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.