A Bicycle Built for You

Bikeshare

By now everyone has seen the green bicycles with the Hulu labels on the front, which are zipping everywhere in our city. Conceived over 6 years ago, these bikes are part of the City’s Breeze program which is now 6 months old and is probably the most successful program to try to reduce traffic congestion the City has ever attempted because it has a credible chance to displace a significant number of automobiles. The Breeze program is now old enough that we can begin to see its impact and also hazard a guess as to how it might benefit the city in the future.

Our city is perfect for bicycles being relatively flat and blessed with a very mild climate. Bicycles are most efficient form of transportation ever invented, because they leverage our anatomy to cover quickly long or short distances with minimal effort, are fairly easy to store, are quiet, easily repairable with hand tools, can carry moderate loads, and are relatively cheap to buy. Their major downsides are, of course, safety and convenience, and one must be physically able.

There are currently 500 Breeze bikes in service distributed at 76 curbside stations called hubs (see map here). These hubs are serviced by nine hard-working bike techs and four “balancers” (who redistribute the bikes to keep all the hubs fully stocked) under direction of Kyle Kozar, the City’s bicycle guru. The hubs are concentrated mostly downtown and the major boulevards, but if the stations were evenly sprinkled through out the city, every Santa Monican would be within about a third of a mile, or about three blocks, of a bike hub. This is a fairly good distribution, but to get a higher level of participation, station proximity could be increased. For example, to put every Santa Monican nominally within two blocks of a hub, we would need to double the number of hubs. There is a utilization tipping point between the number of hubs in denser neighborhoods, and more remote bike stations, where in single-family neighborhoods you might find relatively more privately owned bikes being used and stored in private garages.

The storage of bicycles is actually a big consideration as to their convenience, particularly as many people are living in smaller and smaller apartments. For those small apartment residents, having access to a rental bike nearby, adds substantially to their usable space. The City’s new zoning codes addresses this issue by requiring both new commercial and residential buildings to provide bike parking for every unit and in larger projects showers and changing rooms. New residential projects are required to provide one dedicated bike parking space per bedroom and a minimum of two bike spaces (or 10 percent of the unit count) for visitors. The net result of these new codes is that the required bike spaces now total about the same as the required car parking spaces. But the number of new buildings, with these desirable code requirements, is still relatively small compared to the number of residents who are in older buildings trying to find a convenient and secure place to store their bike. For those residents, Breeze is a major benefit.

Safety is the biggest issue for both privately owned and rented bikes. Completely separating bike and cars is the best way to increase bike safety and equally important, the perception of bike safety. The problem, in our densifying City, with its 140 year old street grid, is how to weave in the separated bike paths while the widening of sidewalks, bus lanes, left turn lanes and even the Expo Line are all competing for the same shrinking transit corridor. The City has an excellent network of 107 miles of bike lanes which is slowly growing, and must keep growing. For example the new Expo Line has a dedicated bike path along half its length in Santa Monica. In lieu of completely separating the cars and bikes, green painted lanes are the next best thing, particularly if drivers become more accustomed to their presence as a signal to be extra aware of bike riders. The City is planning to spend $2 million on green bike lanes on 17th Street to feed the Expo Line station near Memorial Park. Finally the real and perceived increase in bike safety, will allow more children to ride safely to school. Thus the peak hour traffic of parents dropping their kids off at school (or older students driving to school) can be potentially reduced. In our long term weaning from the addiction to cars, starting riding a bike as a young person is our best long term investment. If young people are used, from an early age, to using bikes as the default option instead of cars, our City’s traffic can be substantially reduced in the future.

One of the major benefits of bikes is their flexibility. From cargo bikes to electric bikes, to bike tricycles, they can be adapted to many ages and purposes. The Breeze bikes, however, are designed for a universal user. For example, some people feel they are too heavy, but that is because they have to be robust for their street use and for carrying their “smart” module that allows you, for instance, to report repair problems directly from the bike or for Breeze to know where the bike is (some have even been retrieved as far away as Malibu). Likewise, for some users the handle bars feel too close together. Again, these bikes will not be perfect ergonomically for every size user, but with their adjustable seat, they will be reasonably comfortable for the vast majority of users. Finally their front basket may be too small. In the next generation of bikes, the basket should big enough to fully seat a standard grocery bag (right now they are about an inch too small).

These are minor considerations — the bikes have been embraced by a vast majority of users. Currently each bike is being used on average of twice a day. On peak days, each bike is being used an average of four times a day, which is an amazing utilization rate. However, even if we were to use an average of twice a day (1,000 rides), that is a substantial number of cars taken off the road. While it‘s hard to calculate exactly the reduction, we can assume possibly 50 percent of those rides would have otherwise been in cars (including Uber); the rest might have been on buses, by walking or not have occurred at all. Those putative 500 cars represent a huge fraction of, for example, the 1,092 parking spaces for the six large downtown mixed-use projects totaling 568 units approved in the last year. Again, while the actual reduction is difficult to measure precisely, the order of magnitude is of a size sufficient to have real leverage.

Breeze is now tweaking slightly and simplifying their fare structure based on the learning of the first 6 months of operation. One of the original debates in setting up the original fare structure (of membership, of paying by time or how much “free” time you are allowed), was whether it should favor the visitor (who might be willing to pay more) or the resident. The current users are now three-fourths locals and one-fourth visitors, which tells us it is well within the affordability of residents.

Breeze has been an unqualified success, and SMa.r.t. agrees with Michelle Glikert, Santa Monica’s Bicycle Planning Director, who said, “Give it a try.” We hope you do.

Mario Fonda-Bonardi for Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow

The Truth about LUVE, Money & Housing

LUVE Initiative

The Land Use Voter Empowerment (LUVE) Initiative will stop oversized projects while protecting rent controlled and affordable housing in Santa Monica. Our current City Council believes dense, tall, and ill-designed projects are a worthwhile exchange for a handful of affordable units and other minimal “community benefits.” The truth is LUVE strongly supports housing, but will empower voters to stop large, environmentally damaging mixed-use projects that are currently being built under the city’s Development Agreement process. LUVE will stop the developer feeding frenzy that is eroding existing affordable rental housing and choking our beach town.

Consider the many ways that LUVE will have a beneficial impact on housing:

1. Height is not a limit to housing development with LUVE.
Our city is predominantly 1 and 2-stories. Downtown and along the boulevards, 75% of the properties are either 1 or 2-stories or vacant lots. The average height of buildings downtown is approximately 30’. Our existing zoning code establishes a 32’ height limit, which LUVE endorses. Designing 3-story buildings within 32’ is totally feasible. Given the amount of vacant lots and 1-story buildings throughout the boulevards and downtown, 32’ allows substantial room for additional growth while incentivizing adaptive reuse of existing 2-story buildings.

2. Limits of Growth
If one were to develop the 1-story buildings and vacant land to a height of 32’ along the boulevards and in the downtown, it could create up to 20 million sq. ft. of housing, the equivalent of 15,000 apartments capable of housing 30,000 people. This amounts to a sixty year supply according to the Southern California Association of Governments. LUCE, Santa Monica’s general plan, anticipates adding 5,000 homes housing an additional 10,000 people by 2030. Santa Monica will likely continue to exceed SCAG targets. Almost 900 units were approved for construction last year, 375% more than required.

3. 77 Properties are Excluded from Voter Approval with LUVE
The 77 properties excluded from LUVE are identified in the “Suitable Site Inventory” in Santa Monica’s General Plan Housing Element. These sites are identified as “underutilized properties in transit oriented, mixed-use districts – including mixed-use boulevards, downtown, Bergamot & Memorial Park – 4 areas where strong interest to develop housing has already been demonstrated.” These are vacant lots or 1-story properties built prior to 1942 without a 32’ height restriction. These 77 properties alone represent 4,500 units capable of accommodating 9,000 new residents- 10% of our current population. 20% of the 4,500 units (900 units), could be designated “affordable” through the approval process. Additionally, LUVE does not require voter approval of 100% affordable, moderate income, or senior housing projects or projects in compliance with Coastal Zoning.

4. LUVE Protects Rental Controlled Housing Rates
It’s a common assumption that housing surplus depresses rents with supply overriding demand. But Santa Monica’s history, due to its location, shows rents continually rising despite the number of new units built. A 2015, survey showed median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica at $3,160, the highest on the Westside including Beverly Hills, Bel Air, Brentwood and Westwood. When location drives demand, rents go up no matter how much housing is built. Unless 10,000 units drop from the sky, rents are not going to stabilize under the present D.A. process. With higher rents, fueled by infinite demand, how can LUVE help resolve this conundrum? A 3-story, 32’ limit will dampen increasing land values that are currently based on 6 & 7-story heights. A 3-story building will reduce permit processing and construction cost compared to buildings with twice the height, that necessitate 1 or 2 stories of concrete construction, additional fire regulations, etc. And with further economic incentives, the adaptive reuse of existing 2, 3 and 4-story buildings, workforce housing for middle income families and young professionals would be more economical and much more realistic.

5. LUVE Preserves Affordability
Our City Council regards affordable housing production as a top priority often at the expense of the environment, work-force housing, open space, sunlight & blue skies, and traffic congestion. About 1,000 affordable units have been built by private developers under the city’s Affordable Housing Program with another 200 affordable units in the 25 pending D.A.’s. Once LUVE is approved, redevelopment of the 77 lots listed in the Housing Element as “underutilized properties” could provide an additional 900 affordable units. With lower land and construction costs, and city incentives, a good amount of affordable units could be realized through buying and rehabbing existing buildings. The city should be using its own resources to achieve housing quotas. There is the possibility of developing an unused portion of the Blue Bus yard into a village of 350 garden apartments complete with social programs. This would require assigning equivalent acreage at the Bergamot or airport service yards to transportation or simply asking Washington to release the city from its commitment to transportation. Other opportunities might allow “granny flats” above or adjacent to garages. Creative thinking needs to replace our dependence on developers!

6. LUVE Preserves Existing Neighborhoods
As land prices rise, so does gentrification. With Santa Monica neighborhoods and commercial streets being predominantly 1 and 2-stories, changing a code that currently allows 5, 6 and 7-story buildings to one that allows 1, 2 and 3-stories will definitely help preserve existing neighborhoods and promote mixed-use development while retaining neighborhood scale and character.

7. LUVE Will Help Minimize Future Traffic Impact
LUVE will minimize traffic impacts by spreading development throughout the boulevards and our downtown, lessening concentration of traffic in specific areas where developers feel they can make the most money. Concentration of density near transit stations has proven to raise rents in those areas – shutting out lower income families that are the most likely to use transit. LUVE will lead to a more attractive and safer pedestrian environment with human scale buildings that will provide “eyes on the street.”

8. LUVE allows rebuilding after fire, earthquake, or other natural disasters
LUVE allows the same response to earthquake, fire, or flood damage as our current code. State law allows rebuilding of public schools and multi-family housing. Additionally, the city’s municipal code pertaining to rebuilding after these types of losses is not altered by LUVE for all building uses within the city. Whether a building is damaged partially or in whole, the city’s existing code will continue to govern and allow complete reconstruction without voter approval requirements. The existing process of reviews and approvals for reconstruction will govern. LUVE does not alter what building and state codes allow for these types of reconstruction activities.

In summary, LUVE protects existing housing and neighborhoods and offers opportunities to add all the housing we could ever need. The reason for the LUVE Initiative is to stop the stampede of development and greed, ill-designed buildings, lack of open space, and promised “community benefits,” which aren’t worth the price and may never materialize – like the parking structure promised but never built after St. John’s Hospital expanded. It’s about ending a process that approved 365 units in 5 story buildings in a neighborhood of 1 and 2 story buildings where the city settled for $2.4 million in “community benefits” while the developer sold his approval for $68 million without ever breaking ground.

City Hall’s lack of foresight and creative thinking has brought us to this point. When will City Government learn that bigger is not always better? LUVE affords them this opportunity. Everybody needs to understand who the REAL stakeholders are – it is the residents, not developers. There is absolutely no reason to cater to developers when we can build within the code as LUVE allows, achieving all of our goals. LUVE is workable, sustainable, and, YES, SORELY NEEDED!!

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

When it comes to sustainability, is Santa Monica in hot water?

Sustainable City

We’ve all heard the fable about the frog in a pot of water on the stove. At first, the frog is complacent and unaware of its imminent demise. It is only when the water becomes unbearably hot that it realizes the danger, albeit too late. Our fate and timing might not be so different. The earth is slowly warming due to the “greenhouse effect,” a result of rampant development on our planet. Some still believe it’s a hoax. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth.

Perhaps the scale of the problem makes it difficult to grasp. Many people do not accept their role in its creation and hence its remediation. This year was the warmest on record, made worse by the scant rainfall in Southern California. Despite overwhelming evidence, there are still many that deny that our climate is changing. To them, our current water shortage may appear as nothing more than another “dry season.” Unfortunately, some of the naysayers are leaders in their communities, who may be uninformed or in denial.

The best way to slow climate change is through sustainable practices. What is sustainability? It is the ability to live within limits that avoid the exhaustion of our resources and the resultant fouling of the planet on which our life depends. The endgame comes when our resources are depleted and byproducts have degraded the biosphere irreparably. It is then, like the frog in the pot, that we may find that it is too late.

In many ways, Santa Monica is more aware than most communities. We have an Office of Sustainability that is tasked with the management our resources. This office sets guidelines in the areas of water usage, reduction of waste, solar energy use and housing. On many of these fronts we have made progress. The fact remains, however, that we are still far short of our goals for a sustainable future by the City’s own targets.

Up to now, our ability to limit our City’s “footprint” has resulted more from the actions of our citizenry than our civic leaders. Ironically, it is often the case that our City policies are working at cross-purposes to their stated goal of a net-zero city. Case in point is the City Council’s rush to over-develop without consideration of the consequences. Our current path is clearly unsustainable and if not reversed will eventually lead to the depletion of our City’s resources, along with its unique charm.

For example, while residential users have reduced water usage and increased recycling, the opposite has occurred in the commercial sector. While residents are being asked to leave their cars in the garage and use bikes or public transit, the City has approved some projects that exceed our codes, strain our infrastructure, and increase waste. These developments will also increase traffic and negate any sacrifices on the part of the residents. This must stop.

The gravity of our situation recently motivated residents to gather more than 10,000 signatures to put the LUVE initiative put on the November ballot. If it passes, it will prohibit City officials from “rubber stamping” projects with special agreements that exceed our current codes. The responsibility for these approvals will revert to the residents and the ballot box. This is not a change to our codes. It is rather the restructuring of the approval process that has been abused by those in power.

Our City measures a little over 8.4 square miles, with neither the resources nor infrastructure to support the growth that is now projected. Currently, there are over 25 projects that exceed “by right” planning codes that are requesting special approvals through negotiated development agreements. The City Council will likely approve the majority of these requests, if past history is any indication. The Master Plan for our City and its downtown are still missing. It is our opinion that all future development agreements should be put on hold until this plan has been completed and it can be shown that the proposed growth is sustainable.

This failure to plan ahead will affect the capacity of our streets, electrical grid and water, in addition to the burden being placed on our schools, police and fire departments. When our infrastructure reaches its limit, it will be the residents, not the developers, who will be asked to “pick up the tab” for new water sources, electrical grids and waste systems. The developers responsible for the crisis will have taken their profits and moved on. The City’s paltry development fees will be of little use when the time comes to remediate the damage.

Some might claim that development is necessary to build more affordable housing. This is a Devil’s bargain. The argument that we should replace the low-rise buildings along our streets and boulevards with large commercial projects for a few token affordable units is fallacious. The low number of units in these projects, most unsuitable for families, cannot compensate for the increased traffic or the strain on our resources and infrastructure.

One of the main drivers of our City’s economy is tourism. When the shadows of towering new buildings turn our streets into gridlocked dark corridors, out of scale and character with our beachfront community, our allure as a tourist destination and as a place to live will be diminished.

There is a better approach — one that is sustainable and can still provide additional housing. It entails a shift from demolition to the rehabilitation of our existing building stock. It is an approach that is both more ecological and will preserve the City’s charm while avoiding the pitfalls of newer, larger projects. Family housing is best when it is integrated into the existing city fabric as low-rise buildings, more family-friendly and with proximity to schools and parks. The newer, larger commercial projects are usually the opposite: oversized, lacking in family amenities and placed in areas that have more traffic and pollution.

Although it is obvious that there are limits to growth, these limits are rarely discussed. We are already one of the densest small cities along the California coast. In addition, our residential population of 94,000 more than doubles daily if one counts tourists, commuters and SMC students. Santa Monica plays an important regional role, for both economic activity and recreation. To ignore the pitfalls of over-development in our small, already crowded City will reduce its desirability for residents and visitors alike.

Our City Council’s first order of business should be to do a thorough inventory of our infrastructure and resources and establish a sustainable level of development. This study would form the basis for the approval of future projects and the necessary upgrades required to our existing infrastructure to support them. While we will continue to provide affordable housing, we must do so in a manner that does not degrade our quality of life, that is consistent with best housing practices and is sustainable for future generations.

The esteemed biologist Rene Dubos once said, “Think globally, act locally.” Santa Monica is a small city but has a global reach due to its reputation and many visitors. Let’s set an example for all to follow — for our own good and for the good of our planet. An excellent start would be to have our representatives make more of an effort to plan ahead and act responsibly for a brighter and more sustainable future. If they are not up to the task, we should elect new leaders who are.

Thane Roberts for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

THE SKY IS NOT FALLING!

Chicken Little

For some time now, the architects, engineers (and one Parks commissioner) that make up this group have been accused of slow, dry writing and wonky jargon-filled screeds. Your message, we are told, is lost in the details! No matter. Today we try something new: a guest contribution by a highly opinionated Recreation & Parks Commissioner, professor and journalist with an unambiguous message for the residents of our fair city.

The opinions expressed below are John Smith’s. But not just his own–they are shared by many in the community. We feel they deserve a hearing…

If one were to believe some of the Chicken Little hysteria over the LUVE Initiative coming from the so-called “community” group Santa Monica Forward and a few others, one might indeed think the sky was falling, the anti-Christ had arrived and Santa Monica was about to fall into the ocean.

But you’re too smart for that.

So are the 10,000+ people who signed the Residocracy petition in opposition to pro-development profiteers and their cadre of supporters, who would love to pack a few thousand more mostly market-rate housing units in our city like so many college sophomores in a phone booth.

Oh how they blather on about the need for more housing, yet fail to admit that the vast majority of units they yearn to build would be unaffordable to the people they claim to care about. Have the units built the past few years lowered housing costs even a penny? Nope. Yet these pro-development carpet-baggers continue to peddle their trickle-down housing scheme as our savior and our duty. They claim LUVE will hasten Ellis evictions and the destruction of current housing while displacing seniors and lower-income residents. But just who do you think buys up those properties and takes apartment buildings off the market, then kicks out those seniors and lower-income tenants so they can construct more market-rate units few can afford? Who do you think pushed and pulled and paid to get laws like Ellis and Costa-Hawkins passed in the first place? The same people who can’t give any real-world examples of where intense market-rate density has made housing more affordable.

Ask them. All you’ll get is the sound of silence.

The urban sprawl that is present-day Southern California is in many respects the result of promises made by developers who’ve spent decades building in farther away places such as Riverside, Rancho Cucamonga and Santa Clarita, promising then, as now, that they are the answer to our housing needs. And now that the easiest money has long since been made, they claim we must no longer build out, but up toward a higher and denser Santa Monica.

Nice try.

Here’s a simple truth: Developers always build where profit potential is highest. They’ve chosen Santa Monica because they think they can make a killing. Here’s another: LUVE will not cause more traffic in our city. What has and will is development. The pro-development cabal pretends it’s all about diversity, affordability, inclusiveness and sustainability, “feel-good” terms they toss around like so many Frisbees at the beach. What they’re really about is greed. Their housing crisis call-to-arms is merely the mask they hide behind to make money. Do you really think Mr. NMS cares about affordable housing? Then why does he not build a higher percentage of affordable housing units in every project he plops down in our city?

A stampede of market-rate housing will not make Santa Monica more affordable, any more than will additional lanes on the 405 reduce traffic. Developers and the people who support them are just trying to confuse you by claiming this is a debate about housing, when it’s really just about more development. They’re betting you’re too busy to notice.

But you already have.

Look. I bike all over town and will love riding the Expo to USC, where I teach journalism, in the fall. But I’ve also worked in news and covered elections my whole life and know “political spin” when I see it. Developers have launched a concerted effort, via groups with names such as “Forward” and “Next”, to put a ”community” spin on their profiteering. If the Downtown “Community” Plan is approved as is, developers will push to fill Downtown as full and tall and as dense as zoning allows and then some, and will keep pushing for “development agreements” which produce higher and denser projects far beyond what our rubber-band zoning laws allow.

If we let them.

What it boils down to is this: LUVE was created to put those development decisions in the hands of residents. I bet most think a 148-foot hotel-office complex with very little ground-level green space on PUBLIC land in the heart of our city at 4th and 5th and Arizona, is excessive. With a precedent like that, who knows what our city will look like long after the current Council is gone. Why not just put development to a vote and let residents decide? After all, it’s our city. Who do you trust more: Residents who’ve lived here all of their lives, or people and organizations whose sole purpose in life is profit?

One final point…

Santa Monica Forward seems to have some pretty deep pockets for a “community” group. If I were you, I’d wonder where they get their money. Someone is now paying people to go door-to-door and scare residents about the LUVE Initiative. Someone is paying for the phone survey calls many residents are getting lately. The seven REAL neighborhood groups, Wilshire-Montana Neighborhood Coalition, Northeast Neighbors, Mid City Neighbors, NOMA, PNA, OPA and Friends of Sunset Park, don’t have that kind of money. I know because I’m on the Wilmont Board. We meet at the Montana Branch Library. We’re celebrating our 20th year. We didn’t just pop up before an election. We didn’t just hold our kick-off party in a building owned by one of Santa Monica’s most-prolific developers. We also don’t offer anyone who shows up free drinks. But that’s exactly what one new “community” group did just a few short weeks ago.

Elections are always about choices. We all know how much money goes into influencing politics, policies and politicians. Some of that money is right here, right now and working to get its way so certain entities can get THEIR way and make money.

Let’s not let them.

John C. Smith for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)