“ … 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.