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Some Recent History & Some New Thinking

By Frank Gruber

August 3, 2009 -- Last week's column about the benefits of design might have seemed Pollyannish to some, but there was a story in the news last week that provides a supporting example.

That was the opening of St. John's Hospital's new Howard Keck Center, which replaces facilities destroyed in the 1994 earthquake. ("New Saint John's Opens Doors," July 31, 2009)

The story of the rebuilding of the hospital offers many parallels to the current controversy over the maintenance yard for the Expo line that may be built on the Verizon property on Exposition Boulevard.

After the earthquake destroyed much of the hospital, St. John's developed plans to rebuild. The plans needed approval from the City. I was on the Planning Commission at the time, and I remember the approval process well. It takes nothing away from the opposition to the maintenance yard to point out that the opposition to the hospital's plans was even more animated.

There were many meetings at the Planning Commission to thrash out the terms of a development agreement between the hospital and the city, and then more at City Council, that attracted hundreds of residents. Opposition focused on how the new facilities would interface with the surrounding neighborhood. And of course there was a environmental impact report that predicted various traffic problems.

There was no question of not rebuilding St. John's, just as there is no question of not building the Expo line. The hospital is an essential part of Santa Monica, not only for the care it provides, but also for its economic impact, to say nothing of the part it has played in Santa Monica's history. Hospitals like St. John's are not publicly owned, like the Expo line will be, but they are part of public infrastructure. (That Santa Monica is the home of two world-renowned hospitals is another fact that is inconsistent with the idea that the city is or ever was a sleepy beach town.)

At the end of the day, when the development agreement was approved, there remained neighbors who weren't happy. There always are, and we won't know until the hospital opens its new emergency room entrance on Arizona, a major cause of their concern, to what extent the revision to the plans addressed those concerns. But I know that the review at the hearings resulted in a better project.

At one point, at the Planning Commission's suggestion, the City hired an architect to review the plans and advise the commission as to the feasibility of alternatives. It was as I described the typical development process last week: the hospital's architects had designed a wonderful hospital -- that was their job -- but it took outside review to make the project fit its context.

It wasn't only the hospital's plans. Problems also arose from the environmental impact report. As is typical, the EIR did not take context into account. For example, it predicted an increase of traffic trying to get on the freeway, and as a mindless "mitigation" -- "beware all traffic mitigations!" -- the writers of the report suggested removing the street parking on Virginia Avenue. This would have made that residential street the equivalent of a freeway on-ramp. Fortunately, we caught that bad idea at the commission level.

>From what I was hearing last week, it's unlikely that the Expo authority will accept the City's proposal for a maintenance yard that straddles Stewart Street. Assuming that's the case, it's time for the City to hire an architect or urban designer to make sure that the plans for the site fit into or even benefit the adjacent neighborhood.

* * *

There was another notable local news story last week, one that came as a complete, if rather pleasant, shock. This was the story that the Bayside District Board of Directors approved a report from a consultant who told them that the City wouldn't need to build more parking downtown if the parking they have were managed better. ("Bayside Officials Back Parking rate Hikes," July 27, 2009)

And, as the consultant, Richard Raskin, of Walker Parking Consultants, said, managing parking better means charging more for it.

Mr. Raskin told the Board that the rates charged in the City's structures were below market and needed to be increased. Anyone who walks around downtown knows this -- it typically costs at least $10 to park at a private lot, but no more than seven dollars at the City's lots (only three dollars at night), and monthly rates are much lower than what private lots charge.

The shock was that the Board, which to a great extent represents downtown stores and property owners who have always wanted more parking, agreed with the conclusions of the report. (The report also called for reducing the free parking from two initial hours to one; the Board didn't accept that, but that's something the City should implement, too.)

What was most remarkable was that Mr. Raskin told the Board that if they raised rates, the City would not need to spend the tens of millions needed to build more parking. Under the downtown parking plan the City Council adopted in 2006, no more parking is supposed to be built unless there's a proven need for it and it can pay for itself. While those conditions have never been shown to exist, the City has proceeded to buy property downtown to build new parking structures, and recently the council voted to include money for the projects in the redevelopment agency's capital plans.

As I write this column, I haven't yet got my hands on a copy of Mr. Raskin's report, and so I'll refrain from further analysis. But it will be quite interesting to see how well this more progressive attitude about the costs of parking survives the political process.

On thing you can bet on, is that the same people who complain about traffic will complain about any plan to increase parking fees. This is illogical -- one way to reduce traffic is to reduce the availability, or increase the cost, of parking.

But people who drive always want to be subsidized.




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