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Sam Hall Kaplan

The Struggle for Needed Housing

July 26, 1987|Sam Hall Kaplan

The effort announced last week by the city's Housing Authority to rejuvenate the Nickerson Gardens project in Watts could not come at a more critical time.

With the number of homeless increasing, and available affordable units decreasing (there is a correlation there), the city needs to preserve all the existing housing it can while trying somehow to produce more.

In addition, the Housing Authority, emerging from under a cloud of mismanagement, needs to demonstrate that it can cope with the myriad problems plaguing the city's public projects.

Certainly, the authority and its spunky new director, Leila Gonzales Correa, could not have picked a more challenging project than the sprawling, 1,064-unit Nickerson Gardens. Gangs, drug trafficking, vandalism and apathy have all but created a state of anomie among the residents there.

To combat the anomie, the authority proposes dividing the project into about 10 villas, each with its own manager, tenant council and identity. This identity would be further enhanced by selectively rehabilitating, decorating, landscaping and securing the villas,544696692tenants.

In time, the entire project would be gated and secured, and such needed, central facilities as a market, post office, child-care center and senior citizens apartment complex developed. The ultimate goal of the plan is to turn Nickerson Gardens into a self contained town with a sense of pride and place.

The two-phase plan, with a total estimated cost of $5.2 million, sounds good in presentation and looks decent enough on paper. But painting the walls a trendy tone, even if painted by a tenant, and putting up a fence and putting down some benches will not achieve the sense of place the authority desires and the project needs.

In Nickerson Gardens the process of involving the residents in what amounts to an effort to save their homes, in the long run, probably will be more important than the product. The authority and its consultants are going to have to understand this and proceed with their effort delicately. As so many studies in the past have found, when residents feel they have a role in shaping their environment beyond just applauding a politician's announcement or rubber stamping a bureaucrat's plan, their sense of identity is enhanced. And with a sense of identity follows a sense of pride and place.

While design will not solve the deep-set social ills of our cities, it can create a safer, more pleasant place to live, especially when orchestrated to involve and serve the user.

It is with this in mind that we will be watching the noble experiment in Nickerson Gardens, and wishing it well.

IGNOBLE EXPERIMENT: For what seems decades, the City of Santa Monica has been struggling to find ways to vitalize its Third Street Mall, between Broadway and Wilshire Boulevard, forming committees, hiring consultants and funding studies as if they were going out of style..

Though located in the heart of a relatively affluent community, anchored by a thriving shopping center and just three blocks from a bustling ocean front, the mall is plagued by a surfeit of transients and a shortfall of shoppers. It does have an incipient collection of engaging bookstores, led by Hennessey & Ingalls, but little else to attract crowds.

The latest proposal calls for an ambitious re-landscaping of the mall, with this year's twist being to allow limited automobile access in the evenings. The cost will be $4.5 million for the landscaping and $4 million more for additional nearby parking, with the total borne by mall property owners through a special assessment zone.

That is a hefty bill for what amounts to a cosmetic treatment. While the plan developed by the ROMA Design Group is attractive, it is not going to approach solving the problems of the Third Street Mall.

Much, much more promising--and not costing the merchants or the city anything--is a proposal now wending its way through the morass that is Santa Monica's bureaucracy, to redevelop a section of the mall for a mixed-use project containing ground floor retail, topped by three floors of offices, above which would be 32 units of housing.

The critical element in the proposal is the housing. It will lend the mall a built-in buying population; it will increase the density there that, in turn, encourages crowds; and it will improve security by providing eyes and ears above the mall, particularly at night when most needed.

That the project will take advantage of zoning bonuses and rise eight stories is also welcome, for if designed with some sensitivity, it will demonstrate that the mall can handle such density. The only views it might block are from the upper levels of the Santa Monica Hospital parking structure on 14th Street.

If anything, the city should encourage more housing. There are certainly enough "soft" sites downtown waiting for redevelopment, either privately or, in some way, city-aided.

Indeed, the $8.5 million of the merchants' money the city wants to spend on more consultant fees and cosmetics could, with imagination, be directed to some sort of housing initiative effort for the downtown area.

Rough calculations indicate that such a start-up fund could easily generate 400 units of housing, with a percentage set aside for low-income elderly, families and the handicapped.

Now that would go a long way to rejuvenating the mall, downtown, and, for that matter, the city, which in recent years has been undermined by a pernicious rent control, a disoriented bureaucracy and a succession of self-absorbed councils to become a sort of sad municipal joke.

It is time for the city to face up to its responsibilities and potential. The mall would be a good place to start.

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