THE SEARCH FOR THE SOUL OF CITIES CONTINUES, ABROAD AND HOME

My search for what I label the soul of cities, continues, abroad, and home.

For me, these are the prime public places, the existential life of the city, its genius loci.

These are the places people experience and take pride in. Varying in form from city to city, layered with tradition, these places are what I feel lend a city and its people that evanescent quality of soul.

My trip to old haunts included the La Rambla in Barcelona, Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, and the museumplein in Amsterdam.

Others places with rich memories come to mind: Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, the piazza del campo in Siena, and Washington Square park in my hometown of New York.

As for my public Malibu, where I have lived for the last several decades, not so.

To be sure, there were select communal times with the kids on Westward Beach, on the Pt. Dune elementary school lawn, and in the play area edged by the picnic tables in the country mart.

More recently with the kids sadly gone but happily self sufficient, out with my sociable Corgi and irrepressible Shih Tzu, the Trancas Canyon Dog Park and its transient pet lovers have for me lent Malibu a rare sense of place — except when its too hot, or it rains. .

The search goes on, especially with civic center overrun by tourists and luxury outlets catering to their indulgences, and that of Malibu’s one per centers in their weekend safe deposit boxes.

However, take heart, a few miles west are two promising places that I feel lend hope for a more friendlier, public Malibu.

It just is some chairs and tables. a few comfortable couches, in a small field stone apron, centered on a modest fountain, and edged by the clubby Bank of Books, in the Pt. Dume Village center. But, increasingly it is populated by locals, enjoying family, friends and tolerating leashed dogs. Umbrellas and plantings help.

Add to this the venerable Lilly’s and an array of other eateries, and you have, a sense of place, where more often than not you see a neighbor, smiling hello.

It is reason enough to frequent the stores there, if only you could grab a parking space without having to circle the lot several times.

Also coming into its own is the Trancas Country Market, thanks in particular to a friendly Vintage Grocers and its Friday night concert series.

A recent offering there drew an estimated 300 locals, many walking from West Malibu, and turning a modest lawn into a celebratory space, if only for a few hours.

An attraction no doubt was Lenny Goldsmith, a long time Malibu resident and accomplished rock and roller, whose many gigs include the Tower of Power. Here before a hometown crowd he performed with a band appropriately named the New Old.

For me, it was great to hear Lenny, but also see friends and neighbors. It made me feel after a long trip abroad, very much at home, and that is what a public place is suppose to do.

 

 

Enjoying and Learning From Amsterdam

I am back, in Malibu, after a month plus of extended stays in select cities abroad; revisiting some favorite haunts of my maverick past, seeing a few new one, while gathering grist for several writing assignments.

But mostly with my ever curious learned wife enjoying the cultural life and public places of what I consider the soul of the cities.

And, yes, for KBU.FM and the website City Observed. com filtering observations for possible lessons for a more a livable Malibu:

First stop, a most amiable Amsterdam, specifically to experience a restored and rejuvenated Rijksmusum, but also take in several more museums, and of course a performance at the famed Concertgebouw.

Helping was sunny mild weather and diverting, the once every five years tail ships regatta in Amsterdam harbor.

Other than the weather, Malibu it is not.

But there are livable lessons, most apt, traffic. In Amsterdam it is a melange , actually at first glimpse, a crazed crush of cars, trucks, trams, bicycles and pedestrians jamming streets, and sidewalks, going every which way, though somehow, amazingly, flowing smoothly.

If there was a particular unconscious orchestration that turned every street of a very crowed city into a ballet tof sorts, was the alertness of pedestrians, the skill of bicyclists, and the reduced speed of vehicles, all yielding of course to the clang, clang of the constant trams.

Me with my ailing legs loved the convenience of the trams. But in particular I was impressed by the cautious crawl of the all the vehicles, and polite swarm of the pedaling bicyclists, not riding tandem and talking on cell phones as they tend to do on the PCH.

Traffic is not going to be reduced, in Malibu, however new devlopments are restricted or better planned. It just going to keep increasindg, no matter what development consultants say.

But it can be slowed down, by lowering and enforcing speed limits, and in the civic center creating an attractive pedestrian zone.

Amsterdam to be sure has diverting attractions — the streets and canals are engaging, the architecture respectful, the museums marvelous, and so is the beer.

And I also should add the wine, a free glass of which was given to those attending a performance at the Concertgebouw, as if one needed an additional enticement to enjoy one of grand venues of the world.

Malibu doesn’t have a concert hall, or a rich cultural history as Amsterdam.

But it has its beaches, benign weather, and is my home. If only the traffic could be better controlled and calmed,

Jf only.

 

 

 

 

Can the L.A. River Surmount the Current Rising Tide of Bullshit?

Frank Gehry’s anointment to spearhead a new iteration of the master planning of the L.A. River continues to muddy the waters.

I had previously commented that Gehry’s involvement in the river was disturbing for several reasons: his lack of planning experience could be calamitous: further, his recommendations could undermine pending funding, and not the least, his star architect ego and servile supporters could corrupt the river’s hard wrought cooperative spirit.

But some reasoned river advocates are urging Gehry be given a chance; that he could bring needed attention and prompt needed private funding; and he, or more likely the competent team he has assembled, might add something to the effort. So what if there is already an approved master plan that took a decade to craft; it can be improved.

OK, I reluctantly agree, especially if there is a chance it might benefit the river’s revitalization. Let’s see what he does, if anything.

And having observed Frank for nearly 40 years, if his effort doesn’t match expectations, consistent with his m.o. he’ll probably just blame politics, the river corporation, FOLAR and the unappreciative community, someone in his office, and of course the carping media. Anyone but himself.

But I do feel compelled to lend some perspective if not a little needed churlish candor to the prospect of Gehry’s attempt at planning, taking to heart a cue from another commentator, Jon Stewart, who declared in his popular television program’s finale, beware of bullshit.

This is good advice certainly in the current political burlesque, and also I would add in the current planning and design arena. Prompted and polished by a gaggle of marketing and public relation pros, our celebrity architects and their wannabes do seem to have down the crowd-pleasing catch phrases.

Now clichés to the discerning, these include the absolute imperative for design to be “sustainable,’ “user friendly,” and “contextual.” (For how they are used in sentences just audit any urban planning confab.

You have to listen carefully what they are saying, but more carefully look at what they are doing or designing. Sometime it is just the opposite. That is what I liked when I moved on to become a television reporter, where the adage was, don’t tell me, show me.

I remember too well Gehry during the intense competition for Disney Hall hyping his design as the city’s living room, and how it would be open to the community and energize the adjoining streets.

It was one of the reasons why as the critic then for the L.A Times I championed the design, only to see the public garden sited a poor inaccessible three stories up, the critical First Street frontage an unfriendly wall hiding a private patio for the patrons, and the corner stairs a stage for automobile commercials. Street access and egress is compromised, as is the lobby.

Still, the hall is a striking piece of sculpture, an iconic design popular among tourists for selfies and for those who can afford tickets to be seen. Its urban design is not very urbane.

Also I have to be wary of Gehry’s dependence on technology, in particular touting his team’s 3D mapping of the 51-mile waterway, and how it could aid a sweeping master plan vision.

I personally hope Gehry and his entourage spends a little less time at their computers and at self-congratulating conferences, and more time experiencing the river and its adjoining communities.

I am reminded of a lesson from a landscape architect I once worked with, Dan Kiley, who when I rolled out the maps of a park restoration project, suggested instead we walk the site. “Listen and look and it will tell us what needs to be done. Not some images on paper. Beside it always good to get out of the office.” Good advice

 

Gehry shallow dives into the L.A. River

To be aired 8.15 on 97.5 KBU, and streamed everywhere, on radiomalibu.net

 

To advocates of the revitalization of the L.A. River, as I am, the disclosure that star architect Frank Gehry has been presumptuously retained to master plan the 51 mile expanse of the waterway has to be disturbing.

To observers of the L.A..’s parochial political and celebrity stricken design scenes, as I also am, the disclosure and the blessing by a haughty City Hall and its synchopants, is not surprising.

This after all is Hollywood obsessed L.A., where style over substance prevails; where indeed the allure of Gehry’s international eminence, and promise of photo ops tends to stupefy an increasingly vainglorious Mayor Garcetti, as well as the celebrity dazed herd.

And then there is the ever avaricious Gehry, who beneath his Canadian rooted modest airs, is very much the L.A. based competitive professional; and despite his 86 years, a hungry tiger pacing in a cage, waiting for the next piece of meat, the next commission.

This is particularly disturbing because, bluntly, Gehry has had little design success beyond his iconic singular structures, which for all their puffed up publicity in turn have shown scant sensitivity to context, climate and community use.

The urban design sensibilities demanded by the revitalized L.A. River is not Frank’s forte, as I have commented in past commentaries, nor has he displayed any flair for landscape architecture, particularly the profession’s increasing concerns for sustainability and public use.

His involvement also is disturbing because the river already has been scrupulously master planned in a long, arduous process, dating back a quarter of a century and involving myriad interest groups.

These have included neighborhood activists, committed environmentalists, public spirited designers and high minded citizens. The broad effort has been very much grass roots, democratic with a small “d,” at times awkward and clumsy but always transparent –something Gehry involvement on the L.A. River to date definitely has not been.

Despite statements to the contrary, Gehry has never shown the patience and fortitude needed to work with affected communities and public interest groups, preferring singular developers or elitist institutions. And he can be quite short with the media, especially if its critical

It is no wonder that the founding non-profit group, Friends of the Los Angeles River, declined to endorse the Gehry City Hall initiative, its respected Lewis McAdams declaring it “ the epitome of wrong-ended planning. It’s not coming from the bottom up. It’s coming from the top down.”

There also was real concern that whatever changes Gehry might wrought to the already approved Master Plan might confuse and splinter its hard won broad support, and jeprodise the critical federal funding pending in Congress.

That would be a tragedy, and something Los Angeles present and future cannot afford. Hopefully, the Gehry initiative will prove a stunt., the architect will withdraw to polite applause, to rest on his many laurels, and the revitalization of the river moe forward.

I’m Sam Hall Kaplan, and this is the City Observed, on 97.5 KBU, and radiomalibu.net

 

 

A Wolf in the Malibu City Hall hen house

If you live, and care about Point Dume as a community, and Malibu, as a city, if not just your property values, you have to be sensitive to the overt politics swirling in and above a confused City Hall.

I am, and so I said in my weekly commentary, on radiomalibu.net and 97.5 KBU. (also can be read on cityobserved.com)

The latest municipal machination has to be the surreptitious announcement late last Friday – not incidentally the preferred time for controversial press release – of the hiring of Chris Deleau as the city’s planning manager.

There was little question that the amiable Bonnie Blue was not up to the job in which she had been recently appointed; indeed was a deer in the headlights during the recent city conflagrations, as has been most of the skittish city staff.

But DeLeau for all his affability and, yes, planning experience, is a primarily a private sector lobbyist and a most questionable choice, coming as he does from the consultant firm of Schmitz and Associates.

Talk about a wolf being invited into the hen house.

The firm and its indefatigable director Don Schmitz has been very much a presence in Malibu, seen at almost every meeting of the City Council and Planning Commission, as well on the fringes of several task forces, ever ready with a quip and comment.

Principal among those he represents has been the sprawling La Paz development, which was one of the projects that prompted Measure R.

Very much also a presence acting as Schmitz’s gofer and echo through the protracted planning process has been DeLeau.

Recuse himself as he may, Deleau sitting behind a dominant desk at City Hall has to send a powerful message to staff as well as to the public.

In my opinion as a experienced planner and journalist, what we have with this appointment is nothing less than the politicalization of City Hall.

I was willing to give the city the benefit of the doubt over its mishandling of a confusing Measure R, which I fear will not be the best matrix to judge a large development, especially if well packaged as Whole Foods promises to be.

But then there was the pathetic abdication of the city council and city staff of its planning prerogatives to the slick consultants of developers; that is what triggered the last minute effort to save the hallowed trees at PCH and Cross roads.

Yes, they were saved, but a lot of aggravation would have been avoided if the city was doing its job.

Then there was the staff fumbling and the council’s feeble-minded embrace of the fabricated traffic studies, and once again showing little initiative.

There also is a history of the staff not responding to resident queries, and the council quick to denigrate anyone challenging their questionable judgment.

And now this appointment. Several weeks ago this commentary was taken to task for describing the city council as timorous. The phrase I would now use is inept.

Time for a recall?

 

 

 

Thinking Small and Other Big Planning Thoughts

Aired 7.25.2015 on public radio KBU.FM, and streamed everywhere:

Some thoughts on the current state of planning, bad and good.

First, the bad. Perhaps one of the most oft used clichés of planners, penned by Daniel Burnham, a famed Chicago architect, is “make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

And the bigger, the better, the flashier the more desirable, for these are the projects that attract the media, especially when served up at well catered press conferences, and dominate the design buzz.

Architecture schools certainly seem to like the showy designs; they bedazzle the star struck students and lend the fawning faculties a false feeling of being au courant, especially if they can cozy up to a celebrity architect.

But frankly, historically, few of these conceits tend to be built, and those that are, these days in Asia and the Mideast, appear corrupted by their coarse commercialism. However, massive and seemingly magnificent, like dinosaurs, I feel; they are doomed to die.

I haven’t been to Dubai yet, but in the studied, slick photos, its overt development looks soulless. And I found projects in an emerging Asia, such as Shanghai’s vaunted Pudong, off putting.

In the west these grand schemes have tended to fall by the wayside, humbled buy hubris and bungling bureaucracies.

Here, these ignominious traits I feel actually serve the public good, and prompts some positive planning news.

I am talking of the increasing interest in human scale design, low tech and low cost solutions: how they serve the every day user, and make cities more livable.

Be they a response to the reduced circumstance of the 21st century, at least for us 99 per centers, or out of the frustration with the current convoluted planning process, community groups appear to be taking more control over their immediate environments.

And so we are seeing parklets popping up on sidewalks, makeshift [plazas carved out of street corners, bike paths elbowing traffic lanes, pedestrians getting the right of ways –generating in once dormant downtowns and elsewhere that long sought sense of place. Hard to define, you know it when you are there.

This desirable urban amenity is explored and encouraged in two books, “How to Study Public Life,” by Jan Gehl and Birgitte Svarre, details the ideas, opportunities, and challenges, of this bottoms up planning effort in which the authors have been very much involved , Gehl in particular, a sort of Johnny Appleseed of the common sense planning school.

“Tactical Urbanism” by Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia , also reviews the history of the planning effort, and adds a wealth of implementation strategies. Both books are well recommended to one and all challenged by this very street wise, humanistic initiative.

I’m Sam Hall Kaplan, and this is the city observed, on 97.5 KBU and radiomalibu.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Public Safety Succumbs to Parking and Politics

Aired July 18, KBU.FM. More Local Concerns

Why do Malibu residents find City Hall so exasperating?

Here it is, several weeks into the Summer, and Grasswood Avenue on Point Dume is very much a parking lot on beach beckoning days, impassable for emergency vehicles, to the consternation of first responders, and difficult for residents.

It has been several months since a gaggle of Grasswood residents went before the city’s Public Safety Commission, asking that something, anything, be done. The item was duly placed on its agenda; the commission took testimony –noting that it was the largest turnout in memory –and directed the city to come up with several alternatives.

The city came back with a proposal to stripe the street to allow for through traffic, confining parking to the edges where possible. It was approved. The residents placated.

Then came the poison pill. Heeding the concerns of ever-cautious councilperson Laura Rosenthal, the city manager, Jim Thorsen, said that before implementing the improvement, a consenting petition was needed from a majority of the street’s residents. For a public safety measure? That already was unanimously approved?

Some 20 years ago when riding a bike to the Pt. Dume elementary school a students was almost killed by a speeding car at Fernhill and Sea Ranch Way. I recall it took a week or so to get a stop sign erected at the intersection. Other public safety initiatives also have not required a consensus. Indeed, the city’s charter is prefaced by the paramount concern for the “health, safety and welfare” of residents.

Rosenthal had raised the concern that the parking improvements would provoke the wrath of a contentious Coastal Commission who embraces the parking as an enhancement to beach access. However, its establishing statue, Coastal Act, Section 30210, clearly states “maximum access shall be provided consistent with public safety needs.”

It was suggested that the parking constraints should nevertheless be implemented, at least for the Summer, and then weigh the reaction, if any. But City Hall prevailed.

And so a conscientious resident subsequently hosted a meeting to air the issue and garner signatures. The turnout was decent, about two dozen. Some signed, some balked, and some talked, and talked.

The question of whether enough signatures were gathered, and what indeed constitutes enough, was not made clear by the city. The city manager has not answered several queries.

Meanwhile, it has been four months since the residents went before the Public Safety Commission, two months since the constraints were approved, several weeks since the community gathering, and the parking problem on Grasswood persists.

So much for the prime principle of democratic institutions, that they deliver results. It is no wonder that the Malibu City Council meetings are becoming more and more contentious.

This is a slightly edited commentary was aired on 97.5 KBU on July 18.

 

 

 

 

Planning Concerns Close to Home

Aired July 11, 2015

Some reflections on a Malibu Planning Commission hearing I attended this week.

It was the latest of several I have recently witnessed at City Hall concerning a host of planning issues confronting Malibu. For a small city of about 13,000 it does generate considerable controversy and discontent, giving some weight to the adage, the smaller the city, the more small-minded the politics.

Some of our city leaders are disturbed by the citizen protests, but I consider the grumblings healthy, an expression of down home Democracy. Though, frankly, I prefer they weren’t so often shrill, and ill informed.

I place much of the blame for this on the City’s failure to communicate, whether out of timidity or preferring to keep things close to their vests. For the record, my description in a commentary of the council being timorous did prompt Mayor John Sibert to take exception.

In an e-mail he states that far from being timorous the council has taken the initiative in host of issues, citing among other things scoring a needed study of the PCH and funds for improvements. And he added, and I quote, “if you think we don’t stand up to developers, you really do need to do a cranial/anal inversion. “ end of quote. Nothing timorous in that statement.

The mayor continued, saying the council for all its efforts gets no support from the-come lately spectators, who only descend on City Hall to carp. While wincing, I have to add that it is at least comforting to know that the council is listening.

This prompts me to cite yet another adage, a mathematical formula popular among journalists that states: public service equals megalomania, divided by paranoia.

But on occasion one must sympathize with those who volunteer for public service, donating their time for no compensation other than the reward of good citizenship. This was evident the other evening at the planning commission hearing considering an application for the remodel and expansion 29042 Cliffside Drive.

Aside from the questionable design, I testified that I felt the indicated construction of 49% is a blatant attempt to have the project declared a remodel and not a new structure, with its additional constraints and fees.

However, my prime objection is based on my experience as the past chair of the city”s View Preservation Task Force, and as a planner.

I fear as do current Cliffside residents that if this application is approved, and however it compromises the blue water view of any property, even by a sliver, it will also clearly affect their property values.

My view is not affected, but others are, and with the result of lowering their property values, mine also would be affected.

This did not bother the city’s wavering planning department, which recommended approval. But happily the commission did not. Member Jeff Jennings was particularly forthright . So was Mikke Pierson. And chairman David Brotman displayed his forte as an architect noting that the layout with its five master sized bedrooms, each with its own bath, was more indicative of a residential medical clinic than a family home.

Such residences have become the bane of Malibu, since only State approval is needed to convert an ostensibly private home to a clinic. Though, consultants for the corporate owner said this was not intended; that the house will be a retreat for a large extended family.

Obviously sensing the commission’s sentiments and a looming no vote, the applicants asked for a continuance. The neighbors hope in the two months given the applicant will attempt a redesign that preserves views. That is the hope, but deep pocketed developers in the past have not been so accommodating. We’ll see.

Im Sam Hall Kaplan, and this the City Observed, on 97.5 KBU and radiomalibu.net.

 

 

A Street in Malibu Celebrates

Aired July 4, 2015

And today, being July Fourth, we witness our Democracy, being tested abroad, nationally, and also in my misanthropic Malibu.

There my neighbors on Grasswood Avenue on Pt. Dume are celebrating their own modest act of independence, having risen up to protest a traffic situation and pressure the city to finally, take some action.

To be sure, the situation is not one would call dire, unless you live on the street where during the Summer beachgoers park their cars haphazardly to be near the Point’s sandy stretches.

The result: the street becomes a clogged parking lot, impassable for residents and emergency vehicles.

For years residents have complained. But the city shied away from any action, out of fear that curtailing the parking however unsafe would engender the wrath and fines of the Coastal Commission. The agency religiously encourages anything to facilitate public access to Malibu’s beckoning beaches.

That is, until this year. With beach days on the rise and more and more people descending on the Point, clogging streets with their cars, residents say, enough is enough. First responders also have voiced concern.

Residents rallied before the city’s public safety commission, and demanded something be done. Confronted by a determined citizenry, the city agreed to initiate several mitigating measures, to constrain the parking, and increase enforcement.

Now all wait until it is actually done, hopefully before the Summer ends.

Maybe because it is July Fourth, but one senses a welling up of resident frustration with the city’s handling of planning issues, and the need for more civic transparency, more democracy!

Malibu is getting more dense and desirable, and traffic more intense. The ever-avaricious real estate interest love it, but residents don’t. Shrill protests have erupted over development, mostly the high end chain stores for the tourists, but also trophy houses for the deep pocket transient.

This conflict prompted the recent overwhelming approval by voters of an ordinance with the intent of constricting large commercial developments. However badly written, it nonetheless is an expression of protest.

Next came a ringing citizen protest of plans to cut down severable venerable trees to widen a street in the civic center to accommodate increased traffic generated by a proposed new shopping center.

Though the city’s Planning Commission voted that the trees somehow be saved, the issue is still to be resolved by a conflicted city government and a recalcitrant Caltrans.

But now involved and raising its voice is an energized citizenry, very much in the spirit of July Fourth.

Time to light a firecracker in celebration.

I’m Sam Hall Kaplan, and this is the City Observed, on KBU and radiomalibu. net.

 

Is it Possible to Make PCH Safer, and Malibu Saner

Without question, the PCH is the bane of Malibu, given the highway’s daily accidents, capricious gridlock and conspicuous distracted drivers.

It is the price the city’s 13,000 residents must pay living in a self-anointed coastal paradise, through which 80,000 commuters pass every day, and up to an estimated 400,00 beach-bound visitors descend on sunny days.

After years of endless complaints, and years of studies, the city gave its blessing last week to an exacting 900 page report, recommending some 150 improvements with a price tag totaling 20 million dollars plus, presumably to make the roadway safer.

As detailed by consultants, the improvements include synchronized traffic signals, realigning several intersections, straightening sections of the road, an underpass, and bolder stripping and signage.

The improvements will fine-tune the highway, and no doubt make the intersections less prone to rear end collisions. .

But not solved is the conflict trying to accommodate bike lanes and on street parking in the eastern stretch of PCH, or more critically slowing traffic. Despite the praises of the City Council and others, there is no silver bullet to solve the harsh realities of the PCH.

Indeed, many of the recommendations might be counter intuitive. Traffic will probably increase.

Improving roadways almost always generates more traffic; traffic being like water, flowing downhill, to find its way into the most conducive channel.

And in Malibu, the PCH is the one and only channel, a lone connect linking the 21-mile long sausage-like city squeezed between an ocean and a mountain range.

Putting on my planner’s hat, as I have in past commentaries, and in remarks before the City Council, I feel the PCH should no longer be considered a highway, with speed limits of 45 and 55, in particular through the civic center.

Reevaluating the speed limit for the 4-mile stretch between Webb Way and Las Flores Canyon Road is way down the consultant’s priority list.

I suggest a high priority, and lowering the speed limits there to 35, and further down to 25 edging the Civic Center Way. That are the limits for the PCH where it passes through downtown Laguna Beach, Corona Del Mar and other coastal towns.

In effect, this section of the PCH would become Malibu’s main street, and as such, Caltrans urban standards would apply, not incidentally protecting the hallowed trees. Also encouraged would be cross walks, and other amenities, lending the commercial clutter and park there a more welcoming identity.

In tweaking the PCH, the traffic study also needs some tweaking.

I’m Sam Hall Kaplan, and this is the City Observed, on 97.5 KBU FM, radio Malibu. Dot COM.

To be aired 6.27.2015