Infrastructure and continuing challenges in Santa Monica

Infrastructure needing Improvement

Late this morning, this writer arrived at a bus stop at 17th Street and Montana Avenue, intending to travel to downtown Santa Monica. The bus stop contains no printed bus schedule, but a customer service number is provided, which includes an automated arrival information service. The recording asks for the stop’s four-digit number, but it quickly became clear that no such number is visible at the stop. Another call to customer service was answered by a live human, who, after a lengthy wait, cheerfully provided next-bus arrival information. In due course the bus indeed arrived — but on the opposite side of the street, going the opposite way to the requested destination. A follow-up call revealed that the first operator was wrong.

About a year ago, not long after SMa.r.t. started publishing this column, one of our articles discussed challenges to the use of mass transit. “A major barrier to the implementation of mass transit,” we wrote, “is the “first mile, last mile issue” — how to get to the station and then to one’s final destination. This is why the car is still favored over other options.” Much has been written before, and since, about the need for a practical, reliable and frequent public transit system in the city, to provide an alternative to driving. Reducing the number of drivers is seen by many people as a worthwhile goal, not only for environmental reasons, but also to reduce traffic congestion.

A convenient local, in-town public transportation system is one alternative to much local driving. “The City’s traffic is becoming worse,” our colleague Thane Roberts wrote in a recent column, “and will continue to do so as more development is approved despite our inadequate infrastructure.” “Some new measures to consider are: 1) a bike share system that is integrated with adjacent municipalities; 2) elevated pedestrian paths Downtown from the new Expo Line to avoid conflicts with street traffic; 3) “first mile” and “last mile” solutions such as small shuttles, improved bus service with better transit information, comfortable seating and weather protection at bus stops.”

In-town transit, and the “first mile, last mile” issue are really infrastructure challenges, several of which we have identified as fundamental building blocks for local residents’ quality of life. “One issue on which most residents can readily agree,” we said last July, “is that moving about the city by car, bus or bike is increasingly time consuming and frustrating. Traffic in downtown is abysmal … The city needs a realistic approach to mitigate this situation. Our quality of life, safety, and possibly our livelihoods are affected. Every new project needs to be assessed for its cumulative effect on this vital part of our infrastructure.”

But transportation is not the only infrastructure matter needing attention. “The city’s electrical and water infrastructure is increasingly under pressure due to the burden from thousands of daily visitors,” we said in the same article, “(s)trains in the city’s infrastructure manifest as disruptions in the electrical supply, the rising cost of water (only partially due to the drought), and the unwillingness or inability of our public officials to discuss reasonable limits on our city’s resources. A plan to honestly address inadequate infrastructure and limited resources must be part of any discussion on the city’s future.”

In August of last year, we pointed out the difficulties of achieving water independence (a City of Santa Monica goal for 2020 while large, water-consuming developments continue to be approved. “City government has not asked us to subsidize new development,” we wrote. “but that is the net effect of continuing to encourage and process large developments that significantly increase the city’s water consumption-especially projects substantially larger than basic zoning allows. Let’s not mince words: it’s irresponsible to consider such developments given the current water crisis. This past year has been the driest in recorded California history. There was a similarly dry year over 100 years ago, but our population has grown 40 times since then-and with indoor plumbing and hygiene changes, consumption is probably closer to 100 times what it was then.”

All of these infrastructure issues, transportation, traffic, water use and others, continue to be on the front burner in our city today, a year later. We have now had some time to consider solutions and alternatives, and indeed the city has made considerable progress across many fronts. The Big Blue Bus, for example, has inaugurated new routes connecting to the light rail stations, although their effectiveness remains to be seen. And water use in the city-at least among residents-is down substantially, by nearly a third, not least because of the City’s outreach efforts, new water pricing, and rebates for water-saving measures such as turf removal, landscape improvements and appliance and fixture replacements.

Nonetheless the major issues, which at their core are driven at a high level by City policies, and at a low level by the city’s daily management, continue to severely challenge the city today. They require an approach that is both imaginative and truly responsive to residents.

Going back to this morning’s bus ride mentioned at the beginning of this article. A bus eventually did arrive, and the friendly driver was treated, by this writer, to a small description of the phone recording which required the stop’s non-existent four-digit code. The driver peered through the windshield at the stop, and said, “How are you supposed to know the code if it isn’t there?”

Precisely.

Daniel Jansenson, Architect, for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow).

Lincoln Unchained

Lincoln Boulevard

Lincoln. A name associated with freedom. Lincoln Blvd., a street known as “Stinkin’ Lincoln”, stuck in traffic that makes one think of anything but freedom as one sits trapped, slow moving amidst a fairly worn streetscape. Lincoln sees some 50,000 vehicles daily between the 10 Freeway and Rose Avenue. As the majority of visitors arrive via LAX, Lincoln is generally the first impression visitors have of Santa Monica. Not an impressive gateway to our beachside town.

In anticipation of the City taking control of Lincoln from Caltrans, the Ocean Park Association, joining with the Friends of Sunset Park, and the Pico Neighborhood Association, formed the Lincoln Blvd. Task Force (LBTF). Two years of effort by the LBTF preceded the City taking possession of Lincoln and included meetings with the Planning Dept., Planning Commissioners, City Council members, and conducting an extensive survey of the various stakeholders. Well prepared with positive recommendations and design suggestions, the LBTF pressed the City to implement recommended improvements.

The City agreed and committed to re-pave and re-stripe the street as well as replant the existing, but empty, tree wells, as a first step to improve the Lincoln streetscape. The LBTF made numerous additional suggestions, such as encouraging a Business Improvement District (BID), where property owners might join together to seek a grants program for upgrading building facades, signage, and landscaping. An effort by auto dealers to expand “auto row” onto Lincoln was met with opposition by residents, and what might have turned into a row of corporate designed car showrooms was stopped cold, eliminating threat of closure to “mom & pop” stores and small independent auto related services.

The LBTF asked the City to consider how the Big Blue Bus and bikes can integrate into the traffic mix, while maintaining and enhancing vehicular and pedestrian safety. Was it even possible to safely integrate all forms of movement, including improved and added safe pedestrian crossing opportunities?

This time the City did listen, and authorized the Planning Staff to do a formal study, now known as The LiNC. They have put together a team and are working closely with the neighborhoods, the businesses, and the LBTF, to achieve visual and functional improvements to Lincoln that are befitting as a gateway to our community.

There have been two public meetings where attendees have input their suggestions. These were refined and presented in a well attended meeting two weeks ago. Most of the resident’s suggestions were well received, including overwhelming support for more, rather than less, landscaped medians. Dedicated bus lanes, it was generally agreed, would be an asset and must be planned for, but that at the current time, since L.A. has no provision for connecting to them, they will only function to the southern City line. L.A. is said to be working at its end to see if it can link with the LiNC, and the future may see a morning/evening dedicated bus lane to LAX.

Adaptive re-use of existing structures, updated and continued as regional and neighborhood serving small businesses was strongly encouraged by the LBTF and resident respondents. This is already happening. Recently, on a site where a new car dealer had attempted to buy an entire block to build a corporate designed showroom, the owners are now considering re-modeling and updating the entire block of existing small shops. Whether there will be a change of use in one or more of the structures is unclear, but it is encouraging to know that the potential improvement is being considered.

The original request for re-planting the empty tree wells has been expanded to include placing additional trees, landscaping, lighting, and street furniture. The original bus stop benches that were replaced by the very unpopular stools are stockpiled and, according to the City team leader, may in fact find their way back onto the sidewalks of a refreshed and enhanced streetscape. These enhancements will hopefully encourage more of the neighborhood residents to walk to the already wide variety of neighborhood serving businesses.

Small businesses are often lost in the thicket of car repair shops and used-car sales lots that overwhelm the visual scene on Lincoln. Approximately 30% of the businesses are auto related, but that leaves 70% or so that are independent restaurants, cleaners, coffee houses, furniture stores, bike shops, etc. With the LiNC streetscape improvements, and increased pedestrian activity, these neighborhood serving shops will become the visually dominant uses.

The shopping center at Lincoln and Ocean Park Blvd. is a good example of what a real neighborhood “activity center” looks like. It is the home to a pharmacy, a hair salon, restaurant, UPS store, cleaners, and supermarket and retail shops. All are local businesses that serve the adjacent neighborhoods. With encouragement to the owners and tenants, and the participation of the City forester, there will be more trees and enhanced landscaping, creating a more enjoyable pedestrian experience and increased support of the businesses. As the boulevard becomes a more dynamic pedestrian environment, it will hopefully encourage property owners to stay and renovate their properties. The LiNC is structured to encourage such re-hab and that will bode well for the street, for the merchants, and for the adjacent neighborhoods.

We have already seen signs of improvements via re-building of the commercial activities at the southern corners of Lincoln and Pico. Murals have been added to several buildings along the street, and there are at least two more commercial re-hab projects currently in the planning stages.

The Ocean Park and Sunset Park sides of Lincoln add an interesting complexity to the design solution as the cross streets are offset from each other, making signaling and pedestrian crossings challenging. Landscaped medians offer a viable opportunity to provide safe crossing locations, and several potential new crossings are being studied. With offset streets and medians, left turns onto some residential side streets will be impacted, with a possible upside being that traffic will have fewer left turns slowing traffic, and potentially help reduce cut-thru traffic in the neighborhoods.

The LiNC team has listened attentively to the residents and businesses, and the progress is encouraging. Lincoln is a City gateway that also serves three neighborhoods, and we hope to see it continue to evolve into a boulevard that says welcome to visitors, as well as providing a reimagined pedestrian environment– a Lincoln that can be a model for improvements to all of our major boulevards. A Lincoln Blvd. finally being set free from blight.

Bob Taylor, AIA for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

A Richly Diverse Life, and City

Diversity in Housing Types

Anybody wanting to live in Santa Monica today has a limited number of housing types from which to choose. One could purchase a single-family home or a condominium, or rent an apartment (or condo). But there are many more ways in which people live communally. Multigenerational family homes are now more common, and the desire by many people to age in place (sometimes with assistance), start new families, or live close to their relatives can be hampered by a rigid and limited zoning code that can also needlessly increase the cost of housing for many middle-class folks.

Our new zoning code will undergo a number of amendments in coming years. We have an opportunity to provide more flexibility in our laws, to help provide homes for a variety of living styles and incomes for people at different stages of life. And we can use this flexibility to improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods, while responding to the rapid changes in living styles that we are already experiencing.

One example of a flexible use of property is the use of granny flats. The law already allows accessory dwelling units, although the conditions for such units can be overly restrictive, especially with parking. There are smaller properties that just don’t have enough space to both comply with parking requirements and have room for a second unit on the property. With granny flats, a relaxation of parking requirements (including tandem parking in drive- ways) could allow smaller properties to have second units too. In many cases these units house family members (especially elderly ones) or students who may be less likely to own cars. Larger properties often have these units, and smaller-and less expensive-properties should have these as well.

There are also many converted garages around the city that are being used as apartments illegally. The zoning code requires the distance between accessory dwelling units and property lines to be the same as for a main home. But detached garages are often too close to the property lines to be converted legally. So many homeowners convert the garages to art studios or recreation rooms instead, and then rent them out as apartments. Since kitchens are not allowed with these uses, improvised kitchen appliances, all with extension cords, eventually make their appearance and create hazardous conditions. Why not allow these units to be converted legally? These units would need to comply with a building permit’s safety requirements, and the fire department, for one, would be happy.

Accessory units can be useful in ways that are not always evident. For example, this writer knows of one couple that downsized, moved to their accessory dwelling unit, and happily rented out the main house to a young and growing family to help with the mortgage. In another similar case, a rent-to-own arrangement helped the family renting the front house to eventually own the entire property when the downsized owners living in the back were ready to move on.

Leaving aside the state mandates regarding second units, many homeowners (and indeed neighborhoods) want and can benefit from extra people living on the property, either for reasons of rent, or family member placement, or simply having an extra pair of eyes around for safety’s sake. These kind of situations can help everyone involved take care of a property over an extended period of time; a very desirable outcome for the entire community. Future years may bring changes in single-family residence zones to allow more than one family to live in, and own, a resi- dence. Legalizing more accessory units would help us understand in time how to maintain a neighborhood’s character and quality of life while responding to changes in society.

Another type of zoning modification could help provide more opportunities for people wanting to purchase a unit in zones earmarked for multifamily housing. The city has several zones of this type, notably R2 and R3 zones. These areas can accommodate rental apartments and condo- miniums. But condominium construction has slowed enormously in recent years, driven–in part–by economic conditions, and by a very bad climate of lawsuits and litigation that discourage mom-and-pop owners from building such projects, and increase the cost of bank financing and monthly fees for new owners.

For these kinds of areas, the City of Los Angeles has developed a solution, and a model that Santa Monica could follow. In Los Angeles a new kind of zoning, the Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance, has created many more opportunities within multifamily zones. The law allows the divi- sion of properties within these zones into small lots that contain detached townhomes. A buyer owns both the structure of the townhome and the land beneath it, unlike condominiums, where the buyer also owns (and is responsible for) a portion of the shared space.

In many cases this new ordinance has resulted in lower overall prices for apartments, and more easily-available mortgages. Financing is often better and cheaper, and homeowners’ association fees are usually absent. And since small lot projects do not require homeowners’ associations, mandatory HOA insurance policies are also not required, reducing costs further and making bank financing simpler.

Santa Monica could benefit from a similar ordinance. The city has plenty of suitable lots where this type of law could be applied, and the increase in affordability would attract young families that are currently locked out of this market, as well as older individuals who no longer need large properties. It’s not a question of packing in more people: the underlying density remains the same for those zones. But the different way of owning the property creates more opportunities. Why not try this in our own city?

With any amendments to the code, it is essential for new buildings to be completely consistent with a neighborhood’s established character, and for solar access and parking to be resolved in a way that maintains a neighborhood’s character. But it is also time to apply some creative thinking to the way the city’s physical layout encourages (or discourages) a variety of lifestyles and incomes, especially for the middle class. People’s housing needs continue to evolve rapidly, socially and economically. The city belongs to residents, and should reflect, and support, their lifestyle needs.

Daniel Jansenson, Architect, for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

Championing our Parks

parks

In an annual tradition, the month of July was celebrated nationally as Parks & Recreation month. From their inception, parks were created to serve the people – to give them a place to appreciate nature, exercise, socialize and have fun. Last month this tradition reminded all of us of the enduring importance of parks and recreation throughout the world. Our City Council joined in with a city proclamation and the staff of Santa Monica’s Community and Cultural Services Department cre- ated special activities in our parks all month to add an exclamation point. We know that Santa Monica’s residents love our parks and that each minute spent in a park is celebrated with activity, contemplation, a thirst for wellness and a love of nature, in our densely populated urban environment.

It’s clear to the SMart Group that we need more parks. Even with the addition of Tongva Park, the additional parkland that will be added to Stewart Street Park and the City Council’s welcome commitment to twelve more acres at Airport Park, our city will remain among the least green of all comparable cities in California.

From the need to add to our community forest canopy, to insuring that each resident walks no more than ten minutes to local community green space, Santa Monica has work to do. The long- promised additional space at Memorial Park and the Civic Center Multi-Purpose Field will help satisfy the need, but only if proposed plans are realized at these locations. Additional identified locations for mini parks, parklets and a view park at Mt Olivet Reservoir will help fulfill neighborhood park requirements.

Scientific studies show that trees are essential to our physical and mental health. An increase of ten or more trees to each block in our city will lead to increased longevity for our residents, reduce mental health issues and lead people to increase exercise time. Even though we’re in a drought, our community forest canopy is an asset that must be maintained to support the health of our city’s residents. We are suffering a decline of trees in both our community forest and our parks. Even historic Palisades Park has suffered a decrease in trees that won’t be fully reversed for five years. That’s unacceptable. Our City Council must reverse this trend by allotting more budget dollars to strengthen our tree-planting program. Local companies, service organizations and indi- viduals can join the effort by helping to purchase trees for our parks and streetscape.

As one step toward increasing community health, we can emulate other cities on the west coast by establishing a series of small community orchards that offer free fruit for all. As we plant trees to enhance our urban forest canopy, some should be fruit trees. A network of community gardens can be established on street corners throughout the residential areas of our city. A cur- rent example in our vicinity is CommunityHealingGardens.org. This organization places boxed vegetable gardens on street corners throughout Venice. The food grown is shared among the immediate neighbors and donated to others in need of fresh fruits and vegetables. Their goal is to plant 999 fruit trees and place 400 edible garden boxes in Venice in 2015. That’s a sound idea worth implementing in Santa Monica.

We support the fulfillment of the 2005 Civic Center Specific Plan by adding a two-acre multi- use field in the land now occupied by the Civic Parking Lot. The over 3000 students at Samohi have always had a deficit of green space. We can fix that need. Generations of teens will benefit if we provide an athletic area that can be used by our entire community for both sports and special events. Through an opportune development, we could see a return of ice hockey and ice-skating to our city – in a facility with a community sports field on its roof. Imagine the benefits of a partner- ship that would lead to the facility being constructed at no cost to our taxpayers in what is now an asphalt parking lot.

The former Fisher Lumber yard was purchased by the city with the intent of adding it to the acreage of Memorial Park. Instead, it’s become the open space management parking lot, with one section now being carved into temporary metered parking. Our city’s current athletic facilities are overflowing with need. We can’t afford to let promised parkland become a parking lot when our children and teens have no place to practice or play. It’s time to find another place to park our city’s vehicles and fulfill an earlier City Council’s promises to our youth.

Adding mini parks and pocket playgrounds in our neighborhoods will help residents in a city teeming with apartment houses. Over 70% of Santa Monica residents live in apartments. Parkland therefore becomes a critical piece of the urban puzzle. Neighborhood parks make living in an apartment without a scrap of grass bearable and the urban density of Santa Monica passable. Our planning department and the Planning Commission must consider how important open space is for every development. Enjoyment of the sun, the open green space and the trees on each private property leads to higher residual land value and a healthier, happier Santa Monica.

Achieving increased cooperation from SMMUSD for shared athletic facilities at our schools is a necessity and should become a priority. The swimming facilities at Lincoln Middle

School and Santa Monica High School must be available to relieve the competition for space in our municipal pool. Preparing the Lincoln Middle School field for increased use by our youth in afternoons, evenings and weekends will reduce traffic, allow children to play in their own neighborhood and reduce the burden on both Memorial and Clover Parks.

As we seek out additional park space we should not forget our seniors and those with special needs. Ken Edwards Center is the wrong location for our senior center. Locating our seniors’ gath- ering place in the middle of one of the most crowded blocks in our city isn’t conducive to mental or physical health. WISE services does a commendable job each day, yet when advocating for more park space in Santa Monica we must remember that our senior facility inhabits a building surrounded by concrete and traffic. South Beach’s Universally Accessible Playground was Santa Monica’s first play area to accommo- date all children in our city, regardless of ability. A follow up playground at Sorrento beach will be a welcome sequel in 2016. However, we shouldn’t rest until each of our city’s playgrounds is accessi- ble to all of our children.

Finally, the best use of city-owned land must be for the creation of additional parks in our densely populated town. Santa Monica has many parcels of land that we, as residents, own. Rather than create more density on this land, should we not explore the most benevolent use of our community’s land – to designate it as parkland to be used evermore for the community good, both present and future? Once we allow a city owned parcel to be developed that land would never again have a community use. In a city that is so densely populated let’s always consider open space a constant, precious, irrevocable priority. Let’s consider it a right not a privilege, for all peo- ple in Santa Monica to have safe, healthful access to our parks and their recreation opportunities.

Our parks help achieve social equity, improve health and wellbeing, provide an economic stimulus and are vital to the wellbeing of our city. Championing our community’s parks is a great prescription for each of our residents. Side effects of this prescription may include happiness, laugh- ter, and improved health and wellness.

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

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