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Target: Tale of Two Cities

By Frank Gruber

It wasn't the best of hearings, it wasn't the worst of hearings. But Tuesday night's City Council public hearing on the Target store proposed for Fifth and Santa Monica did show that when it comes to the big issues of traffic and shopping, Santa Monicans are divided into at least two cities.

As always in Santa Monica, I was impressed by the equanimity of most people who testified. You would be happy to have most any of them, from either side, as a next-door neighbor.

However, the anger was palpable, and it tended to focus on two points.

One, naturally, was traffic, which was described in various apocalyptic terms by opponents of the store.

The other was how upscale retailers have driven affordable shopping from downtown.

As someone who does not think traffic in Santa Monica is nearly as bad as in, say, West L.A., Hollywood, or the Valley, and who likes to stroll on the Promenade and buy shirts at The Gap, I wondered: where does this put me?

Please, that was a rhetorical question.

According to Planning Director Suzanne Frick, a Target store at Fifth and Santa Monica would create a "separate retail destination" and thus contravene the city's policy to make the Third Street Promenade the "linchpin" of downtown. When Council Member Herb Katz asked her to locate that policy, all Ms. Frick could find was a mid-1980's objective of the Land Use Element stating that the "revitalization" of the Mall needed to be encouraged.

The Promenade is now so revitalized that last year's crisis was that rents were so high restaurants could not renew their leases.

Yet downtown public policy number 1, expressed not only by Ms. Frick, but also most fervently, but not coincidentally, by people who own property on the Promenade and their loyal allies, is that the Promenade must be protected from any threat, and the biggest threat is more traffic that would drive away the Promenade traffic.

Let me get this straight. According to the Promenade boosters, Target will create traffic, this traffic will create gridlock, this gridlock will prevent people from going to the Promenade, and this would be a bad thing.

Assuming this were true, which it's not, wouldn't there then be a reduction in traffic? Or at least stasis, a car-for-car exchange? Even if the protectors of the Promenade are right, why should the city play favorites by protecting Banana Republic and Restoration Hardware and their customers, but ignoring the needs of Target shoppers?

Loyalty to the Promenade is fine, but at some point our planners have to realize that there is more to a balanced downtown than three blocks of high fashion.

There were various highs and lows in the testimony, but the most depressing comment to me came from the head of the local retail clerks union, whose office is on Second Street. He complained that Target would create traffic and parking problems for his staff and members visiting his office.

I had hoped that he would see the Target store as an opportunity to organize more workers.

Ken Genser asked whether Target had any ideas for how to give the city assurances that the store would remain a Target, given that the approvals run with the land. Some opponents of the store pointed out that there was nothing to stop Target from selling the site to Neiman-Marcus.

This is a good question. A department store at this site is an appropriate use no matter who is the customer, but clearly the city will receive many more benefits from a discount store like Target than from something more upmarket.

Target said that they will own this store, and cited statistics that they had closed very few stores in their history, but did not present any other ideas for how the permit could be linked to them. Since Target does not need to obtain a conditional use permit, the city has few tools to affect Target's operation. It might be possible to lock in certain design features, such as the bank of cashiers, that would make the store suitable only for a mass market retailer.

There were five questions that I would like to have heard someone ask:

1. Why didn't planning staff analyze the effect of the store on vehicle miles travelled (VMT), even though reduction of VMT is the first substantive policy identified in the Circulation Element of the city's General Plan?

2. There was a lot of talk about how many car trips Target will generate, but what is the total number of car trips in the downtown area now?

3. Why didn't staff analyze the impacts of the store beyond traffic so that council would have some data to use in determining whether there are overriding considerations for approving the store despite the traffic impacts?

4. Aside from satisfying Santa Monica's criteria for "significance," just what will be the actual impact on a motorist at a given intersection that is affected by Target traffic?

5. At any given moment during the peak traffic period, how many motorists will be stuck at an affected intersection compared to how many people will be inside the store, happily shopping, or outside the store, happily walking?

There was a lot of discussion about computerizing traffic signals, but the best thing that will happen to traffic in downtown Santa Monica will be completion of the new Olympic Drive connection between Main Street and the Fourth Street on-ramp. This will remove many cars from both Fourth and Colorado, which together form downtown's worst intersection.

Predictions? I have none, except that from what I could tell from their questions, all the council members have done a good job keeping their minds open -- or making it appear that way.

The Green Party council members, Mike Feinstein and Kevin McKeown, have interesting competing ideas to work with. On one hand, the Greens have been proponents of concentrating development in urban areas and they want to help low-income people. On the other hand, Target represents, at least to a degree, the big corporate interests the Greens hate.

Ken Genser and Richard Bloom have deep roots in the no growth and slow growth movements, yet they also have big social consciences and Target is clearly a facility the ordinary working and retired people of Santa Monica want. Genser has also expressed pride over the years in the down zoning of the 80's, and this project fits the zoning. Since Bloom got his start in the Sunset Park traffic wars, perhaps he will vote for Target if he thinks the store will reduce VMT outside of downtown.

Pam O'Connor would seem to be a natural supporter of Target, since she is a transit user, but she kept quiet Tuesday night, so it is hard to say what she is thinking.

Bob Holbrook and Herb Katz would also seem to be natural supporters of Target, given that Holbrook usually is friendly to business and Katz himself has been involved a lot in development downtown. However, Holbrook asked Target some tough questions Tuesday night, and Katz has previously expressed his opposition to Target over the traffic issue. My guess is that if Target can show that the traffic impacts have been exaggerated by staff or if their computerized traffic signals have potential, Target could get Holbrook's and Katz's votes.

Tune in Thursday evening for the next installment of ...

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