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|It's not the Traffic|
By Frank Gruber
February 15, 2010 -- All recessions must not be the same. I was a member of the Santa Monica Planning Commission from 1995 to 1999, the years of the last great downturn in the economy of Southern California. During those years private developers proposed few large projects; the biggest item we reviewed was the rebuilding of St. John's Hospital after the 1994 earthquake.
Contrast that with the situation today, during the "Great Recession", a national recession far more drastic in its impact. But Santa Monica is awash in "big plans" -- about two million square feet of offices and residences for which developers are seeking approval by means of development agreements. (See story.
The local push for approvals extends beyond Santa Monica -- over in West L.A. the developers of the Bundy Village project -- 500,000 square feet of medical offices and retail, 385 apartments, and 3,200 parking spaces -- are also seeking (controversial) approvals.
Bringing up the Bundy Village project gives me an excuse to write about how ignorant Los Angeles City Council Member Bill Rosendahl must be about the history of the Westside.
The Santa Monica City Council and various groups of Santa Monicans have complained that the Bundy development will have big impacts on traffic in Santa Monica. In response, Mr. Rosendahl, the ruler of the 200,000 Angelenos who live on three sides of Santa Monica, was quoted in the L.A. Times as saying that Santa Monicans were hypocrites, because of Santa Monica's development of office and other commercial space. According the Times, Mr. Rosendahl said, "We have gridlock in my district because of the job creation they have done."
This isn't the first time Mr. Rosendahl has blamed Santa Monica for traffic congestion on the Westside, so let's get something straight. When Century City was the Fox backlot, when Westwood was a charming village with a small university growing on its northern edge, when Wilshire, Sepulveda and Olympic Boulevards passed through the bean fields of West Los Angeles, Santa Monica was one of Southern California's major job centers. Douglas Aircraft alone employed tens of thousands, and downtown Santa Monica was the area's commercial and retail hub.
Why do you think Santa Monica has the Big Blue Bus?
When Douglas closed, and Santa Monica went post-industrial, yes, the City allowed developers to turn industrial sites into office parks. As readers of this column know, I believe the City made mistakes -- chiefly because housing wasn't built, too. But the office developments in Santa Monica are only a contributing reason why the Westside became home to the second largest concentration of jobs in Southern California. The big story has been those skyscrapers the City of L.A. approved in Century City and Westwood, and along Wilshire, Sepulveda and Olympic.
Fact is Santa Monica hasn't approved a large office development for 20 years. Yet Santa Monicans I talk to generally agree that it was only about seven or eight years ago that they began to notice that they couldn't drive east of 26th Street after 4:00 p.m.
And excuse me, Mr. Rosendahl, but it wasn't NIMBYs in Santa Monica who blocked the building of the Wilshire subway west of Western or the Expo line through Cheviot Hills two decades ago. At the same time politicians in L.A. were playing the NIMBY card against rail, politicians in Santa Monica were pushing the old Los Angeles Transportation Commission to buy the Exposition right-of-way so that it would remain available for future transit development.
What's my opinion about Bundy Village? Pretty much the same as my opinion about the new developments proposed in Santa Monica: build it, but with less office space and more housing. (To be fair to the project, it's replacing about 250,000 square feet of offices, and so the net increase in commercial space is not as drastic as it seems at first glance.)
What is truly depressing about Bundy Village is how over-parked it will be (3,200 spaces for 500,000 square feet of commercial development and 385 residences is insane), and the unspeakable barbarities that we know the L.A. transportation engineers will unleash on the streets and sidewalks of West L.A. in the pursuit of the fantasy of traffic mitigation.
"Less office/more housing" brings me to the proposed updates to the land use and circulation elements (LUCE) of Santa Monica's general plan. At a special meeting last week, the Planning Commission discussed the draft environmental impact report (EIR) on the LUCE that the City recently released for public comment.
Because the EIR is still in the public comment stage, the commission could only ask questions about it, but still the jobs/housing issue came up. Planning staff and their consultants tried to explain why they supported the building of more office space near the proposed stations of the Expo line, particularly the one at 26th and Olympic (Bergamot Station).
The estimable transportation consultant Jeff Tumlin led the discussion. Mr. Tumlin is the planner who has guided the thinking about how under the LUCE there could be development but no net increase in traffic. Before I discuss how wrong Mr. Tumlin is about jobs and housing, let me say that because of his input the LUCE does a fantastic job explaining how a city can and should deal with traffic effectively.
But that's another column. As for jobs and housing, Mr. Tumlin explained that the reason the planners wanted to put a ceiling on the amount of housing that could be built near the Bergamot station (as I discussed in last week's column - was that studies showed that concentrations of jobs near transit produced more transit users than concentrations of residences, and resulted in more people using the transit. (I am simplifying Mr. Tumlin's analysis somewhat, but I don't believe materially so.)
Having more people use transit is good, but the problem is that the purpose of good urban planning is not to maximize the efficiency of transit. It's the other way around: the purpose of transit is to make possible the density required to make good urban places. Turning the former industrial lands of eastern Santa Monica into a low-rise Century City would not be creating a good urban place.
The City's planners are making the same mistake about development that NIMBYs ("It's the traffic, stupid") typically do, which is to judge development on one parameter -- how it will affect, or how they predict it will affect, traffic congestion. This narrow focus has led to the present situation where we in Southern California have the worst of both worlds -- few good urban places and, simultaneously, bad traffic.
What's more, one light rail line skirting the southern edge of the Westside is not going to give the area sufficient mass transit to function like downtown San Francisco, an example Mr. Tumlin used as a mostly-jobs center that works. If in 15 or 20 years the Purple Line gets past Westwood and heads to Santa Monica, then for the next general plan update Santa Monicans might logically consider authorizing more office space.
But for now, the LUCE should focus on how to make places good in and of themselves. That would mean adding a lot of residential development and very little commercial to a place that is now nearly all commercial. There are already plenty of jobs in Santa Monica to attract riders to Expo. If Expo loses a few rides a day because some nearby residents walk or bike to those jobs, that'll be something we can live with.
Frank J. Gruber is the author of Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, available at Hennessey + Ingalls and Angel City books in Santa Monica, at City Image Press, and on amazon.com.
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