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Target: Panic in the Streets

By Frank Gruber

One of the expressed reasons City staff and the Planning Commission opposed the proposed Target store at Fifth and Santa Monica was that it was not pedestrian friendly.

Yet the city's Environmental Impact Report (EIR) says there will be so many pedestrians if the store is built, that Target, to mitigate the "adverse environmental impact" of these pedestrians, would have to widen the sidewalk.

The argument against Target is that screwy.

Last October, by a 5-2 vote, the Planning Commission denied the permit needed to build a Target. Target and the owners of the site, the old Henshey's property, have appealed to City Council. Council has scheduled a hearing for next Tuesday evening, and made provision to continue the hearing until Thursday if more time is needed for testimony and deliberation.

Planning staff has opposed the Target store from the get-go. On November 17, 1998, six weeks after Target submitted its application for a permit, the Planning Department wrote Target's architect that while the city would require an EIR, the "Environmental Review Committee" had already reviewed the project and had concluded that there would be significant impacts that could not be mitigated, and that it would be unlikely that the Planning Commission and City Council could make the findings necessary for approval.

In other words, "get lost."

Given the popular perception that Santa Monica's downtown had been taken over by upscale and tourist-oriented retail, the Planning Department might have shown more interest in working with one of the best low-cost general merchandisers in the world, which was interested in investing so much in our community by building an innovative downtown store that perfectly fit the zoning for the site.

Staff's opposition to the store was also inconsistent with other plans and policies the city has for downtown.

For instance, in its original report to the Planning Commission, staff opposed Target because it would draw shoppers outside the "downtown core," which staff said was limited legally to the Promenade area. Later, when it was pointed out that the "downtown core" as defined in the Land Use Element includes the Target site, staff dropped this argument.

But why did staff oppose a project that would bring shoppers to Fifth Street, when the purpose of the city's plan to widen sidewalks on Santa Monica Boulevard was to expand the "core," reduce pedestrian congestion on the Promenade and enliven Fourth and Fifth Streets?

It all boils down to the panic over traffic, which SUV culture has made the be all and end all of public policy.

The opponents of Target say it will result in "gridlock."

Nonsense. As Planning Commissioner Darrell Clarke calculated using the city's numbers, at peak periods Target will result in about one additional car per minute at the intersections the EIR says will suffer "significant impacts." One more car a minute will not be noticeable, let alone create gridlock.

But, but, but, but, but -- what about the twelve intersections that will have "significant impacts," including the seven that will have "significant unavoidable traffic impacts?"

Don't panic.

These intersections are only backed-up, to the extent they are backed-up, at peak periods. Most of the time traffic flows fine.

If because so many people want to see movies on Saturday nights it takes them a minute or two longer to get through an intersection, is that justification for denying everyone else access to affordable shopping seven days a week?

If land-use planning is held hostage to peak-period traffic, then the result is Woodland Hills. And guess what -- traffic is bad there, too.

The other reason there is panic about these intersections is that the city has a rule, a well-intentioned rule, that if an intersection is already at the two worst levels of service, then even the slightest additional traffic is considered "significant" and must be "mitigated" or the city has to find "overriding considerations." No other city has such a strict rule.

The rule does not make sense downtown. By definition, a successful downtown will be crowded -- with people and cars.

What the rule has done is to require developers of even the most benign projects (the YMCA, for instance) to pay for dedicated left-turn signals that cause more damage to the pedestrian environment -- they make it harder to cross the street -- than the benefit they give motorists. The EIR calls for six of these "protected phases" in the downtown to mitigate Target's impacts on traffic -- with no regard to the interests of pedestrians.

City councils do not like to find "overriding considerations" because it opens them to attack for being soft on traffic by "ignoring" the "findings" of an EIR. But the law intends EIRs to be tools for decision-makers -- not decisions in and of themselves.

Furthermore, the obsession with "significant impacts" on intersections ignores the city's General Plan. The very first substantive policy of the General Plan's Circulation Element is "to encourage overall land use patterns which reduce vehicle miles traveled and number of trips." (Policy 4.1.2.)

Yet the EIR contains no analysis of what impact a Target store downtown will have on the aggregate or per capita amount of driving.

Concentrating activities in a downtown is a good way of reducing driving, not just because more people will use transit, but mostly because motorists can make their car trips more efficient.

According to a recent survey, two-thirds of Santa Monicans already come downtown at least once a week, and another 25% at least once a month. These people don't need to make new trips to shop at Target -- they are already there.

More than $100 million of discount retail leaves Santa Monica each year, far more than Target's expected sales volume. Target will not create traffic, merely redirect it, and for shorter distances.

Just as the movie theaters on the Promenade save Santa Monicans from having to drive to Westwood or Marina del Rey to see a movie, and the new Ralph's Market saves Pico Neighborhood residents from having to drive all over the city for groceries, a Target downtown will save Santa Monicans from having to schlep to Costco or Target in Culver City or to West L.A. This will reduce traffic on our boulevards and north-south streets.

My parents arrive for a visit Tuesday, but I have already told them that they will have to be content to be entertained that night by their grandson and daughter-in-law. (They were not much perturbed.) Their son will get to City Hall early, to grab a good seat for the best show in town.
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