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Transit and Good Urban Design, Unite!

By Frank Gruber

As various Santa Monica City Council members remarked at the meeting last week about the Expo light rail line, the meeting was remarkable in the context of Santa Monica politics for how much consensus there was on the main point of the discussion, the route the line should take in Santa Monica.

In fact it was unanimity: everyone who spoke at the meeting agreed that the line should run down Colorado Avenue, rather than down the median of Olympic and then over Lincoln.

Let's hope that the Expo Construction Authority and the Metro board see it the same way; as Council member Bobby Shriver took pains to remind everyone, it's they who will make the decision.

This uncharacteristic community harmony doesn't mean that it's all over until the ribbon-cutting for Santa Monicans.  There are still issues.  Chief among them is what to do about the maintenance facility the Expo authority has proposed to build on the Verizon property that lies just east of Stewart, between the railroad right of way and Exposition Boulevard.

No one last Tuesday liked this idea.  Council member Shriver said he was "shocked" to see a maintenance yard planned so near residences (people live across Exposition Boulevard in the neighborhood north of the freeway), and both Council member Kevin McKeown and Mayor Ken Genser pointed to a property in Los Angeles, just east and partly under the 405 freeway now the site of a concrete plant, that they thought would be a better possibility because it was not adjacent to any residences.

Longtime community activist Michael Tarbet described the proposed maintenance yard and the noise that would emanate from it as an environmental crime against the Latino families who live in the apartments along the south side of Expo.

Apartments on Exposition Boulevard, across from the Verizon property (Photos by Frank Gruber)

No doubt the City's staff will take this up with the authority and find out why the authority chose the Verizon site rather than, for instance, the concrete-plant site, but the City should not bank on changing the authority's collective mind.  After the meeting Tuesday evening, I spoke to a knowledgeable person at the authority, who told me that the authority had looked into the concrete-plant property and that it wasn't available because plans had already been approved to develop it. 

This of course raises questions worth investigating.  Perhaps the financing has fallen through for the development and the site could be looked at again.  Or the authority could use eminent domain, but government entities are reluctant to do that, and the City of Los Angeles would look closely at a deal that would allow Santa Monica to develop the Verizon site, but remove the concrete-plant site from L.A.'s tax rolls. 

In contrast, Verizon would apparently be a willing seller, since there are for sale signs on the property.

For sale sign in front of Verizon property

Los Angeles might also wonder why the authority isn't using for the facility the properties west of Stewart Street that Santa Monica bought years ago with transportation money, properties that are not adjacent to neighborhoods.

Given all this, while Santa Monica should push the authority to take another look at alternative sites, it would be prudent for Santa Monica also to consider what to do if the authority sticks with the Verizon site.

And in that case, I don't believe the Verizon site should necessarily be a disaster for the City or the nearby neighborhood; not at least if the City engages in some proactive planning and negotiating with the authority.

The point is to look at the maintenance yard not as a foregone negative, but as a potential positive.

To begin with, the facility will provide numbers of something that Santa Monica always had, but which have been in serious decline for years: good, secure, blue collar union jobs.  It's one thing to worry about noise infringing on a working class neighborhood; it's another thing to worry about the loss of working-class jobs.  I would like to see us maximize the latter while reducing the former.

Jobs like those at the maintenance yard might better preserve the working class housing in the neighborhood than a new upscale, mixed-use neighborhood on the site, which would raise the cost of nearby housing.

But then how can a maintenance yard be a good neighbor?  The main difficulty with the yard will be noise.  According to the environmental impact report for the project, noise from the yard would exceed permitted thresholds at 21 residences, at eight of them severely, but that a sound wall and other noise-reduction measures would mitigate these impacts to a level below significance.

But then what about the sound wall?  Isn't that going to be ugly?  Although it's unlikely the sound wall could be any more foreboding that the current frontage of the Verizon facility, this is where the City and the authority -- and also Santa Monica College, which owns the large parcel between the Verizon site and Stewart -- need to do some planning.  This is where good urban design can solve problems.

Frontage of existing Verizon building on north side of Exposition Boulevard

According to the plan of the facility in the EIR, the yard itself won't reach south far enough to touch the buildings that are now located along the north side of Exposition. What the City needs to do, if the Verizon site is going to be the location of the maintenance yard, is to focus its attention on this strip of land between the boulevard and the yard.

With good design, this strip could be the location of commercial buildings, two or three stories tall, either new structures or adaptations of the existing Verizon buildings, that would provide a buffer -- both visual and aural -- between the maintenance facility (or the facility's sound wall) and the residences across the street. 

The ground floors of these buildings could be occupied by retail stores that the neighbors could use (currently the only way the residents of the neighborhood can walk to stores or restaurants is to take a pedestrian tunnel under the freeway), and the upper floors could be offices either for the Expo line itself or for the local businesses the City is always trying to "incubate."

Once the station is built nearby, the stores and offices in these buildings will be in high demand, and the pedestrian activity they encourage would be an asset to the neighborhood.  Exposition Boulevard could be redesigned as a "complete street," with bikes lanes, landscaping, and good sidewalks.

The City should investigate the alternatives to the Verizon site, but it should not lose sight of the possibilities for improving that site with good design.

Upcoming meetings and hearings relating to the Expo line:

Tues., Feb. 17, Community Workshop, presented by the City of Santa Monica's planning department, 7:00 p.m., at the Civic Auditorium, East Wing.

Weds. Feb. 18, Expo Authority public hearing to gather comments to EIR, 5:00 - 8:00 p.m., at Santa Monica High School.

Mon.,_Feb. 23, Expo Authority public hearing to gather comments to EIR, 5:00 - 8:00 p.m., Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services, Gymnasium_3200 Motor Avenue, Los Angeles 90034

Weds.,_Feb. 25, Expo Authority public hearing to gather comments to EIR, 5:00 - 8:00 p.m., Webster Middle School, "Daniel's Den" _11330 W. Graham Place, Los Angeles 90064

Tues., Mar. 3, City Council meeting to recommend a route preference and make other comments to the EIR.

Members of the public may also submit comments to the EIR at this webpage:

Exposition right of way west of Stewart Street


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