Village project: nightmare or dream?

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With the recently proposed wetlands project essentially tabled, the issue of development vs. non-development of some 29 acres in the Malibu Civic Center area continues to fire up controversy.

Although the Malibu Bay Company deferred development of what has become known as the Malibu Village Project (adjacent to the Country Mart) for a decade, negotiations over its fate, as well as the nearby 8-acre Ioki property, are proceeding with hearings imminently scheduled before the City Council (unlike the Village project, if agreements between all parties are reached, the MBC can proceed to develop the Ioki site right away).

Despite months of controversy over the future of the land, Ed Niles, the internationally respected architect who designed the original Civic Center project for the Malibu Bay Company, remains passionate about his concept.

In fact, for Niles, anything less than his plan, anchored in Malibu’s 1995 General Plan, but providing substantially lower building densities, could potentially create more of a nightmare than a dream in our future.

“There are two basic issues,” Niles said in a recent interview at his Zuma Terrace office. “Building or not building a center that could provide Malibu with a sense of community, and controlling inevitable traffic which will come whether we build or not.

“To develop a sense of community,” Niles continued, “Malibu needs to identify its responsibilities to the general public, to the environment, and to its residents. That has never been done.”

It is, of course, the specter of the public overrunning the community that has raised adversarial passions so violently, to the point that a recent City Council campaign video showed Niles’ original plan filled with multistory buildings, which the architect subsequently claimed libeled him, as they never existed in his plan.

To him the issue is simple.

“Get in an airplane and fly over Malibu, and you’ll see what’s happening to us,” he said. “The concentration of people on the north and west sides of the Santa Monica Mountains is unbelievable, and the only relief valve they have is this direction.”

“Whether we develop a community center has nothing to do with the inevitable traffic; the people are going to come here whether we want them or not,” he said. “We must come to terms with that reality, and design a city that gives us the choice of interfacing with that public or not.”

Although Niles’ design for the Ioki site does not include theaters (the pigeonholed site included four), it does provide offices, several restaurants and a new post office, altogether occupying only 35% of the land. It was designed to resemble a ranch more than a shopping center, with wood-and-glass buildings, smaller than most houses in Malibu, scattered throughout a mini-forest.

“The idea is that you’re experiencing landscaping and trees and water as much as the buildings,” Niles explained. “The buildings are kept down in scale so that people have an understanding of where they are in the sense of size and relationships, and they feel comfortable and not threatened by the architecture.”

Traffic has always been high among Niles’ priorities.

“Today, whether we like it or not, the way we live is controlled by CALTRANS,” he said.

One solution, which Niles sees as crucial to building a sense of community, is a shuttle service operating from one end of Malibu to the other. The other solutions are guided by twin pressuresthe public and residential use of the streets. In a traffic analysis done by the Bay Company for the Environmental Impact Report, prepared for the city as part of its development application, several measures, designed to mitigate traffic problems, were recommended. Specifically, some parts of PCH and all of Webb Way would be widened, left turn lanes would be added on PCH and additional striping done to guide the flow of traffic.

On balance, Niles said he believes little, if any, traffic increase would be due to the development.

“The increase is very difficult to truly understand,” he said. “The highest impact is obviously in the afternoon when everyone who doesn’t live in Malibu goes home to the Valley or Oxnard. On the other hand, given new facilities, a great number of people from Malibu wouldn’t have to battle traffic on PCH to go to work, to a restaurant, or the theater. Malibu could function as a community.

“Traffic is and will always be an issue,” he added, “but if a shuttle system is put into place, and the zoning, land-use, and densities that are presently in place are held to by future political structures, then you can find a balance the community can live with.”

Niles’ approach is also based in his philosophy about why some towns “work” (like Columbia, Maryland, designed as a model environment a generation ago) and why some don’t.

“A major prerequisite,” he said, “is that the spaces between objects like buildings have to be rooms; you always have to feel that you’re in a human-scaled room where you as an individual can have a feeling of identity by sitting on or near something that allows you to observe or be observed.

“There have to be activities,” he added, “and people, of all age groups, seeing each other. But you always have the ability to pull away, to make choices, just like in your own home.”

“Think of many European cities,” he said, “with centers for relaxing, for dinner, for strolling. And add a shuttle system to bring Malibu together from one end to the other.”

“We all want to protect Malibu,” Niles said of the hostility shown in some quarters over his dream for the city’s future, “but you can never protect something just to protect it, and you cannot limit it just because of your pseudo-social or economic level.

“The reality is that the public will be here whether we want it or not. You can’t stop a child from growing; all you can do is guide things. Your hope is that people will be sensitive and respond.”