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.

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