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College Tells City Not to Worry

By Gene Williams
Staff Writer

February 6 -- Santa Monica College will grow more slowly, although it is currently eyeing three major properties to locate its student shuttle, a top college official told the Planning Commission last week.

During a two-hour presentation Wednesday night, Don Girard, a chief aide to the college’s president, also brought out the findings of a poll showing Santa Monicans strongly support the college.

Invited by commissioner and local architect Gwynne Pugh -- apparently to encourage more friendly talk between the City and the college after several years of rocky relations -- Girard did his best to assure the commission that expansion and development of the college isn’t a threat to the city.

SMC has grown 33 percent over the past 12 years, but future land-based growth will be at half that rate, Girard said. The college plans to grow 14 percent by 2016.

“We are not so large that we are beyond what the city can bear,” Girard said. “With what is currently under construction and is planned…. (we) will meet our growth needs.”

Plans for the college’s main campus include demolition of two of its older buildings near Pearl Street -- the Liberal Arts and Letters and Science buildings -- as well as some temporary structures. They will be replaced with facilities that include a new Liberal Arts building and a theater.

But “build out” at the main campus will be 12 percent less than was originally anticipated, because the college has been able to branch out at its newer satellite campuses, Girard explained.

Also, “in the very near future” the college is expected to propose a replacement site for its shuttle parking lot, probably somewhere in the Olympic Boulevard corridor, Girard said. The college is currently using a beach lot after the City began construction of a new park at its old airport site.

Properties the college is looking at include the Santa Monica Studios site at 3025 Olympic Boulevard, the PaperMate property at 1681 26th Street and the Verizon property at 2909 Exposition Boulevard, according to a recent College Board of Trustees agenda.

Other ideas in the works include the possibility of starting a satellite campus in Malibu and perhaps putting underground parking beneath Corsair Field at the main campus, Girard said.

During a power point presentation and discussion, Girard, who is a marketing professional, used a mountain of statistics to show that the college is a good neighbor and an asset to Santa Monica and the region.

In particular, Girard presented findings of a multiple-choice survey commissioned by the college last year of 4,182 Santa Monica voters.

Of those surveyed, 89 percent who expressed an opinion said SMC is “very valuable” and 10 percent said “valuable.” One third of the residents said that they or members of their families have taken classes at SMC in the last five years.

Girard spent a lot of time on the subject of traffic and parking, the twin bugbears of planning in the city.

For many years, the college has come under fire from residents in Sunset Park and the Pico Neighborhood who say the school is bringing too many cars into their communities.

Although the college’s survey of residents in those areas put SMC among the top five reasons for their traffic and parking woes, other factors ranked higher on their lists, Girard said.

Of those surveyed in Sunset Park, 39 percent blamed “excess local development” as the leading cause of the trouble, while 35 percent listed “regional traffic growth” as the number two cause. The college came in at number three with 24 percent, followed by “inadequate resident parking” and “poor planning of streets & signals.”

Girard then pointed out that the college’s neighbors north of Pico Boulevard have a somewhat different take on the question.

Of the Pico Neighborhood residents surveyed, 48 percent listed “inadequate resident parking” as the number one cause of the problem -- more than twice the percentage of those surveyed in Sunset Park.

“Excess local development” followed with 41 percent and “regional traffic growth” at 29 percent. The Pico residents named the college as the fourth leading cause at 21 percent.

When asked if SMC should reduce student enrollment to manage the problem, 89 percent citywide said “no,” according to the survey; 80 percent of Sunset Park residents and 90 percent of Pico Neighborhood residents responded likewise.

Instead, a large majority of residents favor more on-campus parking and expanding the shuttle program, according to the college’s survey.

The college expects to reach “parking self-sufficiency” within the next ten years, Girard said. But the City will have to do its part to solve traffic gridlock and parking problems created by resident’s-only preferential parking permits, he seemed to imply.

“Preferential parking has made life much better for residents who live near the college,” Girard acknowledged. The problem the City must deal with now is “coming to terms with the fact that there has to be some replacement parking.”

“That parking has to land somewhere,” Girard said about the displaced cars.

Over the years, the college has taken a number of steps that have reduced traffic in Sunset Park between 10 percent and 15 percent, Girard said. Plans to better serve students in the future will continue to help lessen the area’s car-related burdens, he added.

The college has been operating a shuttle service for nearly 20 years. At its peak, some 1,700 students rode the shuttle bus to and from the main campus each day, college officials say.

Recently, the City reclaimed the shuttle parking lot at Santa Monica Airport to begin construction of Airport Park. Shuttle parking is now at a beach lot south of the Ocean Park Boulevard, but it will have to be out by summer. Meanwhile, the college is looking for a permanent site.

In addition to the shuttle, the college is looking into bus passes similar to UCLA’s “Go Bruin”-- a program that would allow students to use public transit “anytime, anywhere,” Girard said.

Also, the college has reused and renovated buildings in commercial areas. The college now has satellite campuses at Santa Monica Airport, in Midtown and in the Light Manufacturing and Studio District.

Besides reducing traffic on Pico Boulevard and in Sunset Park, the satellites have enabled the college to scale back development at the main campus, allowing for three acres of planned open space, Girard said.

Three-day-a-week classes are now held only two days a week, and five percent of classes are now offered online, further reducing trips to the college, Girard said. He expects the number of online classes to double in the near future.

The commissioners listened much and said little during the meeting. Mostly, they only spoke to pose brief questions to Girard, who was occasionally helped by two other college officials.

When asked about the college’s needs as the City plans for its future, Girard replied, “To resolve parking is probably as close to perfection as we’re going to get.”

The discussion, which came one month before Dr. Chui L. Tsang is scheduled to take over as the college’s new president, ended shortly after 9 p.m.

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