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Can't See the Retail for the Planter Boxes

By Frank Gruber

A number of commentators ranging from Arianna Huffington to Robert Redford have written recently about how bad mileage in general and SUV's in particular are causing us to use so much oil that we have to have an oil-based foreign policy.

Bravo, but if we double mileage we will still be falling behind on energy consumption if we don't do something about sprawl. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, between 1960 and 2000 annual vehicle miles travelled quadrupled in the U.S. During the same time, population increased only 50 percent.

Between 1970 and 2000, average mileage increased from 12 miles per gallon to 16.9, but consumption of highway fuels increased 76 percent, from 92.3 billions of gallons to 162.3.

It's true that the economy has grown in these years, but the increase in driving is largely related to heavily-subsidized government-facilitated sprawl.

* * *

I hate traffic, in all its permutations.

I hate being late, and I hate giving myself more time to get there.

I hate the anxiety one has sitting on the freeway, wondering if Olympic would have been better, or sitting on Olympic wondering if the freeway would have been better.

If I lived on Fourth Street, or 11th, or 28th, etc., I'd hate the rush hour parade of cars past my door.

I hate the drivers who block intersections and I hate the drivers who honk at the drivers who block intersections. I really hate it when I block an intersection.

I hate standing at a big intersection, waiting for the "walk sign" so I can cross a major boulevard, meanwhile feeling persecuted by the cars whipping past and making quick turns, the drivers -- often on cell phones -- barely looking my way as I take that first cautious step off the sidewalk.

I hate drivers who run yellow lights, or cruise through reds to make right turns.

So if I hate traffic so much, why do I usually support development in Santa Monica?

Because I don't like to bang my head against the wall. If something doesn't work, let's not keep trying it. Ever since traffic became an issue, say 80 years ago, the solutions have been to disperse development and build more roads.

So I hate traffic, but as CalTrans is floating proposals to double deck freeways, as the realtor flags are flying from San Diego to Santa Paula to Santa Barbara and beyond, it makes sense to try something new.

Something old, actually. Cities. Higher densities so that people don't have to drive so much to do what they want or need to do.

Progress is being made. It's a two steps forward, one step back thing, but it's happening. Pasadena, according to a recent article in the L.A. Times, has about 2,000 housing units in the works for its downtown. Santa Monica has nearly 1,000. Coincidentally, Ahmanson Ranch proposes about 3,000.

Recently, in the two steps forward department, the City of L.A. relaxed the zoning along major boulevards to facilitate development of housing in commercial corridors.

In the one step backward department, Santa Monica has, in the past few years, expanded discretionary review over ever smaller developments, even for housing in commercial districts.

If every regional center in the built up parts of Southern California, including those big shopping centers that stand astride so many crossroads, near so many off-ramps, added 2,000 units, if developers could mix in housing with their mini-malls, maybe there wouldn't be such a market for Ahmanson Ranch, or for Newhall Ranch, and overall, there would be less traffic.

Of course, all this would take investment. But if we -- meaning the economy as a whole -- spend money on transit systems, instead of freeways, on urban parks and recreation centers instead of new water and sewer systems for exurbia, on building and rebuilding city schools instead of building new suburban ones, we will find that we have the money we need.

The investments will pay themselves back in efficiency -- in the fewer miles driven, in the less gasoline used, in the fewer hours lost in traffic, in the fewer lives lost in traffic accidents, in fewer horns that are honked.

* * *

Santa Monica applauds itself for trying to be "sustainable," but like one of those knock-off Saul Steinberg posters, the view becomes rather foreshortened past Centinela. Santa Monicans Fearful of Change (SMFC's) perversely use environmental arguments to stymie truly sustainable development in our downtown and along our transit corridors.

For instance, the proposed apartment building at Broadway and Fifth has been kicked around by the Architectural Review Board and the Planning Commission at about six public hearings. Now the Planning Commission is focusing on issues like the size of planter boxes.

A strange argument recently made in opposition to this development in particular and development in downtown Santa Monica in general is that downtown doesn't have the little shops -- the dry cleaners and groceries and such -- that would enable downtown residents not to use their cars.

This argument, of course, is reality-challenged, as there is a Vons Market, with a pharmacy, right there on Broadway, between Seventh and Lincoln, and two department stores, several banks, and many, many shops, including barbers and beauty shops and shoe repair shops, not just on the Promenade, but along Broadway, and Fourth Street, and Santa Monica and Wilshire Boulevards. There isn't a more convenient place in all of Southern California to build housing.

But even more to the point, shouldn't we expect more dry cleaners and such to set up shop when there are more customers?

Contrary to the cries of SMFC's, no one is turning Santa Monica (population density 10,000 per square mile) into Manhattan (65,000 per square mile). There is no "canyonization." Instead, developers are building a mostly four and five story downtown neighborhood, like those in European cities that Santa Monicans on vacation write postcards home about.

Supply the residents, and the retail will come. That is, if the Architectural Review Board and Planning Commission stop requiring landscaping that blocks the view of shop windows!

Apartments, ground floor retail, and street trees are most of what a downtown needs to become a neighborhood. But maybe that formula is too simple for Santa Monica, where the motto should be, "If it ain't broke, let's hit it with a baseball bat."

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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