The Value of Our Boulevards


Boulevards provide a variety of positive roles in our environment.  They give form to an entire metropolitan area as well as determine the framework of cities.  Boulevards respond to many issues central to city life – livability, mobility, safety, economic opportunity, and open space.

When one thinks of great boulevards – Paris’ Champs Elysee or  Barcelona’s Rambla – they are tree-lined and elegant with generous areas for pedestrians to gather and stroll, with stores, theatres, restaurants and residential quarters in unending procession.   Some are wide enough for café seating, book stalls, or even book fairs.

The boulevard, a French word, has its origins in middle ages as promenades providing an environment for social interaction and pleasure.  The first promenades in late 16th century were tree-lined paths within private gardens.  These garden alleys were then extended beyond private walls to become public promenades, which eventually became known as boulevards.  Early on, pedestrians were allowed, but carts and commercial vehicles prohibited.

In mid-19th century, boulevards became part of large scale city planning, becoming wide, tree-lined streets separating pedestrians, and various vehicles.  In late 19th century, bicycles added to the mix having their own paths in center medians.  With motorized vehicles in the early 20th century pedestrians were restricted to sidewalks.

Eventually streetcars and commercialization degraded the bucolic nature of boulevards as traffic engineers grappled with ways to speed flow.

By the 1950’s, emphasis was on unencumbered vehicle movement – moving people and goods and allowing easy access for police, fire, and ambulance.  Concern for vehicles was efficiency and safety with little concern for pedestrians or environmental quality of streets – resulting in extreme imbalance on “public” streets.  Motorized vehicles now dominate this public space, shifting its value from local people to people who just drive through it!

How do Santa Monica’s boulevards stack up?  The LUCE discusses 8 of 9 boulevards leading into and providing structure to our city – Wilshire, Santa Monica, Broadway, Colorado, Olympic, Pico, Ocean Park, and Lincoln – leaving out bucolic San Vicente as no land use, pedestrian, or landscape changes are envisioned.

A primary way we experience our boulevards are the 900 buildings which line these 8 streets, 85% of which including Wilshire are 1 and 2 stories, along with 70% in the downtown area.  LUCE allows tripling these densities.  Is this sustainable?  Is the trade-off of “community benefits” for increased building density, and associated traffic, an exchange that serves our community in the long run?

Trees are also a defining characteristic of our boulevards.  The coral trees in the medians of San Vicente and Olympic contrast sharply with the negligible impact of palm trees lining Wilshire or the intermittent tree canopy on Lincoln and Broadway.

For a city to hold onto its civic life, the pedestrian realm has to be expanded and protected on all its boulevards.  Currently our sidewalks vary from only 7 feet to 12 feet on the wider boulevards.  We need to substantially broaden the feeling and character of our boulevards which are a far cry from days when they were lively public spaces serving diverse uses.  We need to again think of the boulevard as a linear park accommodating a variety of activities.

How do we accomplish this?  First we must understand that boulevards are the primary gateways to our city as well as the primary structure.  Each boulevard has its own scale and character. By enhancing civic life, LUCE aims to create vibrant, diverse, walkable streets with mixed-use retail and residential development, stepping down to respect adjacent neighboring residential properties.  Clear design guidelines are needed to achieve this.

Landscape is one of the defining features.  Continuous tree canopy where sunlight filters through branches and leaves provides both spaciousness and intimacy.  Tree canopy needs to be added or augmented, especially along Lincoln, Broadway, Santa Monica and Colorado as well as replacing the ineffective palm trees lining Wilshire.  Adding low shrubs along curblines will partially separate pedestrians from moving cars.  Landscaped medians to a great extent, determine the form and character of the boulevard.  Five of the city’s 9 boulevards currently have landscaped medians.  They could easily be added in the center lanes separating or adjacent to  left-turn pockets along the remaining four.

Providing a special pedestrian experience is as important to city life as vehicular movement.  Sidewalks provide places to socialize, recreate, and do business and should be increased from existing  7 – 12 feet to 15 – 20 feet by simply requiring a 5% front yard setback with new construction or substantial remodeling.  An alternative where necessary would be removing the parking lane as was done at Downtown’s Grand Central Market on Broadway.  Parklets, bollards, gravel, and bike racks provided a  successful, flexible, and inexpensive solution.  Pedestrian amenities should include kiosks, fountains, flower stands, bike racks, low level lighting, generous café seating, and even fixed tables for a daily card game – all contributing to a strolling, relaxed feeling in our beach community.

The third of the three design elements that define the character and scale of the boulevards are the building facades.  LUCE generously allows tripling densities with heights possible from 60 – 81 feet.  With 85% of buildings lining our boulevards being 1 and 2 stories, is more than 100% growth in square foot area necessary or desirable?  With a 3 story, 40 foot height limit along the boulevards, and 50 feet at transit nodes, we could retain 33% of the 1 and 2 story buildings and still double existing floor area while retaining the scale and character of our city.  Manhattan Beach has a 2 story limit, Laguna Beach 3 stories, and Santa Barbara 4 stories  – even in their downtown areas!

Our city needs to go further in establishing policies and incentives that encourage adaptive re-use of existing 1 and 2 story buildings, especially on narrower lots that don’t allow reasonable development.  If we can preserve some historic buildings lining our 8 boulevards, we will help to maintain our heritage as well as lower rents for “startup” businesses and workforce housing.

We need a creative zoning code that has the simplicity of a 40 foot height limit on our boulevards.  Our tiered Development Agreement system with multiple alternatives is way too complicated and the biggest cause of distrust as it allows excessive development and backroom deals.  D.A.’s are allowed by state code, but we can and need to just say no, except in the unique circumstance where it is truly benefitting the community!

Finally, regarding parking, linear or spot parking structures should be part of a long term plan, ideally located at gateway entrances of the 4 major boulevards to coordinate with a local public transit system.

We should focus more on opportunity streets than on opportunity sites.  We need a “great streets” program that brings the 8 boulevards up to the grandness of San Vicente Boulevard … and rivals those abroad.  Every city needs to pursue its highest and best interest – what is ours?

Ron Goldman FAIA for SMa.r.t.


The All-Ages City

A city for all ages

“…would someone be kind enough to tell me what has happened to our benches on the Promenade? When one entire block of benches disappeared, I questioned where they were and was told they where being ‘repaired’ and they would be returned. As a Senior, those benches are quite important to me. I can only go a short distance before I’m out of breath…When will the rest of them be coming back? ”

Last week’s message on the Santa Monica Government, Politics, Policies and People Facebook page represents a problem for many residents: the difficult daily interaction with the city’s man-made environment because of poor planning, inconsiderate design and weak communications. Examples range from parking structure signs on Fourth Street blocking the view of on-coming traffic, to well-known problems with the new bus benches, and from unenforced noise regulations to infrequent bus service. This affects people of all ages, not only seniors.

Every seven seconds another American turns 50 years old, more than 12,500 per day. The Census Bureau says there will be a 75% increase in the over-65 population by 2030. As a group, it contributes disproportionately to the local economy, and to demand for such things as safe bicycle routes, healthy food and, importantly, responsive local government.

Baby boomers face increasing physical challenges with mobility, vision, hearing and response times. Designing a city that physically works for them will result in a city that works well for nearly everyone. Santa Monica has been active in developing services for seniors, people with disabilities and low-income folks, as can be seen on the City’s web site. But an approach based on service is only one component of a successful all-ages city. The physical “user-interface” is just as important. Make the city friendly and easy to use, and everyone’s life here improves.

It’s not simply a question of making buildings accessible and providing ramps at street corners; rather it is a matter of making it easier for people to use the city routinely: providing street shade throughout the year, reducing ear-shattering noise from buses, trucks and motorcycles, making places where people can sit, relax and socialize, helping pedestrians feel safe crossing the street or simply walking down the sidewalk, having access to frequent bus service. These are all features of age-friendly cities benefitting all residents, and demand a planning effort that goes beyond the minimum requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

What makes a successful age-friendly city? The World Health Organization has developed a checklist used by many cities. A few examples:

  • The city is clean, with enforced regulations limiting noise levels and unpleasant or harmful odours in public places.
  • Outdoor seating is available, particularly in parks, transport stops and public spaces, and spaced at regular intervals; the seating is well-maintained and patrolled to ensure safe access by all.
  • There are separate cycle paths for cyclists.
  • Public transport is reliable and frequent (including services at night and at week- ends).
  • Designated transport stops are located in close proximity to where older people live, are provided with seating and with shelter from the weather, are clean and safe, and are adequately lit.
  • Roads are free of obstructions that might block a driver’s vision.
  • Affordable services are provided to enable older people to remain at home, to “age in place.”
  • Housing design facilitates continued integration of older people into the community.

Many of these examples are familiar to Santa Monica residents, both because the city has incorporated some into its planning activities, and also because the city has, famously, utterly failed to incorporate others. What is needed is a systematic effort to make sure that the city’s physical aspects are matched to the needs of its residents, many of whom are not only aging themselves, but also supporting children and caring for older parents. Fixing things to help people function well in the city should be a “no-brainer” project for any of the competent planners now working for the city.

Here are a few things the city can start doing right away.

-Join the World Health Organization’s Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities, and use their guide (and checklist) as a roadmap for the city. Some items are already done, but many others can and should be implemented.

-Assign a planner to create a Santa-Monica checklist of physical aging-friendly measures, and then spend several hours every single month to ensure that these items are designed and implemented, and that all projects located within the city limits (including parks and bus stops) are made a part of this “all-ages” urban design plan. No more stand-alone silos, uncoordinated with other projects around town.

-Amend zoning to allow two-story apartment buildings (so-called “dingbat” buildings) to be turned into much-needed small assisted-living facilities. Many of these buildings are ideally situated for this activity, both in their age-friendly locations and in their physical layout, which would allow staff and support spaces upstairs, and resident care rooms downstairs.

-Enforce the noise and smoking laws. The downtown bus stops have become outdoor smoking rooms, a health hazard for all bus users and especially those with respiratory problems. Enforce the noise rules by ticketing muffler-less motorcycles and other vehicles that, apart from destroying the peace and quiet of many neighborhoods, also pose significant health hazards in the denser downtown regions.

-Fix the bus stops throughout the city. Install comfortable seats with backs and arms, and provide protection from the sun where possible.

-Fix the parking structure signs downtown. They are located at the exact height to obstruct the view of on-coming traffic.

These are just a few items to help start making this an “all-ages” city. Affiliating with the WHO Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities, and taking a cue from New York’s Aging Improvement Districts will help provided a needed boost.

Daniel Jansenson, Architect.
Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow