NEIGHBORHOOD CHARACTER DEBATED BY A CONFUSED MALIBU CITY COUNCIL

If there is a philosophical fissure in Malibu transcending politics, religion, professionals and sexual proclivities, it is property rights: what landowners can and cannot do, as guided by the city’s planning rules and regs, and so I observe on public radio 97.5 KBU and select websites everywhere

Even since Malibu became a city some 26 years ago, its planning process has been questioned, challenged and compromised, its City Hall staff scorned, council members cursed, and developers and realtors reviled.

This constant conundrum certainly was a factor in the election last year of the so-called reform slate, which pledged its unwavering support of the city’s mission statement as a persevering rural seacoast community. So much for history.

Meanwhile, Malibu’s confused politics and convoluted planning process continues to generate heat. It certainly was hot in the last City Council meeting, where heading the agenda was the question of what constituted “neighborhood character,” and, if at all, it should be included as criterion in considering proposed residential developments.

It was placed before the Council at the request of the City Planning Commission, which could not come to a decision involving a proposed project on Portshead Road. Its plans meets all city codes, but at 9,000 square feet the proposal is three times the size of nearby houses, and thus raises the issue of  “neighborhood character.”

The meeting unfortunately was a fractured, flatulent affair, as so many in the past have been when councils have had to deal with questions requiring some planning knowledge or administrative savvy. That is rather than as usual just congratulating themselves or select sycophants, or being hustled by government grifters, or pretending to be a statesman or stateswoman.

Nothing really was resolved, despite the city planning staff having prepared a detailed report that reasonably explained both neighborhood standards and neighborhood character; standards being quantifiable, and character subjective.

As usual, the staff skirted a recommendation, though it probably would not have made a difference given the capricious character of the council. It is embarrassing.

The council kept confusing “standards,” and “character,” and asked questions as if they hadn’t read or understood the report. In a split vote, the council directed the woeful city planning staff to come back with a more detailed report in a few months. Don’t hold your breath, especially if you are one of the 86 owners who have a project in the planning pipeline.

Meanwhile, not holding their breath, a parade of resolute local real estate professionals –agents, architects, acolytes – went before the council to lambaste the use of neighborhood character. They claimed in volleys of hyperbole that it would depress property values by not allowing owners to get top dollars by hyping being allowed to build out to the max.

In particular they egregiously claimed this would hurt seniors wanting to sell, and destroy Malibu, as we know it. It was a shameful cheap scare tactic, auguring back to the nefarious days of block busting.

Apparently, the real estate guiding axiom of “location, location, location, has been superseded by “size, size, size,” and the bigger the better, for obviously it means bigger commissions, and more jobs for all. The argument was debunked by a wry councilman Rick Mullen.

I would add that contrary to the specious comments of the realtors that subjective as it is, neighborhood character is actually vital to maintaining the city’s property values; that people love Malibu and buy there for its unique seacoast setting and rural ambience, not for the size of its scattered, already excessive, Mac Mansions.

SO WHAT IS “NEIGHBORHOOD ” ANYWAY

On tap for the next Malibu City Council meeting is a review of the phrase “neighborhood character” as a criteria in considering proposed residential developments.

As I comment this week on public radio 97.5 KBU and websites everywhere, the issue was dropped into the laps of the council by the planning commission, when after a protracted emotional hearing, declined to vote on a proposal for a nearly 9,000 square foot project on Portshead Road.

The project sited on a particularly large lot apparently meets the building code as calculated under Neighborhood Standards.

But being about three times the size of the 50 or so surrounding houses on Point Dume has raised the issue of neighborhood character, which, unlike neighborhood standards, cannot be quantified, and is subjective.

\To aid the council in its deliberations – what exactly is neighborhood character and how it possibly can be applied to proposed projects – planning staff has admirably prepared a report that lays out several rational. if convoluted, alternatives.

But as we have sadly observed, this fractured and frankly not particularly conversant council is not always rational. And neither was a gaggle of neighbors who testified before the commission, including a former mayor, who said the owner actually should be allowed to build anything he wanted. So much for the city’s and coastal commission’s rules and regs.

It was at that meeting that the owner passionately argued that the project should be approved. That was after shedding some crocodile tears in the social media in which he said the family was abandoning what was described as its dream house, however bloated the plans.

It was noted at the commission that the city recently had ruled against a property owner in a similar case where the proposed size of the project was legal, according to “neighborhood standards,.” However, “neighborhood character” was considered, the project labeled mansionization and rejected.

For some perspective, various sources describe neighborhood character as the ‘look and feel” of an area, in particular residential, and can be both descriptive and prescriptive. Nevertheless, along with a host of social, cultural, ecological, and economic factors, neighborhood character does shape where we live, and therefore is considered of significance in the planning process.

Meanwhile in Malibu, as a planning and design critic, I consider the city’s present neighborhood standards reasonable, detailing as it does allowable heights, size and bulk. But the problem over time has been administering them, subject to a parade of pandering neophyte politicians.

The standards are too often appealed, and permitted by a development friendly city, particularly when confronted by a well-connected facilitator and the threat of a lawsuit.

As for what exactly constitutes “neighborhood character,” it is a tough question, and I do not expect it will be easily resolved. Perhaps helpful would be applying a Supreme Court decision in 1964 I have always liked, in which Justice Potter Stewart is quoted that he could not describe pornography, adding “but I know it when I see it.” I feel the same way about neighborhood character..

 

 

ANNUAL TRANCAS CANYON DOG PARK ROMP

 

One of the more appealing things about my Malibu beyond its magnificent weather and coast, is the distinct outlander traditions of its natives, especially among the persevering pet owners.,

Indeed, many people moved here not only because of their love for nature, but also for their animals. And to be sure, we’re talking all type of animals: cats, dogs, chickens, peacocks, pigs, turtles, horses, lamas, goats, birds of every feather, and whatever else may be in the homes of our neighbors.

I’m not telling, for it might attract a local Homeland Security type in our sadly increasingly monitored world, to come knocking, someone having reported hearing screaming, when it really was just a voluble Green Amazon parrot, such as our Zuma, calling for dinner.

As I comment this week on public radio 97.5 KBU and select websites, there are actually several happenings in Malibu that can be considered communal. These include the chili cook off, the Pt. Dume July 4th Day parade, and the Concert on the Bluffs, which, by the way, is this Sunday..

Then there are the more serendipitous happenings., such as when a high surf attracrs swarms of locals, running down our block at sunrise to sunset to the beckoning ocean below.

Or, a gathering of a gaggle of residents at City Hall to protest staff and council bending over for a developer, or skirting administrative norms to accommodate whomever.

And among the lesser known gatherings, there is the annual convergence of canines at the Trancas Canyon Dog Park to honor the birthday of a fondly remembered four legged friend, named Bodhi.

Held recently, it is an exception to the park’s canon not to bring food within its double gates, in this instance a tail wagging variety of treats served out of a shredded pinnate

Whether any of the scrounging dogs remembered Bodhi or not, they certainly celebrated the occasion, groveling for the treats on the raw decomposed granite park floor while their equally mixed breed of owners looked on.

There was enough for all, so food fights were avoided, especially among the usually more aggressive breeds. The owner’s know who they are, but there will be no pointing fingers or chiding here of petulant pets.

That is because frankly one of them is my barking Corgi known fittingly as Bobby the Bad. He is annoyingly willful, but he is also faithful and, smart and, of course, a rescue and mine. His sidekick who he would no doubt kick if his legs were only longer is my other dog, CoCo, a sweet Shih Tzu.

She loves her treats, but at this party she hung back from the pack, especially from the determined “A” types . Even the more docile dogs got into the fray, including the lovingly groomed Golden Lab Zoe, and the regal Lady, a great, Great Dane. Giving them respectful room were the pack’s more dominant personalities, notably the ravenous Rocky, and the tireless Tanner.

But my alliterating report ends here, for in keeping with a commandment among the regularly attending owners, my friends, what happens in the dog park, stays in the dog park.

 

“NEIGHBORHOOD CHARACTER” QUESTIONED

Against my own advice not to get involved in personal zoning issues, I find I’m compelled to comment on the current city conundrum involving a proposed house on Portshead Road.

The issue has gone too public to ignore, especially since the Planning Commission, after a protracted hearing, declined to vote on the proposal for the 8.800 square foot project and instead kicked it to City Council.

Beyond the emotions it has generated –should the applicant be allowed to build two and a half times the size of his neighbors’ houses– there is a major planning issue involved, concerning the definition of neighborhood character., as I comment on public radio 97.5 KBU and select websites.

Indeed, in a similar case recently, citing size, the city ruled against a property owner where all other conditions also had met, as they have on Portshead. This set an important precedent.

Nevertheless, the Portshead applicant went before the planning commission, obviously confident that his plans for what he described as his dream house would be acceptable.

However, there were objections, and a petition reportedly was circulated objecting to the size of the project. This prompted a lament by the applicant, which stirred a well-spring of sympathy and an antithetical petition to approve the project.

That sentiment was echoed at the commission hearing, no doubt a factor in it backing off from a decision. With a polite nod to the heart felt sentiments, I feel zoning is not an issue to be decided by petitions, circulated on behalf of whomever.

That should be the purview of the planning commission, and city council. And as often stated at hearings, zoning cases should not be based on how attractive the project or appealing the applicant, but on their compliance with city codes and applicable precedents.

In addition to the echoing of the phrase “neighborhood character” so were the terms “mansionization: and “mcmansion.” This struck a chord with me, for I am cited by Wikipedia as one of several authors that coined the phrases, specifically when I was the LA Times architecture critic in the 1980s. Having also written several books on planning immodestly made me an authority.

I first used the phrase in describing the practice in Santa Monica of building the largest size house possible on a site, which in turn led to a domino effect that ultimately compromises the character of neighborhoods and accelerates hyper 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 a “mcmansion,” 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. It therefore makes one wary, especially knowing that the larger the house in Malibu, the much larger the profit, say realtors who always seem ready to pump up properties to maximize their commissions.

.The size of the proposed Portshead project was defended by the applicant, who stated that it may be excessive, but he wanted to include such amenities as a gym and a screening room to make it a fun house for his family.

However ingenuous the remarks or not, the real issue persists whether the project is out of neighborhood character. It is a tough question, which calls for some common sense, and common courtesy, and frankly not crocodile tears.

Meanwhile, the applicant might want to consider a more modest house, which his respected architect said was possible, or build elsewhere where the project would be more in character. There are such streets in Malibu, though Portshead is not one of them.
 

SUMMERTIME, GETTYTIME

Still summer, crowds still here, at the beach, and on PCH, and given the inexorable population growth of Southern California, I expect summer to extend to Thanksgiving, and so I comment this week on public radio 97.5 KBU, and websites everywhere

In effect, Fall has fallen from the calendar, so if you want to keep your flame of culture glowing, I fear you must face the traffic, strap yourself in your car, turn on the air conditioning and turn up KBU, and with patience and fortitude, try embracing some motorized meditation.

But if it’s museums you are interested in, as I am, the commute can be eased by avoiding weekends, going early, staying late, and focus on the more accessible venues.

Heading my list is the Getty, where I find myself returning to more and more these summer days. Not only does the Center above Brentwood have an engaging array of changing exhibitions, and an ever-engrossing permanent collection, it is gratefully free, as I believe all museums should be.

But what further makes the Getty Center so attractive in the now extended, simmering summers, is its mountaintop site, with its constant, cooling breezes, and its captivating views.

And to think when the Getty was being planned just a short 30 years ago, I argued then as the LATimes architecture critic for a more urban site, such as Westwood, or Downtown. What was I thinking?

Yes, it would have been easier to get to then by bus and eventually in the future by rail, and especially for the growing hordes of tourists.

But it would not have had the views, and the incentive to stay late on select days and see the spectacular sunsets and have a pleasant, reasonable dinner. It is for these reasons I frankly love the Getty, for myself, for my family and for showing off to friends and visitors.

And then there is the Getty Villa, with its specialized collection, even closer to Malibu, off the PCH. That is for another day,

But meanwhile, it is back to the Getty Center, where for me the feature exhibition at present is a celebration of David Hockney’s 80th birthday.

Make that two exhibitions, one a display of his self-portraits, he had drawn, painted and photographed since his youth. The other, his experiments with photography, specifically Polaroid composites and photo collages.

Fascinating, and they’re on display until the end of the new, summer, past Thanksgiving, through to November 26.

 

SORRY, BUT TRAFFIC ON THE PCH IS JUST GOING TO GET WORSE

Summertime in Malibu, and that means staying close to home as much as possible, and trying to avoid the PCH, and so I comment this week on public radio 97.5 KBU and websites everywhere.

But if you have to go anywhere, do check KBU and also maybe Google Maps for the latest traffic conditions, and time your forays as best possible to avoid the crushes.  And Malibu being the scene this summer of increasing fatalities and accidents, and more and more frustrating delays, talking about the PCH appears to have drowned out a host of other local issues, at least at the present.

This, I guess, is a relief of sorts for residents concerned with the future of Bluffs Park and the drift of local planning.   And I would add a relief also for City Hall itself, given the conflicts and confusion of our Council and a passive-aggressive staff. Yes, I have resorted to a psychological disorder definition to describe our under achieving and over compensated bureaucrats, at least some of them.

They are a wily group, whom really it is hard to blame, reasonably concerned as they are with preserving and perhaps feathering their nests, especially considering their capricious overseers.

While concern with City Hall may not be a paramount concern, any mention of PCH traffic, on the air, or in the social media, is sure to prompt opinions. Solutions are another matter.

In a torrid of recent comments, we have been reminded the PCH is not the autobahn, certainly not the speedway I remember when a long, long time ago I briefly test drove there.

Even if it is designated as highway, officially State Route One, PCH for stretches actuality is an urban street, indeed Malibu’s main street. And according to a host of studies, a dangerous one., especially during congested peak hours and during seasonal uses.

A tool kit of traffic tweaks have been recommend to hopefully make it safer, which Caltrans is expected to begin shortly. But frankly don’t expect traffic to lessen. It even might make busier, with more vehicles being attracted to the improved conditions.

And even if the green lit La Paz and Whole Foods shopping centers are never built, and the cemetery really becomes a dead zone, the traffic on PCH I predict will just get worse, That is the way it is in every growing metropolitan regions the entire world over, due to rising populations and wealth, no matter what public and private policies are adopted to combat congestion. That includes more mass transit, charging tolls, scattering work places, or whatever.

For the time being, it seems to me the only relief is a comfortable, air-conditioned vehicle with a top of the line sound system, hands free phone, and if you must commute, add a dash of patience

BACK IN MALIBU, THE WEATHER IS GREAT, NOT SO THE CITY GOVERNMENT

It was great being away in the East for several weeks, celebrating the family as several fetes,, and as a culture vulture, attending music and dance festivals, and art exhibits.

But it is also great being back in Malibu, and its welcoming weather, enjoying ocean views, my exotic gardens and endearing pets, and delivering my city observed commentaries on public radio 97.5 KBU, and select websites.

However, being a reluctant city grouch, I can’t say Malibu as a city is as inviting, operating as it does as an insecure council-manager construct, disguised in a democratic cloak that is not very transparent.

Sadly, from my Malibu catbird seat of nearly 40 years, 20 plus on Point Dume, the current city as a governmental exercise is a disappointment.

Yes, there are elections, but, really, only a small percentage of eligible voters participate, and honestly fewer still seem concerned with local government.

That is what you get when Malibu is a second home for a roughly estimated half its estimated 13,000 residents, who are here on sporadic weekends or vacations. And then there is the unknown others who, legally or not, rent or lend out their abodes, creating transient neighborhoods.

If you don’t think so, just come to the Point, and if you can get behind the guarded gates, try questioning the occupants, or wend your way into Paradise Cove, and attempt to survey there. Forget about accessing select beaches unless you have a key. And I do not recommend walking on PCH east of the Nobu nexus; much too dangerous.

With its absentee population, and a good portion of the resident population too comfortable to care, Malibu has drifted into what can be described as a benign autocratic government, albeit a properly elected city council and a presumably professionally administrated city hall.

So much for labels. What we have in the harsh light of day is a self aggrandizing city council that despite doubtless good intentions – or at least had them when first elected – just not providing the vision or the oversight needed for Malibu to persevere as a unique, ocean side village.

And perhaps worse is a city staff that seems to be more concerned with feathering its nests, placating the occasionally questioning council persons or concerned citizen, while shifting responsibilities onto a cadre of accommodating, over compensated consultants.

City Hall it appears has turned into an insulated gravy train for bureaucrats, which might be alright if they would serve residents as they do those with special interests and influence.

And for this our neophyte city manger is being paid more than each of our United State Senators. And our consultants are smirking all the way to the bank. Hey, it’s Malibu, so who cares?

 

REAL PLANNING (NOT B.S.) NEEDED FOR MALIBU PLAYING FIELDS

The proponents of a sprawling recreational center atop of Bluffs Park persist, with pleas and petitions to prompt the Malibu City Council to reverse itself and approve an environmental impact report for their wish list of facilities.

So what if the costs are going to be prohibitive, the Coastal Commission most likely will reject the plans, and probably suggest the city look elsewhere. I certainly do, wearing various hats that include a former little league coach.

But where there is a hope, there must be a way, declare the sincere if misguided playing field proponents. And by the way, they add, why do people opposed to the plan hate children. Personally, as a father of four, I don’t.

Their arguments have been particularly emotional. These include the fatuous playing of the gender card since all three council members who voted for the park’s status quo were male, to the more pertinent review of the promises of playing fields not kept by past councils.

The councils did have several opportunities to increase the playing fields, without compromising Bluffs Park.

There was what is now Legacy Park, which was proposed 20 years ago when I was a Parks and Recreation Commissioner.

But City Hall and several successive servile mayors back then had their own agendas. (That they are now publicly quoting the Mission Statement in support of compromising the Bluffs is pure hypocrisy.)

They had worked out a back door deal with a few commercial property owners, and opted for a water treatment plant. That would satisfy an E.I.R. to allow more civic center development. while covering the plant with vegetation, call it a park, and let the city and gullible locals pay for it.

I feel Legacy still could be sensitively landscaped for a few playing fields, if the city really pushed it.

And then there is Trancas Canyon Park, whose exercise field can easily accommodate several playing fields, and with a few inexpensive touch ups, almost immediately, certainly much faster than the city putzing around with Bluffs Park.

Again, all the city has to do is amend its specious agreements now banning active sports there, which it did to please a few vociferous locals. It is not like the park doesn’t host active sports now, at least what I view daily from the dog park overlooking the field.

Hey, neighbors, times change, needs change, and it seems many of the kids in active sports are from west Malibu and Point Dume. It certainly would be convenient. Then there is also Trancas Field and its potential. Hopefully the city didn’t buy the fields as a private front lawn for few dozen homes.

This prompts me to suggest that city first and foremost contract for a new needs assessment study. We know what the park advocates want: everything, of course. But what we really should know is what actually is needed: how many kids are expected, from where, now and the future. Details please.

This was not done three year ago to by city’s cozy, costly, consultants. Their workshops were a charade, as is the city’s bumbling planning process.

Needed also is a site analysis: what can the Bluffs’ geology actually accommodate: more structures, cut and fill, or just light footed outfielders?

Those are questions that should have been answered first if City Hall didn’t do things ass backwards, and before some council members made promises.

Hold the divisive grandstanding, Lets get the facts, and then consider the options. Come on city, play ball!

 

 

 

THE IMPERATIVE OF THE SANTA MONICA MALIBU SCHOOL DISTRICT DIVORCE

Talk about a divorce, no matter how amiable the negotiations, reasonable the settlement, and the mutual agreements for the sake of the children, as the split nears, there is always something.

Who will get to keep the wedding gifts? Who pays for the additional legal costs? Anybody who has gone through the proceedings has a story to tell of a last minute demand.

As I comment on public radio 97.5 KBU and select websites, usually it’s the money. Hence the classic joke of: Why does a divorce cost so much? The answer being: because it is worth it!

In the divorce of the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District versus Malibu, the proceedings have become sticky, and the majority representing Santa Monica heretofore magnanimous in their stance as liberals, has morphed into ingenuous conservatives; parochial and greedy, and sanctimonious.

The Santa Monica majority on the school board is now said to wants $100 million as the price to let Malibu have its freedom. And just leave the jewelry and credit cards on the nightstand.

This no doubt will be discussed Tuesday night when the school board meets in the Malibu City Hall. It should attract a big turnout of Malibu residents, many who feel the construct of a local district is being held as a hostage by an avaricious Santa Monica contingent, and the monies just the first payment of a ransom.

But beyond the money, is the question of power, not what is good for the kids, but what do those involved win or lose.

We’re talking here of the district’s bureaucracy, the loss of jobs, cuts in salaries, and, god forbid, greater workloads.

So what if the communities are separate and distinct, Malibu a rural seacoast village; Santa Monica, a bayside city ten times larger, and increasingly urban, the last stop on a transit rail line, and the first stop for socializing millenniums.

Obviously from its origins the district has been a marriage of convenience. There might have been early moments of a youthful fling, a tumble on the sand, if you will, but not any more.

This makes it all the harder to face the truth, and in the case of the divorce of the school district, to do the right thing.

And it prompts the thought if Santa Monica was in the position Malibu is, and an appendage to the L.A. Unified School District, and wanting to break free. No doubt Santa Monica would then most likely argue that as a distinctive city its needs its freedom, while L.A. would counter it needs Santa Monica’s money, to bolster the less affluent communities it serves, such as Compton and South Central.

And Santa Monica would answer that its independence is a democratic imperative, and frankly ethical. Therefore, for Santa Monica to contend anything different in its relationship to Malibu, I feel, would be hypocritical.

 

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MALIBU CITY COUNCIL STUMBLES

Can we talk? Really, for it seems nearly everyone with a passing concern for Malibu wants to talk, specifically and not humorously, about the last City Council meeting,

“Exasperating” was the one of the kinder word heard to describe the meeting. That was in reaction to the words upon words that flowed from the dais past Midnight, from what appeared to be conflicted and confused councilpersons and servile city staff.

The votes recorded and the actions notwithstanding, the deliberations I and others witnessed was marked by rambling remarks, self-serving statements, and contradictory comments. In a word, embarrassing, and so I comment on public radio 97.5 KBU and select websites.

Those who actually attended the meeting to or near the bitter end left disappointed, even those who seemingly got the vote they wanted concerning preserving Bluffs Park.

Those watching it at home, as I was, said they turned it off at some point, or fell asleep, as did their pets. Mine did.

For political observers, the meeting also was a vivid demonstration of that infamous mathematical formula being cited more and more these dog days, from the White House to State Houses, to local Civic Centers, which is: Public service equals megalomania divided by paranoia.

Here in Malibu, the lame ducks on the council need to lower and limit their quacking, and the so-called reform slate frankly needs to be reformed, or simply better prepped.

Perhaps their comments should be limited to 3 minutes, at the public meeting, as they do for residents in the audience wanting to speak. That also should apply to the many lawyers and lobbyists that haunt City Hall who seem to talk on and on.

Meanwhile, isn’t there some sort of instructional orientation offered to neophyte office holders by one of Southern California ‘s many academic institutes? For City Hall personnel as well?

If not, there certainly should be, staffed by astute former legislators, enlightened educators and experienced journalists. There should be a few around. This I feel could be a legitimate expense, as opposed to, say, the many self congratulating, glad handing good government association get-a ways that several of our council members seem to love to attend.

As had been suggested previously, perhaps it is time for the city to consider an independent ombudsman, for oversight, or some sort of ad hoc citizens committee to monitor the city’s governance. Formation might be tough.

But expressing hope over experience. I like to think there are some knowledgeable residents who would come forward to volunteer their expertise. But can City Hall handle it?

I note that our big city sister to the south, Santa Monica, recently created an ad hoc committee of residents to review the cost and effectiveness of the city’s government.

Talk about poking a hornet’s nest with a stick.