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Don't Spend it All in One Place

By Frank Gruber

What's most offensive about the money Santa Monica wastes on employing "traffic service officers" to direct traffic downtown is the sense that once again, the City's highest priority is how fast a motorist can get through an intersection.

It's bad enough that the City's environmental policy rates the ecology of the intersection above all other considerations.

I.e., never mind who might live in a development, who might shop there, who might work there, who might eat there; never mind that the development might reduce the overall amount of driving; never mind that people walk and ride bikes, too; never mind if a development might make life more convenient or even fun; because if that development might add cars to an intersection and delay traffic for even a few seconds, then we won't allow it unless we "mitigate" traffic by widening streets, or adding right turn lanes that are hell on pedestrians and cyclists and just encourage more driving anyway.

Okay, Santa Monica sacrifices all other urban values on the altar of the intersection. Nothing new about that. But now the City has a deficit. It can't pay to clean its parks on weekends, it can't pay for keeping the computers on so kids can use them at night at the Police Activities League, and it can't give more money to the schools -- the City's "number one priority!"

But the City can pay for human stoplights, in the (vain) hope that traffic will flow through Fourth and Broadway as if the intersection were a crossroads in Wyoming.

How did this happen?

During construction of the transit mall, downtown business interests panicked. They thought the construction would create traffic congestion that would drive away their customers.

Never mind that business didn't decline, but you know how perceptions are, and you know how the City Council is always willing to show that it is responsive to business concerns when it can do so without offending any of its other constituencies.

So police started directing traffic. After construction was finished -- well, you know how bureaucracies are, and you know how business people who feel entitled to things are, and you know how when money was plentiful the easiest thing for the City Council to do was spend it.

And since regular police officers already had jobs to do, you know how the City authorized hiring sixteen traffic service officers.

Does anyone think traffic officers do any good? In my experience, drivers hesitate when they approach an intersection with an officer standing in the middle of it. They try to figure out what the officer's plan is. Since the officer frequently wants the driver to do something different from what the light is telling the driver to do, the driver stops.

Then the officer blows his whistle, and waves at the driver, and points, and yells, "Go, Go ..." But then there's another driver from the other direction following what the light says and then ....

Like I said, they don't do any good.

Most downtown traffic problems result from drivers entering intersections without having a way out. We've all done it, and we all know what a mess it makes. This is a case where the City could position real cops at intersections and have them ticket intersection blockers -- those bottom-feeders of the motoring world.

But why spend money to cater to the interests of drivers who voluntarily drive to downtown Santa Monica when everyone else is driving to downtown Santa Monica?

It's not like someone who exits the freeway at Fourth Street on a Saturday night has a reasonable expectation of taking a spin in the country, or even making a left turn onto Broadway without waiting out a couple lights.

The very reason all these people come downtown is because there will be lots of other people -- in a sense, they come for the traffic. Yes, they have to spend a few minutes crawling up Fourth to a parking structure, but when they get out of their cars they can stroll around for hours with tens of thousands of other human beings.

Downtown businesses and the City Council will reply that we need the traffic officers to protect the goose that's laying the golden eggs. To keep the customers coming. But there's no indication traffic is keeping customers away.

I remember a few years ago hearing retailers on Wilshire complain that if the City replaced the open air parking lot north of Wilshire with a parking structure and affordable housing, they would lose all their customers, because they wouldn't park in a structure.

At the same time, the Gap, one of the more savvy retailers in America, was opening a multi-level store on the Promenade that entirely relied on off-site, multi-level parking structures.

Recently, the manager of Santa Monica Place, in announcing plans to redesign much of his indoor mall, acknowledged that his tenants had steadily moved out of the mall -- the only retail district in Santa Monica free of homeless people -- to the Promenade.

Then in the next breath he chastised the City for not chasing homeless people from the Promenade!

I humbly suggest that these people who worry so much about downtown don't know what they are worrying about.

The Third Street Promenade. Like all urban spaces, people see in it what they want to see. (Photo by Frank Gruber)

The top retailers in America -- the latest being Circuit City -- want to locate stores in downtown Santa Monica, but instead of accepting the compliment, local business leaders complain about how horrible the place is, and public officials wring their hands over the looming disaster these retailers represent.

There's that famous Italian expression, "dolce far niente" -- "the sweetness of doing nothing." Maybe the City Council should think about that when facing the next "crisis."

Last week the City Council took its first look at the work of the Promenade Uses Task Force. There was nothing wrong with what the Task Force did, and quite a bit to be commended, but one has to wonder why the City convened a new task force, spent a sack of money and burned lots of staff time, before waiting to see how downtown would adapt to the Transit Mall, the product of the City's immediately prior process of envisioning downtown.

Now that restaurants are finally receiving permits to open outdoor dining on the widened sidewalks of the Transit Mall, it's apparent that the fear that downtown would turn into another version of the Mall of America was overblown.

Perhaps if the business community relaxed a bit -- if only to count the money coming in -- and the City Council stopped trying to remake the world to fix the crisis du jour, then when there was a crisis -- a real crisis, like no money to clean the parks or operate Police Activities League computers or pay teachers -- the City might have some resources left to do something about it.
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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