while handing off heavy lifting to lap dog consultants.

By the way, one has to ask whether it was a coincidence that Feldman took a poorly timed “vacation” in the wake of the fire to go to Paris, and then shortly after somehow a beach front fashion show was approved for Paradise Cove despite serious environmental concerns?

However, most mendacious has been the mismanagement of the rebuild program, according to burnout victims wanting desperately to rebuild and return to Malibu before their insurance ends and the construction costs get out of hand. Not wanting to incur any retaliation from a churlish City Hall, they understandably traded candor for anonymity.

They report that there have been with a few exceptions a hardening of the bureaucratic arteries , enough so if  not to give heart attacks, then to prompt fits of frustration and depression.  So much for the city pledges to be sympathetic and supportive.

To this person of some city planning experience that included processing major construction projects  in a tough New York City,  our modest small town of Malibu is woefully  mismanaged, even with the aid of consultants. Be it inexperience or attitude, they are just not up to the task of advocating for beleaguered residents and expediting plans.


Just forget all that ”robust” self advertising and self congratulations out of City Hall.  Just look at the burned out lots in western Malibu.

So out of respect and sympathy for the victims of the Woolsey fire, I have to be forthright, since an irresolute City Council regretfully is not.

 Sadly for various reasons I feel the however well intentioned the council majority, it is fumbling away its governance of Malibu to a wily city manager.

Being subverted no less is the heretofore functioning city manager form of government. This is prompting cries however strident  for political reform that includes an elected full time mayor  and a councilmanic reorganization. That obviously should be studied and needs to be debated.

Meanwhile, the rebuild effort must be reformed, post haste, and that starts with the Council getting its act together, providing the responsible oversight necessary, do its job, and fire Reva Feldman.

8.29.19

MALIBU R.I.P.

“Stop the presses!” “Rewind the tape!” “Get out the edit knives!” Catherine the Great of Russia had her Potemkin Villages; de facto Mayor Reva Feldman is going to have her Malibu.

 The draft report of what was to be “a meaningful and independent review of the city’s performance in managing the response to the Woolsey fire “-to quote the Council’s original approval of the $50,000 study-is to get a rewashing by none other than the city manager’s office.

To allow some information “that could be updated or clarified “ is the phrase she hissed to an irresolute City Council.  Quietly acquiescing also was the review team of Management Partners. It obviously knows who signs the checks, as does a sadly compromised local media.

Reva claims the City’s emergency operations center was never closed; we also had a liaison at the shifting fire command center, and, perhaps most importantly, its payroll information was protected. These were some of the items Feldman wants to “correct.”. And that besides her staff working tirelessly, though on what remains is a question since the City also claims it had no authority to do much of anything. 

Bad enough that City Hall screwed up the evacuation, failed to advocate for fire equipment, or aid the people who stayed, and is now fumbling a dilatory rebuild effort while shamelessly congratulating itself and continuing to contract away most services to lap dog consultants.

So much for a reasonable expectation of service and established ethical norms promised under the council manager form of government. Not having effective checks and balances, and a discerning media hurts.

If you like me witnessed the fire that destroyed nearly a thousand homes in the city and canyons beyond, it is certain we will never forget, nor forgive the failures of the first responders and local government in the heat of the fire and after., and their feigned excuses.

But from my philosophical perspective, as I have written in the past, the flagrant failures are a reflection of concerns on a far larger stage.

Indeed, I feel they have political implications in communities almost everywhere, and are indicative of a breach of Jeffersonian democracy’s hallowed social contract between our public institutions and ordinary citizens, between the governing and the governed.

RIP Malibu as a self government.

MALIBU’S MOMENT OF TRUTH

The burning question for those who suffered the sorry bureaucratic bungling in the disastrous Woolsey Fire is:

What the hell City Hall can do to protect Malibu and, really, is it capable of doing so?

That question and many others should be raised in the upcoming City Council hearing when the long awaited report on the City’s response to the fire is scheduled to be aired in a presentation by the consultant team of Management Partners.

The report politely noted the City’s abject fumbling before, during and after the fire, in the chaotic evacuation, the shutting down of the Emergency Operations Center and in the confused communications that left the community stranded.

Questions of nitpicking and finger pointing protocol aside, the City screwed up, and continues to do so in the rebuild effort.

The report makes 53 recommendations to repair and improve the City’s emergency policies and programs, in anticipation of yet another disaster, be it a fire or earthquake.  It is, I feel, a reasonable start to the City beginning to respond to the local need for safety.

But frankly it is NOT going to happen, and the City will continue to wallow, as long as the local bloated bureaucracy is being manipulated by a wily city manager who was tested by the Woolsey Fire and found wanting.  Talk about a fox in the hen house.

Immodestly, a 54th recommendation is needed:

The establishment of an oversight committee, an emergency task force if you will, to begin to cleanup, reorient and revitalize City Hall, and take back Malibu for its residents.

What will the Council do? Will it asset itself? Stay tuned.

8.12.19

WOOLSEY FIRE RESPONSE

Malibu’s coddled city government failed its residents before, during and after the Woolsey Fire is the sad summary of a discerning reading of a welcomed independent review of the municipal response to the disaster.

The report is respectfully presented in professionally polite language that might assuage the apologists of the overpriced and under achieving City Hall, but its conclusions are clear: the fire found local government effectually powerless in the chain of command, unprepared to assist residents in the escalating crisis, and the city manager scattered.

 The report by Management Partners, a consultancy of experienced public servants, makes 53 mostly reasoned recommendations that I feel will need some tweaking and a little wishful thinking, a rededication of CERT and an obvious reorganization of Malibu as a councilmanic construct.

But most critical for anything to be hopefully initiated I feel a 54th recommendation is needed; immodestly no less than a clean sweep of City Hall beginning with the departure of the city manager, Reva Feldman, who at the least should have served the city as well as she served herself.

 The report should be a wakeup call for Council at its next meeting, Aug. 12th. At least it should be. 

LA TIMES: LACMA DESIGN A CALAMITY

Regarding Carolina A. Miranda’s “Remaking the Miracle Mile” [July 14]: A calamity perhaps is the word to describe the design process our Los Angeles County Museum of Art has been suffering for the last half dozen years, and let me stress that is our taxpayer-supported museum.

A catastrophe certainly will be the word to describe the museum if the $600- million- plus design becomes, as feared, the nightmare construct and a failed Southern California conceit, orchestrated by a self- aggrandizing art crowd.

I join the chorus of critics and taxpayers to urge the c ounty Board of Supervisors to stop feeding funds to what will be, by the time it is built, a one-billion-dollar mistake.

The board is poised to release $117.5 million for the calamity, having to date been wined and dined, and their egos massaged, by wily museum director Michael Govan. Talk about an edifice complex of a star-struck arts administrator and of what is ostensibly a public institution.

Meanwhile, the clearly overwhelmed Govan and over-his-head architect, Switzerland-based Peter Zumthor, have been putzing around with the design for what seems like dog years, the latest study inexplicably reducing the proposed gallery space, when obviously more is needed to house the collection. Less in this case is less.

As for the proposed design, it is no longer colored black as the muck in the adjacent tar pits, but it is still a biomorphic blob sprawling across Wilshire Boulevard. The galleries might be one floor, as Govan wanted, but the structure is ugly and awkward.

It is time for the county supervisors to bring this farce of a design process to a screeching halt.

Sam Hall Kaplan

Malibu 7.20.2019

The writer is a former Los Angeles Times architecture and design critic

MALIBU’S MYOPIC GOVERNANCE

The willful ignorance of Malibu’s governance is exasperating, exposed recently by the ill considered search to curb mansionization, the fumbling of the rebuild effort  in the wake of the disastrous Woolsey Fire and city hall’s false front.

Putting this into a  larger perspective, the muddle in Malibu can be sadly considered a local manifestation of what select pundits have described as a rupture of the link between the governing and the governed globally that has exacerbated no less than the crisis of climate change, the continued deterioration of the environment and the dispiriting economic disparity. I fear for my children and grandchildren.

However, there is a faint hope in our bubble of Malibu that we can do something to modestly begin to mend the rupture, specifically at the moment to pressure the conflicted City Council to kill the proposed square foot reduction ordinance approved last week by a confused City Planning Commission. That if you recall was despite the strong reservations by concerned residents who packed City Hall. You had to be impressed by the turnout and the heartfelt comments.

To be sure, many as myself are opposed and repulsed by mansionization, concerned that it would invite blatant commercial use as unwanted rehabs or obnoxious AirBnBs. But they also clearly recognize you can’t really codify  (8500 sq ft ?) what constitutes mansionization or a “McMansion,” as I can’t as a design critic immodestly cited by Wikipedia as a reference. I literally coined the phrase 30 years ago in a book review for the L.A. Times entitled ‘Out of Place: Restoring Identity to the Regional Landscape.’

In search of a measure rather than an arbitrary square footage that incidentally can be hid by good landscaping, I suggest the colloquial expression, “I know it when I see it.” That subjective phrase parenthetically was used in 1964 by United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, in attempting to define what exactly, constitutes hard-core pornography.

Of course, what the council should be doing, as it has repeatedly promised, is provide some needed oversight and light a fire under a sluggish city hall, and its bloated bureaucracy and cadre of consultants, manipulated by crafty city manager manager Reva Feldman. All else could be considered broadly as pornography.

MALIBU PLAN COMISSION CONFUSED

It was heartening to witness the public turnout at City Hall Monday night for the hearing on a proposed ordinance capping residential development.  

Though there was some understandable confusion concerning the flawed attempt to codify “neighborhood character,” most all speaking late into the evening expressed an obvious heart felt affection for Malibu.

But that made it all the more disheartening to witness, as the night wore on, the genuine homeowner concerns to be mostly ignored by a confused and at times contentious, supercilious Planning Commission.

The nit picking majority of commission eventually did painfully vote for a watered down version of the ordinance, exempting lots of less than an acre while demonstrating their embarrassing lack of planning knowledge, making several ad hoc additions.

Of course, what they should have done was simply hose down the ordinance, and tell the also neophyte compromised City Council to bury it, and instead direct the city’s planning staff to bolster its rebuild effort.

Despite its overblown PR effort, the city’s under achieving governance and over stuffed city hall staff is a muddle, suffering from a hardening of the bureaucratic arteries and in desperate need of surgery.

MALLEABLE, MUDDLED MALIBU

Being misanthropic Malibu, it will not be surprising if the city’s attempt to thwart tacky “McMansions” most likely will end up just feeding its bungling bureaucracy and frustrating a planning conscious public.

And given the city’s protracted politicized process, I suspect it also will fatten the suspect facilitators of deep pocket developers, and compromise whatever ordinance might be approved, as they have in the city government’s pathetic past.  

Yes, there is finally a report out from the city’s Planning Department recommending an amendment to the zoning code that may have the effect of possibly limiting square foot development of select projects in select residential zones.

The attempt to somehow institute an ill defined goal of neighborhood character is scheduled to be aired before the Planning Commission July 1st and presumably eventually by the City Council.

But after reviewing it, and despite being an adherent of neighborhood character, as an experienced planner and long time resident of Malibu, concerned for its preservation as a livable community, I reluctantly oppose the proposed ordinance.

Primarily I do so because I fear however limited it would only make the city’s rebuild effort more muddled, exasperate many of the burned out Woolsey fire victims of modest means, and further discourage their return, hollowing out the economic and demographic diversity of the city.

 And this while encouraging flipping, to no doubt the cheers of prevailing, ever-avaricious realtors.

Even if the proposed amendment to the dense zoning code somehow is clarified to address neighbor character, the problem that has plagued planning in Malibu since its founding persists.

Bluntly that is a mostly inept and lazy municipal government, conniving administrators and vain glorious, generally neophyte city councils. And this sorrowfully includes some good people whom I consider friends, but if truth be told who are not particularly politically or planning savvy.

No matter how noble the city’s mission statement, and how well intentioned the city’s codes may be, I feel they can be only as effective as are those who administer them.

As for the report, it does not in its own voluble wording address the findings requested by the council for site plan review and minor modification “that the projects does not adversely affect neighborhood character.” It is a bad read.

Not incidentally, it was written by a former city planning director and now a consultant; heaven forbid the city with its overblown staff headed by an overpaid city manager attempt to do any heavy lifting or heavy thinking. Our bean counters do love their consultants to the tune of millions of tax payer dollars that instead could be going to improved services.

What we have gotten is a lot of lip service from the City Hall crowd posing as friends of Malibu, all the while surreptitiously raising the fear that limiting development and square footage would limit price and profit. For this we must credit local rumormongers.

As I have stated previously, real estate value is based on location and neighborhood character, and that out-of-scale mansionization tends to diminish value. They also tend to be poorly detailed and in bad taste, and generally bad neighbors, earning the approbation of “McMansion.”

I first used the phrase back in the 1980s when as the LA Times Design Critic described the practice in Santa Monica of building the largest size house possible on a site, which led to a domino effect that ultimately compromised the character of neighborhoods and accelerated gentrification.

In Malibu, I recall too well a case years ago in which an over designed plan for a prime site on Cliffside Drive had been objected to by neighbors, but nonetheless was approved by the city after an emotional appeal by the owner.  He and his tearful wife pleaded that though possibly over designed the house nevertheless was the family’s dream, where they intended to live into the sunset. 

Within a year after completion, they flipped the house for a huge profit, and flipped off Malibu. There have been too numerous similar incidents, orchestrated by special interests scamming a malleable Malibu.

Yes, Malibu needs some tough codes to protect what is left of its “neighborhood character,” but what it really first needs is a committed and courageous City Hall.