Wayward Commission Misses the Mark

Neighborhood Improvement Districts

Last week the Planning Commission voted to keep the two Activity Centers on Wilshire Boulevard as proposed in the LUCE. This decision was contrary to their own Staff Report that included several reasons for their removal:

  • The proposed Centers would be Tier 3 (up to 65′) and out of scale with adjacent neighborhoods thereby negatively impacting the surrounding residents;
  • The demise of the “Subway to the Sea” would eliminate transit stops at the Activity Centers making them only accessible by car creating ‘chokepoints” along Wilshire Blvd.;
  • The Commercial Centers are not the only way to provide affordable housing along Wilshire since it would still be possible to achieve two levels housing at Tier 2 (up to 47′) by other means.

In approving the retention of the two Activity Centers, the Planning Commission ignored their own staff’s recommendations as well as the community organizations that agreed with staff. Many of those present were left in disbelief. What were the “invisible forces” at play that might lead to such an unexpected result? The idea of putting a large commercial center (150 percent larger than Santa Monica Place) with parking for over two thousand cars at one of the busiest boulevards in the City seems illogical when the primary reason for its existence (Subway to the Sea) may never happen. As it stands, this Center will only be accessible by car and, as the staff point out, will create a major bottleneck at the eastern entrance to our City. The bifurcation of the Center by a large, active boulevard makes the concept of a unified Activity Center at this location or 14th Street even more dubious.

As architects and planners, we can think of many reasons why large Activity Centers are not the way to activate our boulevards with pedestrians. The first is that these Centers tend to be introverted rather than connected to the surrounding urban fabric. For example, Santa Monica Place closely resembles an Activity Center but does little to activate the surrounding streets. The places that are successful in creating a vibrant street life are usually linear with street-level businesses, restaurants, outdoor cafes etc. Some current examples in Santa Monica are the Third Street Promenade, Montana Avenue and Main Street in Ocean Park, all of which have narrower streets. All of these streets have been successful in creating an animated place to window shop, enjoy a meal or just go for a stroll.

The other ingredient for an interesting urban environment is the diversity and variety that comes with mixing old with new, upscale with funky to create a blend of styles and choices that appeal to a diverse population. This is more likely to occur along a street that evolves naturally than in a new commercial center with higher rents and the chain brands found in most malls. The proposed Activity Centers are more likely to resemble Santa Monica Place than a street like Abbot Kinney in Venice that was recently named by GQ as “the most happening block in the nation.” This street is primarily low-rise (1 to 2 stories) with an eclectic mix of shops and eateries. It’s a place where established businesses share the sidewalk with hip ‘start-ups’ to create an environment where everyone can find something of interest or just pass the time people watching. This is a commercial street that coexists with residential neighborhoods in close proximity on both sides.

If one were to imagine a linear approach rather than an inward focused Activity Center, it might be a series of Neighborhood Improvement Districts (NID’s) along Wilshire- from Centinela to Lincoln Blvd. These NID’s would have incentives for landlords to develop their property in concert to create low- rise, neighborhood commercial districts with affordable housing above. Ideally, the spacing of the developments would keep them close to the maximum walking distance of a quarter mile. They could be developed with a combination small grants and incentives for adaptive reuse. They could include new construction as well as renovation of the existing buildings to create a diverse, yet unified, neighborhood-shopping experience. The NID’s would require less parking, generate minimal traffic and be in scale with the surrounding communities. To improve their chances for success, it is recommended that specific standards as to tenant mix, housing and other criteria are put in place to help them achieve the NID objectives. There is no reason why this wouldn’t be possible on a smaller scale and in a more linear approach than the proposed Activity Centers.

Each District could share an emphasis on sidewalk cafes, interior courtyards, and other features to enhance the pedestrian experience. The tenant mix would also be controlled to some extent, as it was on the 3rd Street promenade, to insure that the types of stores were both synergistic and neighborhood serving. The short distance between the NID’s might eventually encourage pedestrians to walk from one to the next and incentivizing those in between to upgrade their own establishments to capture some of this new foot traffic. As suggested in the Staff Report, the upper stories would be affordable housing geared for families by providing enough bedrooms, balconies and access to ground level activities. These “eyes on the street” would help to create a safer urban environment.

In summary, the idea of decentralizing the proposed Activity Centers into several smaller neighborhood-serving Districts could achieve similar goals while minimizing the detrimental impacts on the surrounding neighborhoods. They could be accessed by foot as well as by car, reducing traffic and “bottlenecks.” The lower cost of smaller projects, along with adaptive reuse, could attract smaller, local businesses instead of the chains that populate the larger commercial projects. Ideally, it would enable the “mom and pop” businesses to remain while creating opportunities for new businesses. The housing would be closer to street level where parents could monitor the street activity below and their children would have better access to adjacent parks and schools.

As these districts came into their own, and their unique character emerged, they could join the other vibrant, pedestrian streetscapes currently available across our City. This result would be far preferable that the negative impacts of two more large commercial complexes that would increase traffic and add little to the character and allure of our City.

Thane Roberts AIA for SMa.r.t.

Out-of-tune Chamber music

Boulevards and Activity Centers

“ … long, lonely corridors …. and pedestrian danger zones” — this is how the Chamber of Commerce president, Laurel Rosen, described our City’s boulevards in a recent column in the Daily Press. She went on to say that in their current form the boulevards represent bike and pedestrian “danger zones.” Rosen’s solution to this “crisis” was a “walkable mix of housing and transportation options” at the five “Activity Centers” proposed in the LUCE. For the uninitiated, Activity Centers are places where the Code has been amended to allow more height, density and less parking due to their proximity to mass transit.

While this might make sense in theory, it fails the litmus test as soon as one looks deeper. The fact is that the “Activity Centers” and the main transportation nodes are not always adjacent. Of the five Activity Centers called out in the LUCE, only one is located close to an Expo Link. The other four are at various distances, all over the recognized ideal walking distance of a quarter mile. Two of the remaining Activity Centers are around a half mile away while the other two are over one mile away. A leading U.S. guide on transit planning by Jarrett Walker says that at over a half mile, the percentage of those walking to a station drops to zero. If his estimates are accurate, four of the five Activity Centers are more likely to be accessed by car or bus than by foot.

The second myth stated in Rosen’s letter was that new growth is mostly targeted in 4 percent of the City’s Downtown Area and along the major transit corridors. The actual amount is actually closer to 15 percent. The opportunities for growth in these areas are far greater than Rosen suggests. The proposed zoning in the downtown area would allow an additional 13 million square feet in total — over twice the amount that currently exists. The reason is that 70 percent of the downtown area is comprised of one and two story buildings that have yet to be developed to the limits allowed by the current codes. Similar statistics apply to the boulevards where 87 percent of the 900 buildings are mostly one and two stories.

While Santa Monica has a large potential for more development, we do not recommend that this capacity be exploited all at once. Many of these older buildings have local, long-term businesses that could not afford the rents they would be charged in the newer, larger projects. Many buildings also have historic value and are the last vestiges of our City’s Heritage and unique small town character. Even so, there is a huge potential here for substantial growth over a large area rather than concentrated in a few scattered Activity Centers. If all growth were to be concentrated in fewer areas, it is obvious that they will be more congested.

If the Hines project, rejected by a grassroots referendum, is an example of the “transit oriented development” that Rosen has in mind, residents might take issue with her vision. This project was comprised of out-of-scale office buildings and housing better suited for a transient population than families with a stake in the community. In the past, housing at transit hubs has been comprised of small apartments and distant parking that fall far short of the needs of most families. Is this the way we want to grow our City? Wouldn’t we be better off maintaining our existing housing stock and adding to it as we can with projects that are woven into the fabric of the existing residential areas, adjacent to parks and open space at ground level. There are currently no statistics that prove that the many apartments being built downtown are actually occupied by those who work in Santa Monica.

The reason that the Activity Centers could “kill” our neighborhoods rather than “bringing life to them” is that the two uses are incompatible. The activity centers will be congested behemoths in a sea of smaller scaled residences. They will bring noise, pollution and traffic that will destroy the quality of life for those who live adjacent. The buildings will be four to five times higher than the surroundings residences, blocking light and breezes to all those that are located behind and to their sides. These Centers are more likely to diminish than enhance the quality of life of those that surround them. This is not the way to “protect our neighborhoods.”

The idea that these concentrations of cars, people and activity will create a “safe pedestrian environment” is also questionable. These nodes of activity are where accidents are more likely to occur but less likely to be fatal due to congestion — a small consolation. The idea these “bottle necks” along our boulevards will make traffic flow more smoothly seems counter intuitive.

In conclusion, the City should reconsider the LUCE recommendation to create five new Activity Zones across the City. This is particularly the case on Wilshire Boulevard, where the Centers were intended to serve the “Subway to the Sea” whose future is uncertain. While an Activity Center might make sense at the Memorial Park Station adjacent to the Transit Station, it becomes more difficult to justify as one moves away from the Expo line and into the neighborhoods. Along the boulevards, new construction should be in scale with the surrounding areas and contain businesses and low-rise residential projects that serve the needs of the local residents. If you agree, please come to the Council Meeting on March 18 and be heard. There will be many adjacent properties that could profit greatly that will be there to oppose us.

Ron Goldman FAIA, Thane Roberts AIA, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Mario Fonda Bonardi AIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Samuel Tolkin AIA, Armen Melkonians Civil & Environmental Engineer, Phil Brock Chair, Parks & Recreation Commission.

Yesterday’s streets tomorrow

Streets

Santa Monica’s street sizes were laid out 140 years ago in the horse and buggy era. During the intervening decades the City has had a two hundred fold increase in its effective population (residents+commuters+visitors), yet its street capacity has not kept up with this increased demand. If we look at the last three decades, our population crept up from about 87,000 to about 93,000, but job creation, visitors and commuting students have ballooned our effective population to over 200,000 per day. While that estimated number fluctuates short-term (eg over the weekend) or long-term (went down during the recession), the net effect of all this growth in transit demand is that our street capacity is strained to the point of functional collapse. This is evident to anyone who has taken any of the city’s eastbound boulevards at 5 p.m.

It does not matter if those travelers walk, ride skateboards, take bikes, skate, ride Segways, hop on buses or trams or ride in cars. They are all trying to squeeze through a funnel that was sized for a city envisioned over a century ago. While the city has engaged in an aggressive program to swap car lanes for bike or bus lanes, landscaped median strips and wider sidewalks, the net result is that actual total capacity has not increased. This is not an argument for or against a particular transit modality: certainly we need dedicated bike lanes for the safety of the increasing number of bike riders and the planted median strips make our travel experience more pleasant. But demand is going up while “supply” is not: all that is happening is that one modality is replacing another. The Expo line light rail takes out lanes of west Colorado. Bike lanes take out lanes of east Broadway. Bus lanes take out lanes at west Santa Monica Boulevard. The list of reduced transit capacity goes on and on.

In the transition from one modality to another we never gain actual increased capacity. Only a tiny fraction of the drivers that used those vacated lanes are converting to buses, biking, skateboards or walking. Most of the orphaned drivers are squeezing into adjacent lanes or streets. So now and for the foreseeable future we are getting relatively “underutilized” sidewalks, bus and bike lanes while the remaining clogged car lanes accept the displaced traffic. The wishful hope is that somewhere out there is a tipping point where enough buses, pedestrians and bicycles will replace cars. But this won’t happen for decades for the following reasons:

  • The demand to build residential and commercial space continues unabated, with a transit demand that is increasing faster than people are willing to change their transit habits.
  • While those new projects are governed by conditions requiring a reduction of peak car trips through Transportation Demand Management (TDM), even existing projects, such as Agensys, have consistently failed to meet their TDM targets, and effective enforcement remains nonexistent.
  • If Silicon Beach maintains its wealthy youthful labor force and they want to have families, most will end up commuting into Santa Monica because of the lack of affordable family-size housing. The current construction mix now in planning stages is still favoring small units compared to family units.
  • Mass transit has not reached the level of convenience that will get people out of their cars. The Santa Monica light rail stations have minimal to no parking, and are not well integrated with the Big Blue Bus. This is actually a regional problem.
  • The approval of reduced parking projects and the removal of parking along major boulevards combine to inevitably collide with the need for smooth traffic flow of all modalities.
  • Externalities such as the rapid growth of Playa Vista, Pacific Palisades, and West Los Angeles, over which Santa Monica has no effective control, will continue to increasingly overload Santa Monica’s available transportation resources.

Meanwhile the arms race continues between neighborhoods trying to protect themselves from the increasingly pressurized main arteries. The neighborhoods defend themselves with chokers, no left turns signs, expanded restricted parking districts, traffic bumps, one way streets etc. while commuters fight back by using alleys, using apps such as Waze (which finds optimal travel paths using sides streets) and leaving earlier or staying later at their jobs, which only expands the duration of peak travel impact. Finally, some desirable transit lane swaps prove politically impossible. When the City wanted to remove parking lanes on south Lincoln Blvd during peak hours, the neighborhoods exploded in protest foreclosing that option.

So where will the additional capacity come from? Sooner than later we must face the need to widen the main arteries to adequately and safely receive the current and anticipated demand. In the new zoning code all the properties facing the main arteries should be required to dedicate the first 10′ as an easement for future transit expansion, with no structures allowed. They would still preserve all of their original development rights of their lot area and of the area above the easement. Initially those easements could be used for sidewalk cafes, landscaping, and other public amenities, but when transit demand reaches certain levels, that area could be “recaptured” for sidewalk, parking, bike lanes etc. as the main central lanes grow in width or are dedicated as bus or bike lanes.

For example, The Esplanade project at the west end of Colorado takes out two lanes of traffic for a much-needed wider sidewalk and bike lanes. Again at great public expense and inconvenience, we are just swapping modalities. Now imagine if the properties on the north side of Colorado, which were built within the last 36 years (when no one saw the light rail coming) had been required at that time to dedicate a 10′ easement for public transit. The need for new projects such as the Esplanade, would be substantially decreased because we would have already built in the future capacity.

Santa Monica has historically built only about one block of new traffic lanes per decade. In the last 30 years two blocks of Cloverfield have been widened and Olympic has been extended to Ocean (we are already removing the parking lane during peak hours east of that extended Olympic block). This pitiful rate of expansion is completely inadequate. Today we are paying for yesterday’s lack of planning vision. With the current zoning code update we can avoid this mistake over the next 20 years by building in the additional transit capability now. Your grandchildren riding their solar powered skates to work will thank you.

Mario Fonda-Bonardi for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

Preserving history — and lifestyle — on San Vicente Boulevard

Courtyard Housing

Santa Monica is fortunate to have grown up as a city with a unique housing identity — a setting that symbolized gracious apartment living in the land of orange blossoms and avocados. In fact, you might describe the Courtyard and Garden apartments in our city as the epitome of the Southern California lifestyle. From the 1910s through the 1950s, Bungalow, Courtyard and Garden apartment construction styles dominated the Santa Monica scene.

All of these low-rise apartments embraced center courtyards with a clear emphasis on space for the dweller. The evolution of these apartments included park-like space within the buildings, and an updated version of the old eastern front stoop. Now residents could barbecue, talk to their neighbors, sun themselves in the warm Santa Monica weather and have a relaxed lifestyle that was the envy of those who resided in the older cities in the East. Garages for the omnipresent automobile were relegated to the rear or side of the units with alley entrances.

The architectural style evolved through the decades, beginning with bungalows and then moving to courtyard apartments. Bungalows tended to be modest with stylistic detail while the newer garden court apartments were architecturally designed. Patios, verandas and balconies opening to a central courtyard symbolize these apartments. The apartments tend to be more spacious with a solid connection to the outdoors and … to the neighbors. Gone were long, internal corridors and the darkness that pervaded Eastern metropolitan apartment living. Courtyards became a place of recreation, with swimming pools and ping-pong tables creating the new urban tableau that was Santa Monica’s own style.

Words like Streamline Moderne, Hollywood Regency, Minimal Traditional and Vernacular Modern defined the different eras of courtyard housing design in Santa Monica, with the largest collection of intact examples of these styles on our San Vicente Boulevard. In fact, from Ocean Avenue to 7th Street there are 28 examples of courtyard apartment housing. If you include the adjoining area of Ocean Avenue, even more examples of the various design styles are found. You can look at 212 San Vicente Blvd., for a fine example of the Streamline Moderne style, view 211 San Vicente for an example of Hollywood Regency style, 437-441 San Vicente for Minimal Traditional and visit the Bermuda Apartments at 540 San Vicente for an outstanding example of Vernacular Modern construction.

San Vicente Boulevard’s environment is unique, and these seven blocks give the street its special character. Families abound, as Courtyard style apartment buildings contain many two- and three-bedroom units. The park-like setting of the wide median running down the center of the boulevard, with its beautiful Coral trees, adds perfect perspective to the courtyard apartments with consistent setbacks and nicely landscaped front yards on either side of the street.

The Courtyard apartments on San Vicente Boulevard represent the mid-century ideal in apartment living and must be preserved. As economic pressure increases in our city, there is a temptation for some owners to use the Ellis Act, which allows them to leave the apartment rental business in order to build new, bigger, denser buildings. As you walk down San Vicente Boulevard today, your view consists of a beautiful, calm street that occasionally is visually polluted by an overly tall apartment building that seems out of place and out of character. An example of this is the six-story behemoth that is 220 San Vicente Blvd. It dwarfs the other buildings on the block and displays the uninspiring standard rectangular construction from the early 1970s.

How do we preserve the historic Courtyard apartments on San Vicente Boulevard, most of which fall within the regulations of rent control? We can begin by supporting the Landmarks Commission as they seek to establish this distinctive corridor as a Historic District. The consistent setbacks of the buildings, landscaped front yards and courtyards, the absence of driveways and curb cuts, the wide center median, and a remarkable collection of Courtyard apartments qualify this as a neighborhood well worth preserving. While this corridor is not the only repository of Courtyard and Bungalow style housing in Santa Monica, it would appear that the San Vicente Boulevard collection — which is occupied by residents who love their neighborhood — represents a worthwhile beginning. The Courtyard and Garden apartment buildings are an integral part of the ethos and the spirit of Santa Monica, where the traditional dark and narrow lobby and hallway to your apartment is instead one of trees and sunlight. This street is one of many that are significant and historic in our city.

San Vicente Boulevard’s Courtyard apartments have repeatedly been identified as significant, beginning in a 1983 citywide historic resources survey and continuing through today. The SMa.r.t. group believes that our city must act to preserve our rental housing stock and that there is no better spot to make a firm stand than with the preservation of the historic Courtyard and Garden apartments on our San Vicente Boulevard corridor.

Both tenants and owners would benefit from the creation of a historic district. Owners of these buildings would gain through preservation incentives. Included in these incentives is property tax relief under the Mills Act, expedited renovation permitting, application of the Historic Building Code, and other benefits. The owners of condominiums and townhomes on the street would be assured that excess development would not occur on San Vicente Boulevard, and the numerous apartment dwellers on this street would be assured of continuing to have a neighborhood to call home within our city. In addition, owners, via the incentives described above, would have more funds to keep their historic Courtyard apartment buildings in top-notch shape.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have lived within the historic San Vicente corridor since 1981: first, at the aforementioned Bermuda apartments and now in a three-story townhome, which has an interior courtyard in a style that emulates the neighboring Courtyard apartments. This boulevard is a street I love and one that I have been lucky enough to call home for many years. San Vicente Boulevard has one of the highest concentrations of children in all of Santa Monica, who live in its apartments and condominiums. This is a street that all residents of our city treasure — a street that must become the next historic district in Santa Monica, so that these children and their children can continue to experience this healthy, friendly, relaxed and spacious lifestyle into the future.

Phil Brock | SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)