Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Sustainable Cities - They're walkable

A recent article on the web site fo the Center for American Progress http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2009/02/green_transit.html provides listings of the "greenest" cities by transit use and walkability. The article compiled different rankings that judged cities, "not only on how much transit they endorse, support, and make available but also on how many dwellers actually use that transit." The article goes onto say, that "Individuals’ daily decisions, like not driving alone, can make a big difference in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, saving money, and even helping residents to lead healthier lives." Of course I would add those same decisions could make a big difference in traffic reduction, an issue of almost equal concern to Santa Monicans as the issue of sustainability.

By combining the various rankings, two top cities emerge, New York and San Francisco. However, since each of the rankings utilize different indicators, a number of other cities jostle for the next three spots. These cities include: Portland, OR, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Honolulu, Oakland, CA, and Cambridge, MA.

However, one of the sites, WalkScore.com provides a ranking using criteria that seem especially appropriate for Santa Monica, which does not yet possess rail transit. Walkscore looks at the proximity and interrelatedness of stores, restaurants, schools, parks, workplaces along with transit hubs (including bus hubs). An individual's choice to forego use of their car (or not to own one in the first place) is ultimately based on this combination of factors. Interestingly, Philadelphia cracked the list using this more holistic set of criteria, while Portland cracked one of the other lists, primarily due to its high level of bike ridership, which leads me to the point of this post

As a community that aspires to be among the greenest in the nation, we Santa Monicans should consider that the list of the most sustainable cities in the U.S. are the densest, most functionally diverse, most walkable and most bikeable. In fact these characteristics are synergistic. Philly is not a city full of solar panels, yet, but it is a city in which a two-mile walk feels like a short stroll, because the character of the urban space is so charming. As Santa Monica grows upward, city leaders and advocates alike should all make sure that its new growth is still aimed downward, i.e., at the sidewalk, at the place where people inhabit the city, where they walk, bike and engage in the daily activities of public life. Each new building should aim to enhance that experience and contribute to the ensemble that ultimately is the Sustainable City.

For another take on sustainable cities check out: http://www.dcexaminer.com/opinion/Help-the-environment-stay-in-the-city-39422222.html

The days when we were just building sprawl forever, those days are over

It has been over three months since I've posted to this blog, but President Obama's remarks today have inspired me to get back in the game. Today, at a 'town hall' meeting in Fort Meyers, FL he said:

I’d like for us to invest in mass transit, because potentially that’s energy efficient. I think people are a lot more open now to thinking regionally. The days when we were just building sprawl forever, those days are over. I think that Republicans, Democrats, that that is not a smart way to design communities, so that we should be using this money to help spur this kind of innovative thinking when it comes to transportation, that’ll make a big difference.

Assuming that there is any money for any of this high speed rail, (and with Measure R some support for rail is assured) what does this mean for Santa Monica: the extension of Expo Line, the Subway to the Sea? How about a rail line down Lincoln to the LAX? One thing is certain, it must mean more density, not just for Santa Monica, but for all the mature communities of the Southland. For that to happen, we need to continue to think creatively at blended density solutions that are idiosyncratic, site specific, and pedestrian friendly. We need to continue to support a robust and finely grained mix of uses that support vibrant sub-neighborhoods, even blocks.

The current economic downturn may be a blessing in disguise for Santa Monica. It may allow for completion of the LUCE in a less frantic manner, so that when things heat back up, we are prepared for it.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

RIFT is History -- Now what?

One of my big problems with Prop T, was that it was the wrong strategy to solve the problem. I don't think we should be focused on not allowing traffic to get less horrific than it would otherwise be, (as Prop T supporters admitted was the goal) but instead we should be focused on real traffic reduction strategies, with a goal of reducing overall traffic in the city by 25%, all this without arbitrarily limiting the cap on any one kind of development.

I will repaste here, a link to traffic reduction strategy completed for the City of Pasadena by my friends at Nelson/Nygaard. http://www.ci.pasadena.ca.us/trans/ARCHIVE/20070421_Workshop/Pasadena_Traffic_Reduction_Strategies_11_2_06_DRAFT.pdf
This is 12-step strategy for traffic reduction that incorporates the most important lessons learned from the case studies of cities that have already reduced traffic, and from a large body of transportation research literature. Over the next few weeks, I will elaborate on several of these steps. This will be a lot of postings, but real traffic reduction is complex issue, and the solution will not be a simple one, despite what Prop T supporters would have you believe.

As I understand from my traffic planner friends the city need not implement all of these recommendations to achieve benefit from them, however some of them do work synergistically with one another. And in order to achieve a real reduction in existing vehicle trips during the evening peak hour, at least one of the strategies -- congestion pricing -- is almost certainly essential

One of the other keys, as I pointed out in my blog is that pass-through trips, with neither origin nor destination in Santa Monica probably accounts for at least some share of peak hour trips on Santa Monica city streets. Even if all Santa Monica residents and workers stopped driving completely, there would still be cars on Santa Monica city streets. If, through a variety of programs, Santa Monica reduces local trips, this will reduce delays for pass-through traffic. Cutting through Santa Monica on city streets will become more attractive, and it is very likely that therefore more pass-through traffic would be induced. To fully counteract this "rebound effect", congestion pricing is the only remedy known to be effective. This does not mean that the other strategies recommended here cannot be helpful or should not be pursued.

Here are the 12 strategies:

1) Charge the right price for curb parking. Charge the lowest price that will leave one or two vacant spaces on each block -- that is, performance-based pricing. This will eliminate the traffic congestion caused by drivers cruising for parking.
2) Return the meter revenue to the neighborhoods that generate it. Revenue return will make performance-based prices for curb parking politically popular.

  • Create additional commercial parking benefit districts,
  • Establish Residential Parking Benefit Districts.

3) Invest a portion of parking revenues in transportation demand management programs.
4) Provide Universal Transit Passes.
5) Require the unbundling of parking costs.

  • Unbundle parking costs from housing costs.
  • Unbundle parking costs from commercial leases.
  • Unbundle parking costs from the costs of other goods and services, with selected exceptions.

6) Require Parking Cash-Out.
7) Strengthen transportation demand management requirements.
8) Improve transit.
9) Improve bicycle and pedestrian facilities and programs.
10) Remove minimum parking requirements for off-street parking.
11) Set maximum parking requirements.
12) Establish congestion pricing. (This one needs a change in state law)

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Real Message from the Rejection of Proposition T

The Blame Game has begun. With the rejection Proposition T, RIFT supporters have unleashed a barrage of explanations and recriminations. These mostly deal with the money spent by “out of state” developers. We’ve also been reminded that virtually half of Santa Monicans supported the measure.

Supporters of Prop T seemed to miss the message imbedded in the vote.

This was not a close election. By example, I would point out that the gap between the two presidential candidates was 7%, and no one is arguing that it was a nail biter. The margin of victory of Prop T was 12%. This was a fairly sound rejection of the measure. While Prop T supporters argue that 16,000 folks voted for it, it should be noted that 20,000 residents voted against it.

Yet, I read and hear that this election was bought and paid for by “greedy” developers who subverted the residents’ wishes. The suggestion by the Prop T proponents that these 20,000 voters were somehow duped or misled is naive. That their vote somehow distorts the “residents,” wishes or that they are somehow less representative of the "community" is insulting. Prior to the election, I was told more than once by Prop T proponents that Santa Monicans are smart, that they would “see-through the developer mis-information.” So either, all of a sudden we’ve gotten dumb, or 20,000 Santa Monicans thought Prop T was not good policy. If the Prop T supporters don’t at least consider this in their post-election introspection than they are deceiving themselves.

Even the Santa Monica Mirror, hardly a tool of the development community rejected Prop T in its endorsements. The paper argued, as have many others, that the City has undertaken a public planning process, albeit a slow one, resulting in a plan known as LUCE, as imperfect it is, that ought to be respected. It is neither a top down document, nor is it the product of a handful of community advocates, but one with a whole host of authors , contributors and critics.

Clearly Santa Monica is not a monolithic community. It does not have one resident constituency, but many. It is a constituency that will continue to evolve in unpredictable directions. LUCE is a document that is full of compromises reflecting the heterogeneity of opinion to be found in this wonderful city. This election seems to me to be an acknowledgement of those differences and shows respect for this multi-year process. That’s the message I think we should be taking from last Tuesday’s Election Day.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Way to Go Santa Monica!!

Well, we dodged a big one last night. Proposition T was defeated by a 12% majority. That strikes me as a victory for the LUCE process, and a defeat of ad hoc planning by a strident minority. Over the next few weeks I will transform this blog into one that advocates on urban design and planning issues in the city, but for now, I will just enjoy. Congratulations to all who worked against this measure, to our re-elected council members, and to everyone who voted for Measure R, an important part of this overall effort.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Why Proposition T May Not Be Good for Local Shop Owners

One of the curious arguments that I've heard in support of Proposition T is that by capping commercial development in the City we will be supporting Mom and Pop stores. To be fair, this is not the main argument in favor of the measure, but it has been offered as something of an indirect benefit. I assume that the belief is that by limiting new commercial development we will be minimizing the ability of new chain stores to come into the city and effectively put these local shops out of business.

However, I'm not sure I buy this argument. Local stores, such as my favorite second hand bookstore, Kultura Books on Ocean Park at 17th Street (shameless plug, I know, but it's owned by a great couple who really know books, music and art) survive and sometimes thrive because they effectively compete with the chains, either because they've carved out a unique market niche, offer superior service and/or pay cheaper rent. In most cases all three conditions are present.

So how will Prop T effect any of those three criteria? Well, I suspect it will have an affect on rents. Prop T will be of great benefit to existing commercial property owners in the City by limiting future supply. The price of real estate, like every other commodity is driven by supply and demand. Unfortunately, this measure will not affect demand. As a result, a scarcity of commercial space will be created over time driving up commercial rents. Commercial landlords will be handed a gift with this measure. For absolutely no effort, they will see an ever growing rise in commercial rents, merely because they have been freed from competition. Chain stores will still make every effort to come into the City, but they will have fewer options. This pattern of ever rising rents, in cities that have severely limited growth, is common. In this case, it's a sure way to drive out the Mom and Pop's we'd all like to protect.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Proposition T is a Simplistic Solution to Complex Problem

According the flyer I just received in the mail, the authors of Proposition T claim that it is very well written.  However, I beg to disagree.

Not that I have any problem with the grammar or syntax, or that it’s hard to understand. No, Proposition T gets a passing grade there. It is so simple that even a child could comprehend most of it.

When critics of Proposition T claim that it isn’t well written, they mean that as a policy document it is ambiguous and raises a staggering array of implementation and enforcement questions. Here’s a list that I generated on the back of an envelope. I bet there are more.

  1. Who decides which projects get built in a given year? If it’s the City Council or Planning Commission; why would we trust them with these decisions any more than with the overall approval discretion they enjoy now, which this measure denies them? In fact, in a situation such as the one created by Prop T, when a scarcity is created, in this case a scarcity of buildable commercial space, isn’t the potential for lobbying, corruption (of the legal kind) and general sliminess even greater? Can you imagine what the developers will be doing to get their project selected?
  2. What is the decision based upon? Aesthetics? Function? Whether it’s Re-use or New? Geography? Degree of sustainability? Location of the developer, or the architect? If function or geography is the determinate, is there a hierarchical list of uses or locations? Is it for a given year, or does that list change? Who decides on the hierarchy? If aesthetics govern, who decides here? Will we do a call-in like Dancing with Stars, where we pick our favorites, and certain projects get booted off the show. City TV would probably have a ratings bonanza. If it’s some combination of all of the above, would there be some sort of point system? Who would make that up? What would happen during the two years or so we were waiting for this point chart to be argued over and created? Would the competition or decision making take place yearly, bi-annually or on a first in line, first served basis
  3. Why has medical office space been left out of the exemption? This seems to be big concern of both of Santa Monica’s hospitals. Was this just an oversight? If it was an oversight, and the authors didn’t mean that, will we need another ballot measure just to fix the mistakes in this one?
  4. How much affordable housing must be built above ground floor retail to make it exempt from the cap? Can I build two –units atop a Target store? Is it at least 50-50 in terms of square footage? How much?
  5. The measure allows an alternative methodology (other than ITE standards), from a city similar to Santa Monica for determining traffic equivalency when replacing existing commercial space. Who determines which cities are similar? Who determines the applicability of the methodology? It’s pretty clear that the many of the traffic planners the city has used in the past are not trusted by the backers of Prop T, so how why should we trust their determinations on methodology? If a traffic planner making the determination has previously worked for a developer that has given money to fight Prop T, are their judgments to be trusted?
  6. The Proposition allows the city to borrow from future years on the 75,000 square foot cap, so for example a 100,000 sf. could be approved in one year, with 25,000 square feet borrowed from the future. How much can be borrowed? For how long? Can the City go a full year into debt? How about two or three?
  7. If I am the owner of land with active commercial space on it, and I sell to a developer who plans to develop an affordable housing project with ground floor retail, in effect, taking a certain amount of commercial space is being taken off the rolls, does the developer get a “credit” for this space? Can that credit be sold back to the City or to another land-owner in another part of town? If so, does Prop T, in effect, create a new type of real estate market, say a commercial space equivalency market?

Whew! Quite a few questions, no? And I’m just getting started. So now when I hear folks say that Proposition T is well written, and that it’s simple, I respond, simplistic yes, but this it is not simple at all. What Proposition T creates is yet a new bureaucratic nightmare, more work for an overworked planning department, and in the end an ambiguous process whose potential for abuse is off the charts. Proposition T is a really bad idea.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

RIFT Does Not Prevent More Shopping Malls

The literature for Prop T claims that the City has projected the equivalent of up to five more Santa Monica Place Malls in the future. Presumably, passage of Prop T will cut that in half, and so we’ll only have to deal with 2 ½ of these. That doesn’t strike me as much of an improvement.

I don’t ever want to see any of more these mall in the City -- Not one more ever!
I don’t want to see another Water Garden project either.

However, my problem with Santa Monica Place and the Water Garden is not a quantitative one. So I don’t think setting an arbitrary limitation on the quantity of commercial development in the future will, by itself prevent such abominations in the future. The problems of these two projects and others of their ilk are ones of design, and diversity, not mere quantity.

By diversity, I am referring to the mono-culture that each of these projects represents. One is a concentration of office workers only, the other an amalgam of shoppers. Both such concentrations are recipes for congestion. They each subject the city to a pulse of traffic at certain times of the day, while allowing the underutilization of expensive resources at other times. Diverse development provides a more round the clock set of experiences. This spreads out the traffic, and utilizes resources more efficiently, while allowing people to live, work, shop and play within a walkable area.

By design, I am referring to their lack of transparency, both literally and urbanistically. Both of these projects (and they are very definitely projects, not districts, not neighborhoods, not pieces of a town) are ‘coarsely grained.’ Think of a fabric, where the City’s warp and weave is very tight, but a moth has come and eaten a hole in it. Each of these project sits within that moth-hole eaten fabric, what urban designers call a super-block, completely out of scale with the urban street grid of the city in which they sit. In the case of Water Garden, a very sub-urban, highly irrigated and non-native buffer of unusable green space separates the project from the rest of its neighbors turning the edges of the project into auto-dominated no-mans’ lands. At SM Place, a set of parking garages, and blank walls (only some of which are being ameliorated by the renovation) isoloate the behemoth from the City.

If the quantities of commercial space that each of the project represent were distributed more evenly, in more diverse and in more transparent and pedestrian friendly arrangements they would hardly register in terms of traffic and no one would be using them as the poster children of ‘over development.’ I know this because there’s a whole lot more commercial development on the three blocks of 3rd Street that constitute the Promenade than there are at these two projects and no one uses the Promenade as the thing to avoid. I don’t here folks complaining about how lousy Wilshire Boulevard is or Main Street. Good urbanism, diverse and well designed always has a constituency.

Proposition T does nothing to assure good urbanism anywhere. In fact it does the opposite. It limits diversity in favor of a mono-culture of housing. With Proposition T we’re just making the same mistake over again, just giving it different, but worn out clothing.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Proposition T = Common Sense-NOT!

The other day, I noticed an aging little industrial building being rehabbed on Olympic Boulevard in Santa Monica. It’s in the vicinity of the Upper School at Crossroads. Empty for at least three years now it was, until this rehab began, really falling apart. I’d guess it to be about 20,000 sq. feet it size, but it might be a bit more. A new “industrial sash” i.e., a window system composed of a grid of metal with small glass panes in between, is being installed, and the building appears as if it is being readied as a space for a design firm, but that’s just me surmising – it really doesn’t matter. 
What matters is that an abandoned hulk of a building is being brought back to life, and its effect will be to put more eyes on the street, and to bring a bit more humanity to an otherwise soulless boulevard.

However, because the building has been vacant for more than two years it would, under Proposition T, be considered new. So if this project were being undertaken under RIFT, the proposed renovation of this 20,000+/- sf. building would be in competition for the 75,000 sf. of allocable commercial space in a given year. If it succeeded in being selected (who knows how that will be done) only 55,000 sf. would still be available in the entire city for allocation in a given year. This is maybe enough for a viable medical office building (remember hospitals are exempt, but medical office space is not).

The renovation of Santa Monica Place is also most welcome. While in my opinion it doesn’t go far enough (it is still a mall after all) at least it will be better connected to the rest of the area. However, the old Robinsons-May department store has also been vacant for over two years. Its renovation and refilling as a Nordstrom would, if constructed under Proposition T, absorb at least a year’s worth of commercial development (probably more). The Wilshire Theater has been vacant, I’d guess about a year now, and assuming it stays that way for one more year, its renovation would suck up well over another year’s worth of commercial development, just to bring it back to life. And that’s assuming that these projects were “selected.” Nothing in Proposition T gives priority to renovations or rehabilitations or even the re-leasing existing space. These buildings, could simply sit waiting their turn, if in fact their turn ever came. Does this make any sense?

But I’ve heard a lot about how Proposition T, with its cap on new commercial development, will lead to a reduction in traffic increase, that it’s just “common sense.” Even Council Member Bobby Shriver, a man for whom I have great respect (but happen to disagree with on this issue) has written as much in his belated endorsement of the measure.

Well the world of planning is full of such “common sense” debacles. Whether it was the separation of uses, which led to so much traffic congestion to begin with – housing over here, shopping over there, workplaces over in this other area – a prescription referred to as “Euclidean Zoning” (after the supreme court decision involving the city of Euclid, OH), or the post-war penchant by traffic engineers to create nice and wide residential streets under the belief that wider was safer – a strategy that, as it happened, simply encouraged cars to go faster resulting in more pedestrian fatalities than had been the norm, our planning history is full of “common sense” approaches that were anything but sensical. I could go on. For example there’s the "common sense" approach to traffic planning that minimizes intersections in favor of unimpeded multi-lane arterials of the Cloverfield ilk that supposedly make traffic go faster and unencumbered, but which, in the end, lead to such pedestrian unfriendly travesties as the Water Garden.

Then there was the common sense approach of building urban shopping malls that were the rage in the 70’s that led to the destruction of blocks and blocks of good urban buildings, the privatization of the public realm, and concentration of one type of space in a very tight area, (causing massive traffic congestion) in order to construct such street-killing, soulless behemoths as Santa Monica Place.

So it may seem like common sense to limit commercial development as a way of reducing traffic, but only if:

1) Santa Monica itself were isolated, and could control what happened beyond its borders;
2) Santa Monica did not have a major interstate, and a collection of state highways and arterials bisecting its geography allowing traffic to move through the City on its way to other places;
3) The limitation imposed by Proposition T was not so transit-unsupportive;
4) The limitation would not reduce the effectiveness of Transportation Demand Management;
5) Proposition T provided incentives for re-using existing space and did not treat existing commercial space, vacant over two years, as if it were non-existent
6) The limitation imposed by the measure got at the root of the problem, which is not the quantity of space, but how people get to the space that exists;
7) The limitation had a realistic set of supportive policies that created priorities according to: geography, diversity and land use mix; among others and
8) There weren’t other, better measures that could and should be deployed.

So to those who say Proposition T is just “common sense,” I say, NOT.
Site Meter Add to Technorati Favorites