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Last Stretch of Road Key to Civic Center Plan

By Jorge Casuso

April 22 -- The City Council debate over the Civic Center plan Tuesday night could likely come to the end of the road. Literally.

Whether to extend Olympic Boulevard to Ocean Avenue or cut it short at Main Street is expected to be a key issue during the deliberations and could impact other aspects of the an ambitious plan to reshape the area around City Hall.

Staff, which weighed in against the key alternatives it was asked to explore - including building two playing fields and more housing, as well as underground parking and roadways --, is recommending that Olympic be extended to Ocean. The report contends that extending the road -- which currently ends at 4th Street -- would provide a way in and out of the area for residents and enhance pedestrian activity.

"Olympic Drive provides and opportunity to reintegrate the Civic Center into the rest of Santa Monica," the 34-page report concluded. "Eliminating Olympic Drive will not significantly increase the land available for open space.

"One of the important elements of creating a livable, walkable community is creating streets that are integrated into the community's circulation grid," the report said. "Extending Olympic Drive to Ocean Avenue will reinforce this principle within the Civic Center."

Councilman Ken Genser agrees. "I thought it always made sense to go to Ocean," said Genser. When you have huge superblocks, it makes it a tremendously unfriendly environment for pedestrians.

"Streets democratize space," Genser said. "They give everyone access. We shouldn't fear streets. We should tame streets."

Mayor Michael Feinstein, who backs many of the alternatives explored by staff after the council approved the plan in concept in February, said he would push to end Olympic at Main Street. Feinstein fears that the extension will become a "thoroughfare" from Ocean Avenue to the freeway entrance at Fourth Street.

The mayor -- who made his political mark a decade ago fighting RAND's plan for the area -- said he doesn't buy staff's argument that most drivers would likely continue to use Pico Boulevard or Colorado Avenue to reach the freeway entrance.

"Most of the streets Downtown are slow moving, and it hasn't prevented people from using them," said Feinstein. Extending Olympic to Ocean, he said, "just spreads cars over more roads. People will be circulating around the area looking for parking."

Under a plan the mayor is expected to push Tuesday night, Olympic would lead to underground parking in front of City Hall. Feinstein argues that this would encourage motorists to park once and walk to Downtown, Palisades Park and the Pier, a practice the City is encouraging.

But Genser said centralizing parking at the Civic Center is not a good idea. "The idea of centralizing parking also makes for a traffic problem," said Genser, who noted that there already is plenty of beach parking and an ambitious plan to add more parking Downtown.

Feinstein contends that staff should have more thoroughly explored the alternatives to the plan -- which was hatched by a working group with advice from Roma Design and staff and input from the community.

"Staff has reargued the arguments they have already made, only with more depth," Feinstein said. "I believe there were alternatives that were not sufficiently analyzed."

But Councilman Richard Bloom believes that many of the alternatives are either unfeasible or far too expensive, particularly a plan backed by Feinstein that calls for underground roads.

"I think staff's response is something to be expected and obvious," Bloom said.

The staff report finds practical and economic drawbacks to each of the proposals.

Adding two sport fields would require either tearing down the Civic Center (which has been designated a landmark) or eliminating a proposed performing arts facility, staff said. If built, the fields also would require tall fences for safety and security that would block off Ocean Park from the Civic Center.

"Staff recommends against the inclusion of two dedicated playfields," according to the report. "One dedicated playfield could be accommodated, however, this will impact the quality of the cultural amenities and the configuration of the early childhood facility and may be strongly opposed by the county."

The staff report, however, does not address strong concerns recently expressed by courthouse officials who contend that the playfields, which would face jury rooms and judges chambers, could be disruptive.

"I think we're going to have to have some discussion with the county," Bloom, who is an attorney, said, adding that "there's a question in my mind if it's worth just to do one" playfield.

Genser said he is committed to more playfields, but isn't convinced the Civic Center is the right permanent spot.

"I think we have to find a way to do one, the need is so great in the community," he said. "But I think an 18-foot fence is going to drastically change the Civic Center. The good thing is that (a playfield) will bring people to the Civic Center."

As for including underground streets, staff opposed the idea, both for philosophical and practical reasons.

"Placing streets underground may appear appealing as an opportunity to provide larger pedestrian spaces without interference from asphalt and automobile traffic," the staff report said. "However, as previously mentioned, integrated streets play an important role in livable, pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods by providing access for pedestrians, bicycles, autos and transit.

"Underground streets create significant physical challenges," staff reported. "Placing Main Street underground south of Olympic Drive cannot be accomplished due to two large storm drains that run under the street."

Placing parking underground also is problematic -- and " extremely expensive." Trees would have to be avoided (not a good idea when open space is proposed above ground) and necessary ramps, ventilation shafts and stair well and elevator enclosures also would disrupt the open space.

"While all underground parking is expensive," the report concludes, "parking without structure above is particularly expensive as all structural and construction efficiencies are lost, and special waterproofing of the slab is required. As a result, the cost of building parking under open space can be as much as twice the cost of parking under structure."

Finally, adding to the 300 proposed affordable housing units likely would require either building expensive highrises (concrete and steel construction is more costly that wood-frame construction) or reducing the size of the units (which would not address the housing shortage for large families.

Another option would be to build additional units north of the proposed Olympic expansion, an alternative Feinstein backs if Olympic is cut short. By eliminating the last leg of the drive, a pathway, instead of a street, could divide the housing units slated to go south of Olympic from more units that could be built north of the proposed extension, he said.

But staff warns that such a plan would eat into the available open space and likely eliminate plans for "a botanical garden, arboretum, sculpture garden or other unique community resource," staff concluded.

Building affordable live-work spaces to stem the exodus of artists, who are rapidly being displaced from the City by rising rents, also could be difficult, if not illegal, staff said.

"The City Attorney has advised that state fair housing laws may prohibit the restriction of subsidized housing units to any groups of individuals, such as artists, that are not specifically protected under the law," according to the report.

"The units could be designed so that they are most appropriate for and largely appeal to artists who live and create in the same space. However, designing for artists would not ensure occupancy by artists, particularly given the desirability of the location."

Whatever the council decides Tuesday night, the plan it approves will require delicately balancing needs for housing and open space and will have a lasting impact.

"The whole plan is a series of compromises and balances," Genser said.

"This is a massive project that will last for generations," said Feinstein.
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