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Madison Site, etc.

By Frank Gruber

The opposition to Santa Monica College's proposed Madison Site Theater has mostly evaporated. The opposition from a few neighbors fearful of noise, traffic and parking problems and a few politicians with long histories of animus against the college never got much traction in the city as a whole.

It was hard to take seriously claims that a small theater -- 535 seats -- presenting classical music, located on a major boulevard on a site with ample parking would create gridlock.

Although apparently the College has received no major challenges to its Environmental Impact Report, the EIR is worth looking at as an example of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) gone crazy. It's a great example of how one can gather all the facts -- or putative facts -- in the world, but without critical thinking, the effort is valueless.

CEQA required the College to undertake environmental review even though the idea that a 535-seat theater built in the middle of a city could ever have a noticeable environmental impact is ridiculous. Because the environmental study must deal with this inherent absurdity, it necessarily is self-referential and divorced from reality, i.e., the purpose of the study is to study something to give the appearance that it needs studying.

An example. The Madison EIR found that the theater would have "significant impacts" on five intersections, because, under the City's environmental standards (which exist to identify environmental impacts where they do not exist), even adding one car to an intersection that is already operating at -- or projected to operate at -- a poor level of service (LOS "E" or "F") is "significant."

I have previously written about the absurdity of this one additional car standard, but let's look at the other end of the equation -- what can give an intersection a low LOS?

The Madison EIR's five "significantly impacted" intersections are Ninth and Santa Monica, Tenth and Wilshire, Tenth and Santa Monica, Twelfth and Santa Monica, and Euclid and Santa Monica.

You may have noticed that these intersections are all similar. They are all stop-sign intersections where traffic on small streets must wait to enter big boulevards -- Wilshire or Santa Monica. Even though anyone approaching Wilshire or Santa Monica would naturally expect to have to wait -- especially to make a left turn -- because of this wait, these intersections are LOS "E" or "F."

Because the EIR predicts the theater will add a few cars to Wilshire and Santa Monica, it predicts an increase in the amount of the delay to turn onto the boulevards -- even though drivers might instead choose to use Eleventh Street and take advantage of the light.

The environmental review industry has created a monster, perverting a law that was enacted to preserve the environment into a law that promotes an ideal "environment" in which no one driving a car should ever have to wait at an intersection -- even a driver on Tenth Street trying to make a left onto Wilshire.

Is that how we should design cities?

Nowhere does the EIR study the true likely effect on traffic of building a local venue dedicated to classical music. Likely as not, the theater will reduce aggregate traffic because all the Santa Monicans and other Westsiders who enjoy classical music will not have to drive so far -- to UCLA or downtown L.A. -- every time they want to hear it.

During the planning process for the theater, City Council members opposed to the project and even City staff huffed and puffed a lot about how the College might not follow the City's exalted standards for environmental review.

In the end, however, the City's comments to the EIR were minor. Mostly they concerned the City's idea that the College should cooperate with the City and build a hugely expensive underground parking garage on the site.

City planning staff still doesn't get it when it comes to parking. In their EIR comment letter they urged the College to include parking in every ticket sold for concerts at Madison, to reduce parking on nearby streets, which are already part of a preferential parking zone. Staff is still operating under the crazy assumption that when a commodity is scarce -- such as parking -- the best way to assure a supply is to give it away.

Just the opposite is true. Public parking is scarce around Madison, particularly because of the preferential parking zone. If parking on site costs money, then more people will walk or take public transportation.

If parking is free, then there is no incentive for entrepreneurs to build private parking garages, as exist in all cities that have not given away the store to the automobile.

* * *

The City's middle section along the east-west boulevards undoubtedly has parking problems.

The history is that initially businesses generated parking demands that inconvenienced residents living in older buildings without parking. In response, the City has saturated the area with preferential parking zones, which has now inconvenienced employees and customers of the businesses.

I have a solution. Limit all preferential parking zones to one side of the street. Reserve the "preferential side" for residents or local employees who buy permits, but charge a fee for the permit that reflects the reasonable value of preferred access to street parking -- say, at least $40 a month, about half of what the City charges for access to the downtown parking garages.

Residents and employees who don't want to pay the fee can take their chances on the "non preferential" side of the street, which they will share with customers.

* * *

For those readers wondering what has happened to the mini-markets of Ocean Park as they make their odyssey through the Santa Monica planning system, I can report some progress since I last wrote on the subject three weeks ago. (“WHAT I SAY: Market Value,” April 14)

The Planning Commission at its April 23 meeting approved new conditional use permits for the "Mini-Mart" at Marine and Seventh and the "Fair Market" at 2331 Fourth Street.

These CUPs, along with the CUP approved April 2 for the "Budget Market" at Fourth and Hollister, now go to City Council, which has to approve an underlying amendment to the zoning law to make the CUPs possible.

As they did April 2, more than a score of nearby neighbors of the Fair Market stayed up late to testify eloquently about how important the market was to them, and, in particular, how much they valued the two features that are problematic under current zoning: the store's early morning and late night hours and its wide selection of wine.

Currently, the Fair Market can operate only eleven and a half hours a day, no earlier that 8:00 a.m., nor later than 9:00 p.m., and only 20 percent of its shelf space can display beer or wine.

The Commission moved the process forward, but the meeting was even more fractious than the last one.

Heedless of the talking to he got from Commissioner Arlene Hopkins after the April 2 meeting, Commissioner Kelly Olsen was all over the place, wandering about the dais, whispering into staff members' ears "ex parte" nothings, raising his voice to decry the "rudeness" of members of the public, and accusing some of his fellow commissioners of "wrapping themselves in the flag" because they expressed sympathy for what the neighbors want.

I suspect what agitated Olsen was the plain ridicule and contempt that the residents had for him, Julie Lopez Dad, and Geraldine Moyle. These three commissioners had less heartfelt sympathy for the residents than they had irrational fear that if the market could legally stay open from seven to eleven, a 7-Eleven would buy up the dinky store and bring chain retailing to Fourth and Pacific.

It must have hurt that none of the residents who spoke seemed to be aware that for years Olsen, almost single-handed, has been trying to protect them from car dealers that parked too many cars on their premises, car repair shops that provided on-site access to rental cars, and restaurants that earned more than 20 percent of their receipts from alcohol sales and/or cluttered sidewalks with tables and chairs.

To be fair, existing zoning prevented the Planning Commission from taking any meaningful action. Times, and Ocean Park, have changed, and City Council needs to review comprehensively the underlying zoning for neighborhood markets, at least in the "OP" districts.

When most of the current zoning and policies were enacted, Main Street was still, or had been recently, "skid row," Fourth Street had four lanes of traffic, and there were abandoned houses on nearly every block of Ocean Park. The needs of the neighborhood were different.

Apparently the owners of the three markets will be applying to the City Council for zoning law amendments that will solve their and their neighbors' problems. If they don't, let's hope that planning staff and the City Council will take action on their own.

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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