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My Chance to be a NIMBY

By Frank Gruber

Last week I lamented the 1960s urban renewal that destroyed the urban ecology of Ocean Park that had been evolving for almost 100 years west of the trolley tracks that ran down what is now Nielson Way.

Last week, in the course of reviewing minutes of Santa Monica City Council meetings relating to other events I am researching that took place in the 1950s, coincidentally I came across the "Ur" moment for all the "urban redevelopment" that de-urbanized so much of Santa Monica.

On May 2, 1950, Mrs. Emma F. Hanson, "Housing Chairman of the Santa Monica League of Women Voters," appeared before the council and requested on behalf of her organization that the council appoint a Housing Authority as "the first step in meeting the housing problem in Santa Monica." Upon request from the Council, the City's Zoning Administrator described the "duties and responsibilities of a Housing Authority and also an Urban Redevelopment Agency."

The council had a "brief discussion" and instructed the "administrative branch of the city government" to return with "recommendations and plans for public housing or urban redevelopment."

On May 16, the Zoning Administrator returned with recommendations concerning urban redevelopment. The council voted to refer the report to the Planning Commission.

On May 31, after hearing the Planning Commission's recommendations to take steps suggested by the Zoning Administrator, the council adopted a resolution "declaring the need for an urban re-development Agency."

Fourteen years later, the City, through its Redevelopment Agency, destroyed the urban core of Ocean Park.

* * *

I tend to believe that institutions as well as people learn from their mistakes, and that the City of Santa Monica would no longer use the tens of millions of redevelopment dollars flowing through it to bulldoze more than it builds. Instead, the City is on the verge of using redevelopment money to build far more than it needs -- at least in one department -- also to bad effect.

I am referring to the City's plan for building more parking downtown, a plan that is the subject of an Environmental Impact Report currently in circulation. (The EIR comment period ends tomorrow. For more information about the plan, see the Lookout's Oct. 10 article "Major Step for Parking Plan."

(If readers want to go deep on this one, I wrote several columns back in 2001 and 2002 analyzing the plan when the Downtown Parking Task Force developed it, and I've listed the links below.)

The plan has three components. The six parking structures that ring the Promenade, built in the 1960s, need seismic reinforcement, and the first component of the plan is the seismic retrofitting of two big parking structures (numbers 2, with 633 spaces at 1235 2nd Street, and 4, 652 spaces, at 1321 2nd Street).

The second component involves the three smaller structures, each with about 325 spaces. These structures also need seismic work, but to gain more parking, instead of retrofitting them, the City intends to tear down and rebuild them, with up to three levels below ground and nine above (84 feet high), and with retail on the ground floor. The net increase in parking would be 712 spaces.

The third component of the plan is to build two new parking structures, each with about 500 spaces, east of the downtown core, probably on Fifth Street.

There was a lot of thought put into the plans. The City hired the noted urban design firm Moule &Polyzoides as consultants, and they helped craft a plan around the idea of "park once, then walk," to preserve the pedestrian ambiance of downtown.

The consultants also pointed out to city staff and to downtown business interests that the downtown was thriving with a relatively low ratio of parking spaces to development (2.1 spaces per 1,000 square feet), and the plan tied any increase in the number of spaces (by rebuilding the small structures and building the two new structures) to the expected increase in development, so that the 2.1/1,000 square feet ratio would be maintained.

I've previously written that given the seismic situation, the opportunity on the three small structure sites to obtain more parking without converting more scarce real estate to parking, and the opportunity to add ground-floor retail to these sites, the first two components of the plan are reasonable given the current situation. But there is no evidence at present to justify building the two new structures -- nor any evidence they are financially feasible.

Our City Council, when it adopted the plan, recognized this, and required a reassessment of the plan every two years. Unfortunately, the EIR indicates that the City is letting the plan's momentum overrun the timetable and the two-year reassessments.

Since the existing small structures need earthquake retrofitting in any case, and will add 712 spaces, the obvious starting point for the program is to rebuild them. Those new spaces could be used to offset the spaces that will temporarily be lost when structures 2 and 4 are being retrofitted, freeing up the spaces in the new structure now going up behind the courthouse (which will be used for that purpose) so that the new Civic Auditorium park can be built sooner rather than later.

But unfortunately, according to the plan phasing described in the EIR, among the first items to be completed, in 2006, will be a surface parking lot at the future site of one of the new parking structures (a parking lot that would be a blank eyesore for at least six years, maybe forever), and construction on the other new structure would begin in January 2007.

So before new development warrants the new structures, and before anyone has shown that parking revenues can pay for them, the City plans to acquire property for them both and to start building one.

Call me crazy, but this is crazy -- capital-R Redevelopment of the worst "use or lose it" variety.

If I stand for any principles in writing this column they are (a) that worries about traffic are not good reasons for turning down development that is otherwise useful, and (b) that it's no bad thing to have five and six story buildings in a downtown. But I also stand for the opposite -- (a) it's stupid to attract more traffic by building something that is only useful for drivers, i.e., parking, and (b) it says something ugly about our culture that the biggest buildings in our downtown -- 84 feet high with 100% lot coverage -- will be parking structures.

The downtown parking plan: five more of these? (Photo by Frank Gruber)

But of course as politics go, the very people who complain most about traffic are the same people who want more parking. The same goes for the anti "canyonization" crowd. Will the people who oppose all development because of the traffic, the people who opposed the Santa Monica Place redevelopment because of its "massiveness," or the people who think the apartment buildings on Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Streets are too big, protest the new parking structures?

Actually, I'm a little encouraged. Council Member Kevin McKeown, at the recent meeting on the Opportunities and Challenges Report, compared those who say we need more parking to people who a hundred years ago might have said we need more hitching posts, and the EIR at least makes an attempt to show how adding more parking will make traffic worse.

The primary benefit to adding more parking spaces downtown will go to downtown businesses that can compete better against regional rivals, such as the Grove, and local property owners who then can charge higher rents to national chains like the Gap.

Are those compelling reasons to spend our tax-increment redevelopment dollars? Is it a higher purpose than building workforce housing, or transit, or -- heaven forbid -- letting the County and the schools have the money back? Are there alternatives, like building more housing or hotels that add customers but don't add so much to the traffic burden?

We locals can get downtown to shop and see a movie by walking or taking a bus. Meanwhile, the Promenade seems plenty crowded enough with the parking we have.

Here are "What I Say" columns written during development of the parking plan:

"Build It and They Will Come," April 13, 2001

"The Black Hole of Planning," June 8, 2001

"Parking Can't Live With It, Can't Live Without It," August 31, 2001

"Seduced by Parking," June 30, 2003

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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