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Destroying the (Urban) Village to Save It

By Frank Gruber

April 25, 2011 -- At the City Council meeting tomorrow night the council will consider extending until October 2012 the interim zoning ordinance the council adopted in January on an “emergency” basis to govern development until the council can pass a new comprehensive zoning law under the new land use and circulation elements (LUCE) of the general plan passed last year.

Among other things, the interim law requires that any projects in downtown over 32 feet tall will require a development agreement; this will act more or less as a moratorium on residential development in downtown, since the only buildings below that height limit will be 100 percent commercial. Once you throw in the environmental review, uncertainty, and transaction costs inherent in a development agreement, few if any developers and their lenders want to bother with the kind of mixed-use apartment buildings that have turned downtown into a neighborhood.

This moratorium will be not only misguided, but also unfair because downtown Santa Monica was not included in the LUCE process. It will be several years before the council will adopt a new specific plan for downtown, and then more years beyond that for new zoning.

Although planning staff, in response to concerns from council members that the interim ordinance will put a halt to all the good that has happened downtown, added certain “streamlining” measures to the development agreement process, those measures will apply only to projects already in the “pipeline,” not to new projects.

It’s funny -- the planners go on and on about how they want developers like Hines to build “urban villages” (oh, I hate that term but I’m going to use it anyway) around Bergamot Station, but they seem determined to stop the continued development of a highly successful urban village in downtown Santa Monica. This process has succeeded over 20 years in developing “organically” the “17 hours a day/7 days a week,” mixed use community that the department desperately hopes developers can create convulsively around Bergamot.

Development downtown under the current standards (developed and refined over the years by trial and error, not by planning theory), has created a district that not only achieves the LUCE goals. but in fact helped to define them.

By adopting in January the initial “emergency” interim ordinance the council has boxed itself in and can only agree to some kind of extension of the ordinance, but it can still take steps to encourage residential developers to consider the development agreement process.

Most important, the council members should make it clear that they still believe in the existing incentives downtown for residential development, notably the “double floor-to-area-ratio” applicable to residences. That will at least encourage developers willing to risk the development agreement process. If the council doesn’t do this, then it will be turning its back on the most successful urban plan the city has adopted since Sen. Jones and the Bakers laid out the street grid in 1875.

* * *

About the time I start writing this column, in 2000, the City of Santa Monica embarked on planning for the future parking needs of downtown, and I’ve been writing off and on about parking ever since.

It hasn’t been easy on me (or on readers). In 2001 I wrote a column called “The Black Hole of Planning” in which I talked about how boring parking could be even though it was so crucial. (See “The Black Hole of Planning”, June 18 2001.)

But that’s all changed. Ever since UCLA professor Donald Shoup published his vastly influential The High Cost of Free Parking in 2005, parking has become a sexy issue for planners. One of the important points in Prof. Shoup’s book is that planners and urban designers of all schools had systematically ignored parking for generations (I’d say because it’s so boring), but now it’s the hot topic.

The realities of parking -- from its spatial issues to its economics, to how its availability and its pricing affect peoples’ conduct -- are being discussed everywhere now. Everyone driving a car still fantasizes about free parking, some still demand it, and businesses and cities still provide it, but fewer and fewer people are ignorant of the real price of parking. Cities everywhere are raising parking rates at meters and in parking structures.

This week both the Santa Monica City Council and the Planning Commission have parking on their agendas. The council will decide whether to approve a revised plan for a replacement of the parking structure on Second Street just north of Broadway. The Planning Commission will consider amendments to the development agreement for Yahoo! Center that would acknowledge that the office development was required to have more parking than it needed, and give legal authority to the current practice of renting out the surplus spaces.

The issues the City Council will consider regarding the parking structure are less interesting than the overall context for the decision. The Planning Commission had issues with circulation in and around the new structure, which will replace the existing 342-space facility with a 748-space structure, and with certain aspects of design, and denied approval. The City revised the plans somewhat to address these issues, and wants the council to overturn the commission’s denial.

I suspect that the changes will be sufficient to justify the Council’s approving this important project in the Downtown Parking Program that the council finally adopted in 2006 after five years of studies and workshops.

The larger context for building the new structure is that in September 2009 the council, after receiving a new parking study, concluded that contrary to earlier projections of future parking demand downtown did not need many more spaces. In 2000 consultants predicted that in 10 years, i.e., by now, downtown would need another 2,400 parking spaces. But surprise! -- the City has not built any new spaces in the downtown core, and downtown is better than ever. (The City did build some expensive spaces at the new library, but they are hardly used.)

Even though the council has reduced the number of new spaces that the City will build downtown, it still needs to do something with the old structures from the ’60s; either retrofit them for earthquakes or rebuild them. By replacing the old structure on Second Street with a new larger one, the City will be able to remove a structure on Fourth Street to allow the building of new, state-of-the-art movie theaters -- something downtown needs more than more parking.

As for the amendment to the Yahoo! Center development agreement, the Planning Commission now will have an opportunity to acknowledge and partially rectify mistakes that were made in the ’80s when, in response to neighborhood anxieties about spillover parking, what was then called Colorado Place was “over-parked.”

America spent huge sums over the past 30 or 40 years building parking. If that money had been used for transit or for other social purposes, or invested in productive assets, we would not feel quite as collectively broke as we do today. The unneeded parking at Yahoo! Center is just a drop in that bucket, but the commission should certainly recognize the realities and allow Yahoo! Center to continue to rent out the surplus parking spaces.

Meanwhile, the issue of spillover parking has been resolved with preferential parking in the neighborhoods near Yahoo! Center.

Sure to be an issue Wednesday night is that one of the renters of Yahoo! Center spaces for the past nine years has been St. John’s Hospital, which is currently seeking to have its post-earthquake development agreement amended so that it does not need to build an expensive and unneeded parking structure. One reason the hospital does not need this parking structure is that it can lease spaces at Yahoo! Center.

It’s also likely that the amendments will be met with protests from those Santa Monicans who incongruously like to complain simultaneously about too much traffic and not enough free parking.

If readers want to write the editor about this column, send your emails to The Lookout at .

If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email 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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