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Would the Real Santa Monica Please Stand Up?

By Frank Gruber

"Though only five miles or so from the heart of Los Angeles, Santa Monica feels a world away from the urban sprawl, the clogged freeways and the downtown traffic jams that make a visit to this part of Southern California often seem so maddening." -- From "36 Hours in Santa Monica, Calif.," The New York Times, June 14, 2002

I'm going out on a limb here, but I suspect the Times reporter forgot to interview Planning Commission Chairman Kelly Olsen for the recent travel piece on Santa Monica.

The article said nothing about the horrific traffic, the sea of alcohol we swim in, or our living hell of code and CUP violations.

Of course, the New York Times 36-hour version of Santa Monica, which consisted, in part, of drinks at Casa del Mar and dinner at Michael's, an early morning walk on the Pier, the Farmer's Market downtown on a Saturday morning, shopping, more good meals at Ocean Avenue Seafood and Rockenwagners, the Novel Cafe, skating lessons (in Venice), and the California Heritage Museum, is not anyone's everyday version of our town.

But then, what is the true Santa Monica?

The mansions on Mesa or Georgina, or the myriad dingbat apartments lining the cross streets of the city's mid-section?

The city of convenience, where nearly anything one might want is within a ten minute drive or a 15 minute bus ride, or the city of morning commuters clogging 26th Street, or the line of cars heading south on 23rd Street at five p.m.?

The city of "massive overdevelopment," or the city of sagging bungalows and crumbling stucco?

The cutting edge, hip, sustainable, progressive city of the arts, or the epitome of Southern California provincialism?

Rich city, or poor city?


"A neighborhood traffic impact is significant if the Base Average Daily Traffic Volume (ADT) is greater than 2,250 and there is a net increase of one trip or more in ADT due to project-related traffic." --From the Environmental Impact Report for a 10-Unit Condominium Project at 834 838 16th Street.

I hope the City's consultants and planning staff analyzing whether the proposed reduction in the threshold for discretionary review in the downtown district causes a constraint on building new housing consider the effect of the City's unique environmental standards relating to traffic.

Santa Monica's criteria for analyzing the impact of new traffic provide that if just one more car is added either to a particularly busy intersection or to a street that already has more than a certain amount of traffic, then the impact of this one car must be considered "significant" under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). A city cannot approve a project that creates a legally significant impact unless the impact can be mitigated, or unless the city finds "overriding considerations" to justify approving the project.

While the City's standard is effective at thwarting development, its illogic when it comes to the environment is obvious. By using this kind of reasoning, lots of traffic added to a rural road that is not congested would not be a significant impact on the environment, but adding one more car on what might be a typical city street is.

One can see how this requirement constrains development of housing by taking a look at the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for a small project (ten two-bedroom condominiums on two lots at 834-838 Sixteenth Street, between Montana and Idaho) that has been bouncing through the planning process for several years.

To start with, one might ask why anyone in his or her right mind would think that ten two bedroom apartments, in a city with about 40,000 units of housing, could have any significant environmental impacts and need an EIR.

The answer is that no such person could, and, in fact, section 15332 of California's CEQA guidelines exempts from environmental review "in-fill development projects" that, among other requirements, occur within city limits on no more than five acres substantially surrounded by urban uses.

Among those other requirements, however, is that the project not significantly affect traffic, and that's where Santa Monica's unique way of evaluating traffic impacts becomes a constraint, and nullifies section 15332, because whether an in-fill project affects traffic is not determined according to a statewide standard, but according to local standards.

Keep in mind that Sacramento promulgated section 15332 to encourage urban in-fill projects precisely because these projects are good for the environment. On the whole, in-fill reduces traffic, by reducing per capita vehicle miles travelled.

Consider the Sixteenth Street project. Because Idaho Avenue is a neighborhood street, and because it already carries more than the city's threshold of 2,250 cars per day, the project's predicted daily addition of a mere eight cars to the street counts as a significant impact. Because there is no feasible way to mitigate this impact (or, for that matter, to perceive it), approval of the project will require City Council to adopt a statement of overriding considerations.

One needs only to recall the calumnies hysterical no-growthers laid on City Council when it approved the Boulangerie site project to understand the political constraints the need to adopt a statement of overriding considerations creates.

Not only that, but because the section 15332 exemption was unavailable to the Sixteenth Street project, the City required a complete Environmental Impact Report (about one inch thick, printed on two sides) to be prepared at the developer's considerable expense in time and money.

The proponents of the reduced downtown threshold -- Ken Genser and Kevin McKeown -- say that they are not against building more densely downtown, which has been the City's policy for years. They say they want not less development, but better development, and they profess that more discretionary review will make projects better without significantly adding to costs -- i.e., without creating constraints.

If they are serious about encouraging development downtown, but they want the additional review, then Council should amend the City's traffic standards so that in-fill projects can fit within the section 15332 exemption. Alternatively, since all these downtown projects (and, for that matter, all new housing in the city) fall within the parameters of the Housing Element of the General Plan, the City could allow all new housing to fall within a "global" environmental review the City could conduct on the Housing Element.

My guess is that if developers knew they didn't have to run the environmental gauntlet for projects that properly should be exempt under section 15332, and thus had a reasonable expectation that after public review their projects -- improved or not -- would be approved, then they might accept the risks of the public process.

Otherwise, no one will propose to build much downtown, just as no one except the City itself is proposing to build much of anything anywhere else in the city.

In the 20th century, disinvestment in urban areas and capital flight to sprawling suburbs defined the American social agenda.

It's a new century.

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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