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Speaking of This, Speaking of That

By Frank Gruber

The weather cleared. Friends from Silver Lake dropped by Sunday for brunch and afterwards we all took a walk to the beach, the first expedition there this year that required sun block. After some sand castle digging and wave jumping by the kids, we walked to the Pier.

The day was glorious and perfect for a ride on the Ferris Wheel. The air was clear, sails crowded the horizon, and views in all directions were inspiring. I derive much pleasure gazing on the Ferris Wheel from afar, especially at night when it explodes with color. I am happy to give Pacific Park a few bucks from time to time to pay for it.

Some months ago, at one of the hearings of the Civic Center Working Group, City Council Member Richard Bloom said something that has stuck with me. He said that if we build a city to serve the needs of local people, it will at the same time serve the needs of visitors -- that visitors are attracted to cities that treat their residents well.

Sometimes the equation works the other way, too. For instance, a ferris wheel in an amusement park on a "pleasure pier" is a quintessential visitor oriented use. But isn't it great to have one of our own to ride whenever we want? Isn't it great to drive home at night from a trip up the coast, to see in the distance first the glimmer, then the glow, and finally the whole thing turning like a combination lighthouse and prayer wheel?

Speaking of beacons in the night, U-Haul has persuaded the city that requiring removal of its sign at the intersection of Lincoln and the freeway pursuant the City's sign ordinance would violate U Haul's rights. Last week the City settled U-Haul's lawsuit and the sign will stay. The city will also pay U-Haul's legal fees of $22,500.

When I read about this settlement I wondered if it would signal open season on the sign ordinance. However, City Attorney Marsha Moutrie is confident that the circumstances surrounding the U-Haul sign are unique, because as a sign along a freeway it is otherwise regulated and thereby exempted from Santa Monica's ordinance. I hope she is right.

Next Thursday the MTA Board, which now has as a member a real transit user, Santa Monica's own Pam O'Connor, will take the next step in determining the future of transportation on the Westside. The board will vote on how to proceed with plans for improving bus service on Wilshire Boulevard, and whether to build a light rail line or dedicated busway along the Exposition corridor.

If the board follows the staff report, it will take incremental rather than drastic action. However, in this case, discretion may be the better part of valor, because for various reasons the bold steps the MTA needs to take in the long term are not feasible now.

Under the MTA board's prior direction the building of a dedicated busway down Wilshire was to have priority over an Exposition corridor project.

Public comment, however, favored Exposition light-rail and there was considerable resistance to the Wilshire busway. The Santa Monica City Council, for instance, voted last week to oppose any busway that would displace parking or lanes of traffic on Wilshire, in effect opposing any dedicated bus lane. The City of Los Angeles is concerned that a busway would interfere with cars making left turns.

The board may now be ready to uncouple the Exposition project from the Wilshire project. This will be good for both. The MTA can test the busway, which in this country is a more or less untried technology and something difficult to add to a busy boulevard like Wilshire, in stages, and development of Expo light rail can proceed on its own terms with separate environmental review.

But don't expect to board a tram in Santa Monica any time soon. The MTA staff is recommending at this time to design the line only as far as the Robertson/Venice intersection. The fact is they don't have the money to build more than that, and may not have even that until 2008.

The need for big transit solutions has become ever more apparent, because the futility of improving the road system has never been more obvious. CalTrans is now preparing to spend $50 million to add bits of new lanes to the intersection of the Ventura and San Diego Freeways. The intersection was built in 1956 to handle 200,000 cars a day: it now handles 551,000. You could double-deck the whole thing and it still wouldn't handle today's load.

CalTrans will spend the money even though it admits that the $50 million will not buy any reduction in travel times.

We need to channel the growth in transportation demand into transit, and the only way to do that is with capital intensive projects that can move a lot of people. The long-term silver lining in the MTA's inability at present to devise workable busway on Wilshire Boulevard is that planners and the public will have to take another look at extending the Red Line subway from Wilshire and Western to points west.

Mass transit is expensive, but so are roads. According to an article this week in the L.A. Times, the Southern California Association of Governments has recently completed a proposal for the first phase of a system of truck-only highways: four truck lanes (two in each direction) on a 37 mile stretch of the Pomona Freeway that would cost $4 billion.

The money might be there for transit if we stopped wasting $50 million a pop on highway non fixes.

Speaking of capital projects, intensive or otherwise, Santa Monica's transit mall is taking shape. The new wider sidewalk is now in place on a few blocks on the south side of Santa Monica Boulevard, and in a few weeks the other side of the street will be completed, along with the intersection of Santa Monica and the Promenade.

Unfortunately, the Architectural Review Board recently voted torecommend privatizing part of the sidewalk. One reason for widening the sidewalks is to allow restaurants to provide outdoor dining as a way of enlivening the street and improving the pedestrian ambiance, but the ARB has voted (contrary to staff's recommendation) to allow restaurants to wall off parts of the sidewalk with permanent structures, weather guards and umbrellas.

The ARB's recommendation will now be considered by the Planning Commission and ultimately the City Council, but if they follow the ARB, the city will repeat the mistake it made on Ocean Avenue, where "outdoor" dining has become enclosed dining, and the public gets no "ambiance" benefit.

A better model is the Promenade, where outdoor dining is open and there is a connection between the people watchers at the tables and the people watchers passing by. Given that the restaurants will be using a large portion of the new sidewalks, it is important that this space not be privatized.

Upcoming meetings:

Downtown Parking Task Force, Wednesday, June 27, 6:30 - 9:00, Ken Edwards Center. Preceded at 5:00 p.m. by an Open House at the new parking structure #9, 1136 Fourth Street (1/2 block north of Wilshire).

Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board, Thursday, June 28, 9:30 a.m., at the MTA's Gateway Center.

Civic Center Working Group: Community Planning Day. The day all Civic Center watchers have been waiting for. Sunday, July 1. 11:30 a.m. -- Open House, Auditorium Tours and Barbecue Lunch. 1:00 p.m. -- Presentation and Interactive Visioning Workshop. At the Civic Auditorium.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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