THE MUDDLE AT MALIBU CITY HALL

No sooner than I had lamented the sorrowful state of Malibu’s government recently on my return from abroad, that the city council held a muddled meeting, confirming my opinion.

Most of the recent meeting was taken up by the council rambling on how best to legally limit chain stores so as not to create a boondoggle as did the infamous Measure R several years ago.

That cost everyone both for and against the measure, and the city, hundreds of thousands of dollars, while exposing how inept all involved were, as I comment this week on public radio 99.1 KBU and website s everywhere.

What did come out of the quagmire was the election of a so-called reform slate of Skylar Peak, Rick Mullen and Jefferson Wagner. This put them in the majority over hidebound councilpersons Lou La Monte and Laura Rosenthal.

And if you haven’t noticed, the two lame ducks nevertheless continue to cluck and strut beyond the city limits on the city’s nickel, apparently, baldly, using Malibu as a springboard for some sort of political afterlife.

Meanwhile, the hope of the past local election was that the slate would alter the city’s questionable pro development stature and private property prejudices, and spur staff to be more transparent and resident friendly, and do their job.

That was perhaps too hopeful. Peak and Mullen became vainglorious, and the neophyte slate quickly fractured, As for staff, a wily Reva Feldman continues to skillfully mollify all as the city manager.

She even secured raises for herself and associates, and contracts for select consultants. Though as evidenced by a maladroit planning department, day-to-day operations at City Hall are not functioning very well.
The failings of the council and staff were sadly on view at a recent meeting, with Peak and LaMonte literally and figuratively phoning it in, and Jefferson Wagner leaving early.

Skylar actually stated several times by phone to the Council how his family home in Montecito was threatened by the Ventura fire, and later was quoted in a newspaper how another of his homes, in Hawaii, was threatened by incoming missiles.

There was no mention of his mail drop in Malibu that allows him to occasionally serve on Council to questionable effect.

Then there was planning director Bonnie Blue bemoaning the department’s work load, (I’m saving that for another commentary,) This was followed by the council in part by phone struggling with establishing that elusive retail formula for the civic center.

Frankly, I think it is a waste of time; the civic center long ago I feel having surrendered its conceit as Malibu’s nexus to become a fractured mall, serving tourists .

Most Malibu residents I know do their serious shopping “over the hill” in Agoura and Westlake, and their convenience shopping at the Point Dume and Trancas. village markets. The only real local attraction there is the library.

These days of increasing on-line and big box shopping, trying to set a retail formula for a commercial mall can be likened to rearranging chairs on the Titanic. From my view the life boats already are filled with shoppers and are drifting away.

The only hope I feel as an urban planner and, yes, a liberal humanist, is as I have previously suggested reprogramming the land for an infusion of needed affordable housing, in particular for our first responders, teachers and others serving Malibu,

This I’m confident will lend life to the city center, and give Malibu a faint hope for a more equitable future.

 

 

BACK IN MALADROIT MALIBU

I’m back in my catbird seat as the city grouch. It is a disquieting job, but given the fumbling City Hall someone has to do it.

Back after a long sojourn to a few of my favorite cities abroad, notably Berlin and London, observing how they have changed over the last half century I’ve known them, while enjoying their vibrant present.

But those observation are for a more fitting format reviewing world class cities than the Malibu focus of KBU, however its recent expanded signal from 97.5 to 99.1, now heard from Big Rock to the county line, and read on select websites.

Malibu is really not much more than a seacoast village, despite the fumbling of avaricious real estate developers, and realtors, neophyte politicians and an inept city administration.

Yes, I’m back at my post as city crouch in maladroit Malibu.

Of course not all involved in city affairs are consciously pernicious. A few are well-intentioned dedicated public servants, beyond sadly apparent self serving concerns.

That is not to say Malibu is particularly cursed, and that this unfortunate prime preoccupation with pay, perks and pensions do not permeate bureaucracies everywhere, be they national, state or local. They sadly do.

This is according to former colleagues of mine when I was briefly serving penance in public service. Reviewing with them what I thought was some Malibu malfeasance, they commented the city seemed no worse than other “schlock” governments.

Hence the oft quoted formula recited by government ombudsmen and journalist watchdogs, that A people hire A people, and B people hire C people. Malibu appears to be afloat in a crowded sea of Cs.

But for better or worse, mostly better, this is where our family has lived for decades, on Point Dume, enjoying a pastoral roost, ocean views, public access to the beach, and a landscape of succulents I cultivate.

More personally, this is where we have tried to be good neighbors, trimmed our trees, leashed our dogs, and picked up trash in the city’s neglected encroachments.

Perhaps most proudly, this is also where several of our children have excelled in the public schools, and have kept abiding friends, as I like to think so have we.

But from a municipal perspective, Malibu has problems: among others the future of the Civic Center, overdevelopment, Bluffs Park, Trancas Field, PCH and its indulged city staff and consultants. There persists a real need for oversight, as I raised several months ago in a report made at the behest of a city councilman, and was then ignored.

This is perhaps a good provocative note on which to end this returning commentary.

SUPPORT STIRRED FOR MALIBU AFFORDABLE HOUSING

Could it be that Malibu is getting a conscience, and the need for affordable housing for seniors now loving living here, but need to down size? And also for the many others who serve the community, such as teachers and first responders, but can’t afford Malibu and must live elsewhere?

Thank you, for the dozens of positive and encouraging comments reiterating the need for affordable housing, and urging the city to recognize the imperative to move forward, starting at long last with a declaration of need.

\That is my pleased reaction to a recent commentary on public radio 97.5 KBU and local websites, calling once again for an imaginative redevelopment of the now very uncivil civic center as a true seacoast village that features affordable housing.

Yes, I have urged this several times in the past as an alternative to the unwanted pending crass commercial plans catering to tourists that our local realtors seem to love, and was unfortunately approved by past recalcitrant city councils and obsequious city staffs.

But in the past my immodest proposal prompted just a few private “thank yous” and the cowardly personal insults of the ever- present local dotards

By the way, I get a kick out of the term dotard, which is now widely circulated after having been used to describe the despicable and dangerously despotic President Trump. Our locals aren’t really that bad, just it seems that their thinking has been affected by having been wiped out too often by waves.

I’m sure they love Malibu, it is just that apparently don’t realize that some well designed and sensitively sited affordable housing not only is desperately needed, it actually will help the real estate market.
In particular, a local run and well managed senior housing project could give the option to many seniors here of selling their housing that is now too big since the kids have moved on, and still be able to relocate in the Malibu they love.

Our teachers also are a concern, especially those who have to commute for hours, clogging up the PCH before getting to class, hopefully on time and not too tired, then having to fight the traffic getting home. No wonder it is hard to hire the teachers for Malibu, at least the good ones in demand, so say our school administrators and so indicate various past staff surveys.

And I’m sure there are city personnel down on the municipal food chain that would welcome affordable housing. By having a home in Malibu as well as working here, who knows, maybe they would think a little less of their payroll and pensions, and more about making the town they now live in, more livable, for themselves, and us.”

HOUSING COULD MAKE MALIBU’S CIVIC CENTER CIVIL

It was no surprise reading a L.A. Times business story recently that major commercial real estate developers are increasingly considering adding housing to their mix of mall brews.

That malls and mini malls, and shopping centers are struggling is not news for developers, real estate investors, and city planners-in-the know, as I comment this week on public radio 97.5 KBU andf select websites everywhere.

More and more shoppers are frankly shunning the malls in favor of on-line shopping, where in the comfort of their homes they can view a wealth of products, weigh bargains, and, if are alert to specials, enjoy free home delivery, and easy returns.

As a result, some 25 per cent of America’s malls are expected to close in the next five years., while others struggle to become more appealing. This includes recycling malls in the mode of walkable villages, featuring speciality shops, boutiques, and a range of intimate eateries and entertainment

Now the latest ingredient is housing; and not coincidentally needed more than ever, as California suffers under an acute housing shortage, in particular affordable housing.

Challenging certainly will be the recycling of previously commercial developments, especially the malls anchored by major department stores. It may in some cases prompt bulldozing; after all it is the land and location that is valuable.

Challenging also will be the obvious need for some major rezoning, which depending on the proposed housing, nearby neighborhoods may not like.

This brings me back to my conflicted Malibu, whose efforts at planning at best have been behind the times, and in some cases unfortunately behind the counter.

Malibu I feel is ripe for this recycling in its so-called civic center, which actually is less a center than a scattered collection of suburban mini malls. And no doubt the pending approved shopping centers there catering to tourists will only make it worse, and I suspect the developers also may be having second thoughts, given the shifting shopping trends.

And so once again, as I have strongly suggested in the past, the city consider proposing work force and senior housing in the civic center, specifically for our teachers and first responders. Lets even include a few units for city employees.

In a phrase, housing would make the civic center civil. Indeed, if designed well, it could create the livable, viable sea coast village for which the city has always yearned.

Besides, it actually could reduce traffic on the PCH. Residential uses generate half of what commercial does, especially if they work locally.

It also would more than satisfy Malibu’s affordable housing element required by the State. Certainly it would please the Coastal Commission, and make it look more kindly on the city.

But most of all it is the right thing to do. We owe it to those who serve us.

 

BACK AND WALLOWING IN MALIBU

This week on public radio 97.5 KBU and select websites everywhere, some musings after returning from family and friends on the always engaging east coast

There, among others things, I saw my youngest, a proud Malibu High alum, as is his brother, enter into a welcoming post graduate Harvard. Go sharks!

Then it was on to New York, to attend the dedication of a new international think tank, a partnership of my alma mater Cornell University and Israel’s Technion Institute, heralded as the birthplace of what’s next.

This made me feel like the problem solver I once posed as, challenged by a promising intellectual future, albeit now set against the grain of a dysfunctional America floundering under a deranged president. Sad and scary.

Then it was back to mellow Malibu, with the persevering wife, the comforting views and sounds of the ocean, my faithful furry and feathered pets, a demanding landscape, and a certain solitude not found elsewhere.

So, at least this week there will be no philosophizing about, or defining, what constitutes “neighborhood character, “ as some followers had requested, no crafting a magical formula our planning challenged Malibu can apply in reviewing the parade projects coming through its front, and back doors.

After several decades of serving on various committees and commissions, writing letters and articles, in effect volunteering what beyond my Malibu would have been some remunerative consultant assignments, I have to observe that our self aggrandizing city leaders don’t really like listening to anyone with whom they or their friends and advisors might disagree.

There have been exceptions, of course, and they should be congratulated for their efforts. Yes, Malibu is a city of misanthropes, and quite frankly being one myself I tend to embrace the collective eccentricities.

It makes thinking about eventually moving away difficult, if not impossible, despite at times being tempted. But it would be daunting to pay the anticipated capital gains, as well cleaning out the study and the garage, and giving away thousands of books accumulated in a lifetime of reviewing, And what about my exotic plants? Who will nurture them?

More difficult would be leaving friends, relocating pets and saying goodbye to our singular refuge on Point Dume, which my wife had lovingly refurbished, raised several children hosted countless Thanksgivings, and where I have lived longer than anywhere else in my life. And where would we move to?

How does one weigh these considerations in defining neighborhood character? Think about it, perhaps best when walking to the Point Nature Preserve and the beach beyond.

As for Malibu, the Planning Commission already has boldly approved the concept as integral to the city’s vision statement. Next up is a review by the conflicted City Council, which, as its wont, may decline and just request our costly city attorney and ever-avaricious consultants to consider it.

 

 

 

THE IMPERATIVE OF NEIGHBORHOOD CHARACTER

Back from the East Coast and back on public radio 97.5 KBU and select websites with something to think about BEFORE the Malibu City Council once again takes up the issue of neighborhood character:

Yes, ill defined as it might be, confusing to some, simply words to others, “neighborhood character “ I feel is essential to the magic of Malibu. It is what lends value to Malibu, that makes living here so special, not the gratuitous sizes of over designed and over priced houses .

As I have commented previously, neighborhood character for me can defined by applying a Supreme Court decision in 1964 in which Justice Potter Stewart is quoted that he could not describe pornography, “but I know it when I see it.” I feel the same way about neighborhood character. There are standards that can be applied.

If you need specific examples, there are already too many in Malibu. Just look past the Pt. Dume shopping center down Dume Drive, on the right, at the still unfinished, humongous, butt ugly house.

There are others that I would describe as McMansions, a term not coincidentally I am cited by Wikipedia as one of the authors in the descriptive phrase.

The hope is that the council, both the so-called reform slate majority and the lame duck minority, recognizes that the issue “neighborhood character” goes to the heart of what Malibu aspires to be, and what I like to believe all the council members feel in their hearts why they live here, and ran for public office.

Indeed, according to the city code, their prime responsibility, against how all issues must be weighed, is preserving Malibu. Or I would add frankly what is left of it, after succeeding past councils and staff let it be compromised by greedy real estate interests and their facilitators, project by project, zoning change by zoning change, or simply by ignorance and neglect.

Certainly that it is why the so-called reform slate was elected last year: To stop the slipshod approvals wrangled by an avaricious few who view Malibu as a monopoly game, their comments taking exception to neighborhood character despicably self-serving. Shame on them.

The city’s Vision and Mission statements say it all., and deserves to be repeated here:

“Malibu is a unique land and marine environment and residential community whose citizens have historically evidenced a commitment to sacrifice urban and suburban conveniences in order to protect that environment and lifestyle, and to preserve unaltered natural resources and rural characteristics. The people of Malibu are a responsible custodian of the area’s natural resources for present and future generations.”

And according to the Mission Statement, “Malibu is committed to ensure the physical and biological integrity of its environment through the development of land use programs and decisions, to protect the public and private health, safety and general welfare. Malibu will plan to preserve its natural and cultural resources, …as well as other resources that contribute to Malibu’s special natural and rural setting. “

Further, “ Malibu will maintain its rural character by establishing programs and policies that avoid suburbanization and commercialization of its natural and cultural resources.” And that might mean sacrifices.

Perhaps in addition to the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of all Malibu City Council meetings there should be a pledge to the Vision Statement.

 

 

 

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..

 

 

“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.
 

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