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.
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.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Some FAQs about Proposition T and some that aren’t so frequently asked

Q: So, I don’t have time to read this whole blog, tell me again, why you’re against this?

A: Because it won’t solve the traffic problem, and it will cost this city and SMMUSD much needed net revenue.

Q. Whoaa!! The Yes on T folks say it won’t cost the City any money, and that the City Attorney’s own estimate says it will negligible.

A. Well the City’s independent analysis forecasts a 9.4 million dollar deficit in 2008 dollars to the City, close to one-half million to SMMUSD, and about 100,000 to SMC. I guess it’s a case of competing analyses. However, I put my money on the independent analysis, as that firm does this kind of analysis for a living. The City Attorney’s specialty is not making these estimates.

Q. Yes, but wasn’t that analysis done by a consultant that works for developers?

A. Yes, they also work for cities and states. Of course they work for developers, too. Everyone who does this kind of work, and who has any credibility, works for developers. These firms do not fudge the numbers if they want to stay in business. Their reports go to lending institutions, debt rating agencies, etc. If their numbers can’t be believed, they won't be around for long. Their professionalism, and absolute commitment to impartial analysis is their calling card.

Q. Okay, say I do believe their numbers. By 2023, the city’s budget will be close to 1 billion dollars. What’s 9 million compared to that number?

A. Well let’s compare apples and apples. I’m looking at today’s budget which is half that number. So if we want to adjust for inflation, then let’s do that across the board, in which case this number comes close to 20 million dollars, about 2% of the city’s budget. Still doesn’t sound like a lot, but given the amount of fixed costs the city has, this could be the money the city provides to SMMUSD for things like music and arts programs.

Q. Okay, enough about finances, I get it. It will have an impact. You say Prop T won’t work. What do you mean?

A. Well it won’t reduce traffic.

Q. Yes, but the Pro-T forces admit that. They just say it will slow the rate of traffic increase.

A. Okay. If you think the problem is bad now, and this measure offers a solution that makes it get worse slower, do you think that’s a solution?

Q. Well, no, but it’s better than nothing.

A. I’m not advocating doing nothing. Nor, is the city's own General Plan as reflected in the LUCE document. I’m advocating a comprehensive plan of Transportation Demand Management (TDM) solutions, which include “parking cash-outs,” car-pooling, taking public transportation, etc. For more on this you’re going to have to read the rest of the blog.

Q. Well why not both: TDM and Prop T?

A. Because part of TDM is creating land-use diversity, which ensures that the most residents can walk or bike or take public transit to jobs and retail services. When you bias the development playing field to a predominant housing mix you lose much of the potential for TDM.

Q. Okay, okay, but still, I’m so sick of the “over-development” of Santa Monica. Isn’t this a step in preventing that?

A. No. It’s a step in limiting commercial development only. Most of that will be replaced by housing development.

Q. Well, doesn’t housing generate less traffic?

A. Again, it goes back to the mix, I just spoke of. Nature abhors a mono-culture, as does urbanism. All housing, and no commercial, not only make a city a dull place, but it also makes the traffic worse.

Q. Still, I’m so sick of these out-of-town developers from Beverly Hills and San Francisco proposing these six-story buildings that are destroying what’s left of my little beach town.

A. Wow, a lot of anger, there. Let’s take this one step at a time. Prop T will do nothing to prevent six-story buildings, particularly if they are composed of residences. Second, if those six-story building are composed exclusively of affordable housing (which I would argue is not necessarily a good thing; creating another mono-culture), then the ground floor can still have commercial space that is exempt from the 75,000 square foot cap. Measure T won’t affect that. So if the issue is protecting what’s left of the beach town, why not look at LUCE, which is the city’s land use component of its new General Plan. It addresses the issue comprehensively, acknowledging, that Santa Monica, itself has many neighborhoods and districts (some beachy, some not) and plans for them accordingly.

Q. Well, I don’t know, the city hasn’t done anything about this problem. At least this is something.

A. From my own perspective, I’d argue that the city has been treading water for the last few years while LUCE was being developed. LUCE has hours upon hours of citizen input from across the political spectrum. It is an extraordinary document which everyone should read. It would be tragic if now when it is ready for implementation, it had its heart cut out.

Q. You have said that this measure will actually hurt the city’s efforts to combat global warming. Isn’t that an absurd statement, like Ronald Reagan saying, “trees cause pollution?”

A. Well you do have to read the post for the full explanation, but the gist of the argument is this: Prop T will not help the current traffic situation. Proponents claim the traffic will get worse slower than doing nothing. However, new businesses that wanted to be here will simply go to Venice, West LA or Marina Del Rey. Folks will simply go through S.M. to get to those businesses, and Santa Monicans themselves will drive farther to get to these destinations. The reduction in TDM that this measure allows further reduces the chance for overall trip reduction, thus increasing driving.

Q. Well, why should I believe you any of what you say? You’re an architect. You work for developers. It even says on your internet profile that you do “transit-oriented development and design.” Aren’t you just protecting your own interests?

A. Actually, I work about equally for cities and developers. One of the things I do for cities is to help to negotiate these very complex development issues between different resident constituencies as well as developers. I challenge both sides to arrive at creative win-win solutions. As a result, I actually know something about this issue. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I love what I do. That’s why I have gotten so active in this issue. Interestingly enough, a majority of developers I work with are housing developers, who would not be affected by Prop T at all. In fact, they might be helped by it. And yes, I do have a bias for transit-oriented development as I believe it is a key piece to achieve traffic reduction and reduce global warming.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Proposition T in Santa Monica is my Candidate for the Worst Urban Planning Idea of the Year.

I know you are thinking. This title demonstrates a wee bit of hyperbole, that it’s a tad exaggerated. Well let me explain my reasoning:

Last Spring, an earnest and eager young man approached me as I was walking out of my local Trader Joe’s, shopping bags in hand, and asked, “Would you like to fight traffic in Santa Monica? We’re gathering signatures to stop, ‘over-development’ by limiting commercial development in the future. It’s the Residents’ Initiative to Fight Traffic (RIFT).” Well none of us wants to be overwrought, overweight, or overtaxed, but those are so difficult to control, so, while I didn’t sign the petition, I imagine the prospect of not being ‘overdeveloped,’ sounded pretty good to most of my neighbors, because a measure has shown up on the ballot in Santa Monica, this November under the innocuous sounding name, Proposition T.

My biggest problem with the measure, which caps commercial development (retail and office combined) in the city to 75,000 square feet per year (about half of the current average), is that it wont’ work. Read the rest of this blog as to why I think why that's true.

Reason #1. Reducing commercial development to 75,000 square feet per year will not reduce traffic and may even increase it.

Actually, Proposition T don’t claim that RIFT will reduce traffic, only that it will slow the rate of traffic increase. So, of course, we’ll never know if it has worked or not, because there is no base line. How do we know how fast traffic would have increased if the measure hadn’t passed? How do we know if Proposition T reduced that rate of traffic growth by 10%, 50%, none at all, or even made matters worse?

Another way to frame their argument it seems to me, is that traffic in Santa Monica is terrible, and and that RIFT is a measure that will allow it to get worse slower than it would have otherwise gotten worse. Sounds amazingly half-baked. I think my six-year old framed it best when he said, “that’s just dumb.” I mean if you went to a doctor, with a chronic and debilitating disease, and she offered you a therapy that would slow your rate of decline, but you knew that other therapies existed that, over time, would actually allow you to see an improvement, wouldn’t you fire that doctor?

The Proposition T literature loudly proclaims, in bold type, “Our city's own traffic consultant says we can’t fit any more cars on our gridlocked streets,” How is a measure that acknowledges a problem, but then fails to provide anything resembling an adequate solution acceptable? (By the way the City uses a lot of traffic consultants, so I’d like to know which one made such an inane and unprofessional remark).

In other words, why doesn’t this measure attack the root cause of the problem, which is how people get around to work, to shop or to play? We know that there are cities with far greater density with less traffic burdens. The reason, this measure doesn’t attack the root cause, is that by doing so, the Prop-T advocates would acknowledge the value of appropriately designed mixed-use development to the long term health of the city. This measure uses the traffic as a Trojan horse to fight something more at the heart of every development issue in the city, which is that the Prop T backers simply do not want to see any more growth. Proposition T backers, would like to put a wall around this city and freeze it as is.

How do I know? Well again, look at the literature from a recent “Yes Prop T” mailing: “And more development is coming, Lots more. Our City Council just voted to INCREASE new building heights on all of our major boulevards from Wilshire to Pico to as high as six stories tall.”

So what does this have to do with Proposition T? Not one thing. Proposition T does not in any way affect the building heights in the city. This is just a scare tactic. It is intended to get the reader to distrust all developers, those interlopers “(some from San Francisco and Beverly Hills),” who would continue to do work in this city, and contribute to its evolution and its tax base.

Moreover, residential development, which is unaffected by Prop T, will probably increase as a result. So if you think voting for Proposition T will somehow change or overturn what the Council has just passed than you are in for a disappointment. All that will happen is that you will assure that this six-story development is almost exclusively residential. But you respond, well doesn’t residential development generate less traffic than commercial development? Not necessarily; it depends on the context.

“Okay, so maybe Prop T won’t affect traffic at all, where’s the harm?” you ask, “how could Prop T actually increase traffic (at least more so than not endorsing Prop T)?” Simply put, because it is fundamentally contrary to the smart growth principles that affect mobility and travel impacts that so many progressive cities, cities that are attempting to be as green as Santa Monica are incorporating. And please don’t take my word for it, go to:, a web site put out by Fehr and Peers, one of the largest and most respected transportation planning firms in the nation.

The literature identifies five key measures:

1. Transit Proximity
2. Density of Development
3. Diversity of Development
4. Design of Development
5. Destination Accessibility of Development

Let’s highlight three of them:

Density of Development: Higher numbers of residents and jobs per acre are often a Smart Growth planning objective, and are effective at reducing travel and other impacts, especially when accompanied by high levels of regional accessibility, mix of uses, and quality urban design. Development density is a useful indicator of Smart Growth plans, and is usually measured in terms of total population and employment per acre. Density also reduces the need to convert exurban land to urban uses.

Diversity of Development:
Land use mix measures the relative balances of jobs and housing as well as the mix of retail and non-retail jobs within walking/ biking distance or, secondarily, short driving distance. Diversity is correlated with reductions in vehicle trips and vehicle miles, and is therefore an indicator of a Smart Growth plan.

Design of Development: Smart Growth concepts often involve walkable neighborhoods. When measured in terms of connectivity and density of the street and pedestrian networks and sidewalk completeness, walkable urban designs are correlated with reduced vehicle travel, and represent a useful indicator of Smart Growth.

So if you think substituting residential development for commercial development is the right way to go because you think the former will generate less traffic than you are being duped for a second time. As I’ve said before, it all depends on context.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Reason #2. There are more effective ways to fight traffic congestion. This method is like using a chain saw to do heart surgery.

One of the things I learned in high school art class was that skilled craftsman know what tools to use for a particular task. The more tools in one's tool-box and the more skillful one is in using those tools, the more likely it is that one would consider a variety of ways to craft an object. By the same rule, "if the only tool in your box was a hammer, every problem would look like a nail."

It is pretty clear to me that if the well intentioned folks who crafted Proposition T had spent the time constructing a truly effective traffic reduction methodology, they would not have chosen such a blunt instrument. Their tool is the product of a methodology born in the 1960's and refined slightly, over the next several decades, until its ossification in publications put out by the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE), that have been, dare I say it, fundamentally discredited by contemporary practitioners of the art and practice of City and Town Planning.

The ITE's methodology, based on empirical data from the suburbs, required every 250 square feet of office space and every 200 square feet of retail space to require at least one parking space and to generate two or more car trips. As I've stated in previous posts, no mitigating factors were assumed (such as the fact that someone might walk between stores, or from home to work, etc). As a result, statistics like those displayed below, which are national averages were also assumed to apply to all areas equally. It also assumed that all parking would be free to the driver (at least seemingly free. See, The High Cost of Free Parking, by Donald Shoup, for a complete disputation of that assumption).
Given the ITE's logic, it stands to reason that reducing the amount of commercial space would reduce car trips, no? Well, no, actually. It's not that simple. It wasn't then and it isn't now. Yet, so mindless was this characterization that it became a self-fulfilling prophecy that was codified nearly identically in zoning manuals from Portland Maine, to Portland, Oregon. You'd think there would be regional differences, but no, there is a surprisingly similarity. The reality is that the amount of "internal capture" (a planner's term for those within a study area who stay in the area) within cities varies widely. For example, Annapolis, MD enjoys upwards of a 50% capture rate between jobs and housing. Having lived there one summer, I can tell you I saw lots of folks walking from home to work. (And you thought I was going to use New York as the example, didn't you?). To achieve that kind capture, you must have a very robust mix of uses within close proximity.

This obvious little fact is one of many tidbits of reality that transportation planners have learned (well I should say, relearned) over the last couple of decades. There are indeed a lot of things that affect "trip generation rates," not the least of which is density and land-use mix, among others. I would call such urban form-making strategies, "naturally occurring Transportation Demand Management Techniques." However, urban form (which not only includes such considerations as land use and density, but also walkability, block size, roadway width, and at least a couple of dozen other considerations), constitutes only one set of tools within the Transportation Demand Management (TDM) toolbox (an important set, to be sure, but not the only one). What are some of these other techniques? Simply put, TDM includes a variety of strategies that change travel behavior, for example by encouraging more efficient travel patterns, such as shifts from peak to off-peak periods and parking "cash-out" offers which encourage shifts from automobile to alternative modes (e.g., shifting from riding alone, to car-pooling, bicycling and/or walking). The Victoria Transport Policy Institute in Victoria, BC has an extraordinary website called the TDM encyclopedia that has more than you'll ever want to know about this subject From the website:

Many factors affect people’s transport decisions including the relative convenience and safety of travel modes (such as whether streets have sidewalks and bikepaths, and the quality of transit services available), prices (transit fares and the price of parking at destinations); and land use factors (such as whether or not schools, parks and shops are located close to residential neighborhoods).

There are numerous TDM strategies using various approaches to influence travel decisions. Some improve the transport options available; some provide incentives to change travel mode, time or destination [i.e. parking "cash-outs where employees are paid not to bring their car]; others improve land use accessibility; some involve transport policy reforms and new programs that provide a foundation for TDM.

Municipalities that have successfully utilized TDMs have done so by negotiating with developers prior to a project's approval. In such cases, the developer commits to a percentage of employees that will arrive in something other than a single-occupancy vehicle, and posts bonds to guarantee compliance, which is checked annually by the municipality. Jurisdictions have been able to achieve a reduction of 50 to 60% or more, of ride-alone commuters.

So now I hear you say, "Gee, utilizing TDM sounds like a good idea. Why not pass Prop-T and use TDMs," as many have written to me, privately? The simple answer is because RIFT's arbitrary and capricious cap on commercial development makes the the use of TDMs much more difficult. While LUCE does include a fairly strong set of recommendations for TDMs, it also assumes a certain amount of traffic reduction through that "naturally occurring Transportation Demand Management" that occurs as a result of land-use mix and density. RIFT represents a strategic and tactical blunder of the highest order by disregarding that careful balance. Put another way, if one utilizes a chain saw to perform heart surgery, regardless of how skillful the heart surgeon is, it will be very difficult to sew the patient back up again.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

More on the Revenue Implications of RIFT

Mr. Robert Moskowitz has posted a comment on this blog, complaining that the reasons that I've cited for opposing RIFT are unfair and in some cases, wrong. Ouch!!

His biggest complaint with my reasoning seems to be that,

"Proposition T will not reduce revenues, merely limit the growth of revenues in the future by limiting development in the future."
And technically Mr. Moskowitz is correct, as indicated in the analysis done for the city. And if I wasn't completely clear in my explication of this fact in my posting under Reason #4, than I am sorry. Mr. Moskowitz wins that point. But this is a Pyrrhic victory, since the underlying objection I, and many opponents of the measure have on this point, is not that this will cause a decline in revenues per se, but that it will result in a net revenue loss. Under Proposition T, revenues will grow, as Mr. Moskowitz correctly points out, but not as fast as expenses, so the net result will be a loss of over five and one-half million dollars per year. How can this be you ask? Well, commercial uses pay the freight in this town, subsidizing those of us who live here. If you're looking at your property tax bill just now, you're probably thinking I'm out of my mind, but businesses pay even more taxes and utilize less services. That's the way it works in virtually every city in this nation, and though we may sometimes think otherwise, we are no different here in Santa Monica.

So not only will Proposition T not work relative to its stated intention, to reduce traffic (more on that tomorrow), it will have the added effect of damaging the City's fiscal health -- sort of akin to a good old fashioned bloodletting to fight disease.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

More on the idea of Humanizing Lincoln and Pico Boulevards

A Mr. or Ms. Anonymous posted a comment on Reason #6, below; dismissing the idea that one could "humanize" Lincoln Boulevard, with redevelopment, claiming my suggestion would result in more traffic and higher rents for merchants. So I thought I'd share some images of what I meant, from another city attempting to humanize their own arterial highway.

The city of Oceanside, CA is going through a visioning exercise on what to do about their "Main Street," which in this case is Coast Highway, or US-101. While not as busy as Lincoln, it shares similar characteristics, i.e., a prepondernence of shops catering to the used-car sales, car-repair, liquor stores, and artery-clogging fast-food businesses. Below is an exercise in "visioning" showing what the Coast Highway is like today:
and what it could become with, additional building setbacks to allow for wider sidewalks, selected "bulb-outs" for the stormwater infiltration and the planting of shade trees, and a continuous street wall with buildings scaled and oriented to the pedestrian:On Pico, where a "road diet" might be possible, i.e., a lane removed, even more could be accomplished. Here's the same street again in Oceanside on a road diet and a bike lane added:

(images courtesy of Torti Gallas and Partners, Inc.)

Lincoln and Pico Boulevards present their own unique challenges, and what's good for one city may not be good for another, but clearly something must be done to those streets. The status quo is unacceptable, and yet that is exactly what Proposition T aims to freeze in place.

Reason #3. This measure will not increase pedestrian safety.

One of the more specious arguments that the RIFTies have made in support of Proposition T is that passage of this measure will make the streets safer for pedestrians. The theory is a simple one: less commercial=less traffic=fewer pedestrians killed. Indeed here is what the Prop T proponents have argued:

"....Prop T will make our city more safe, not less, by reducing the growth in city traffic. ... Traffic is making our city less safe in tangible and dangerous ways. Pedestrians are killed by vehicles on our roads at more than twice the national and state averages, a rate that has increased with traffic congestion..."

There's just one problem with this statistic, Santa Monica has way more than twice the amount of pedestrians than the national average, and pedestrian activity has increased faster than traffic congestion. For this to be a fair measure, one has to look at fatalities/pedestrian a number that is not tracked very well, since most cities do not factor pedestrian counts as part of their traffic counts.

When it comes to pedestrians, the truth is, it's not the amount of traffic that's important, it's the velocity of that traffic. To quote a 60's phrase, "Speed kills." And that's particularly true when a moving vehicle hits a pedestrian.
"Traveling at 40 mph, the average driver who sights a pedestrian in the road 100 feet ahead will still be traveling 38 mph on impact: driving at 25 mph, the driver will have stopped before the pedestrian is struck." (Source: McLean AJ, Anderson RWG, Farmer MJB, Lee BH, Brooks CG. Vehicle Speeds and the Incidence of Fatal Pedestrian Collisions - Volume 1. Federal Office of Road Safety, Australia.)
As the chart below indicates, a pedestrian struck by a vehicle going 20mph has a 95% chance of survival, (and 30% suffer no injuries) whereas that same pedestrian struck by a car going 40mph has roughly less than a 20% chance of making it home alive.

(Source: Limpert, Rudolph. Motor Vehicle Accident Reconstruction and Cause Analysis. Fourth Edition. Charlottesville, VA. The Michie Company, 1994, p. 663)

So that would lead one to think that we should focus less on the quantity of traffic, but the need for traffic calming, i.e., for streets to be configured so that cars naturally go slower. Ironically, traffic itself, can be a great traffic calmer, as are street trees, parallel parked cars, and an active retail environment. But to prevent that traffic from spilling over to neighborhood streets look at the example provided by the City of Berkeley's traffic calming plan (below) for the Willard /Bateman /LeConte Neighborhood. You'll see many devices in use such as street narrowing, traffic circles (in green), and pinch points (opposing yellow triangles). Other options include short medians as Santa Monica has used north of Wilshire between 2nd and 4th streets and even "woonurfs," (a Dutch term for streets with a contrived s-curve along the length of the block to slow traffic)

Sometimes even signage can help. Look at this example marking a residential street in the Netherlands. Of course that sign comes with a host of other traffic calming measures that support the idea that this is not a street on which to speed.

So, once again, when we drill down to the issue at hand, in this case, pedestrian safety, we see that there are lots of tools in the box than can and should be used. Proposition T is not one of them.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Reason #4. This measure will require cuts in services, increase in taxes, or some both to maintain a balanced budget.

If Proposition T were adopted in to law, and didn't work, it would be bad enough.

If the measure were adopted into law and prevented the construction of the Purple line, and affected our ability to concentrate development where it is most needed and appropriate, it would be worse.

If RIFT were to become law and precluded any chance for the transformation of Lincoln, Pico and Olympic into humane, walkable and sustainable boulevards, it would be even more disappointing still.

If RIFT were in opposition to efforts to promote affordable living, and reduce global warming it would be outdated.

But if Proposition T were to become law and it didn't work at reducing traffic, and all those possibilities for social and environmental progress were precluded or prevented, and THE PROPOSITION WOUND UP COSTING THE CITY BADLY NEEDED REVENUE, that would be a catastrophe!

So, in June, an independent analyst completed their evaluation of the initiative. I encourage you to review this study for yourself, because there are lots of good bits in it that are quite interesting:

Here are some of the highlights of this analysis:

First the report comments on the present condition, by noting that the city of Santa Monica:

  • [Enjoys] A healthy balance between revenues and expenditures, due to a diverse economy and multiple revenue streams, and careful budget management;
  • [That it is] One of very few cities in the U.S. with a triple-A bond rating from all three securities rating agencies
  • [is one where] Residents, businesses and visitors enjoy an unusually high level of service, but
  • [the] Finance Department warns of looming structural deficits in coming years and Public Safety Departments have requested significant additional resources
And here's the thing -- throughout the country, commercial development brings in more revenue than residential development and requires much less in services, and that dear RIFTies is no less true in Santa Monica than anywhere else. In most cities, commercial development is a net postive to the city's coffers, while residential development is a net negative, i.e., commercial development subsidizes the residents.

But the RIFTies have stated that this city has many revenue streams; it does not depend on developer fees for its financial health. That's true enough, but the revenue sources the city does depend on are not from developer fees per se, they include: sales taxes, transient occupancy taxes, business license taxes and parking facilities taxes, all of which are exclusive of residential development. Furthermore, the commercial development cap is likely to significantly effect the value of underdeveloped commercial property, reducing property taxes from those properties.

Okay, you say, but Proposition T, doesn't stop development, it merely slows down commercial development. The city will still see growing revenues under RIFT.

The analysis compares the base-line (as development occurs today) with LUCE (the land use element that the city has been working on and we citizens have been participating in and paying for these last few years) with RIFT. Here's what the analysis shows:

  • In 2023, when all projected space is built, RIFT projection generates $11.4 million less than LUCE ; and
  • RIFT's projection of property tax revenue to SMMUSD and SMC is also significantly reduced over LUCE, say to the tune of $4.2 million/year to the public schools and roughly $880,000 to the college.
With LUCE, by the year 2023 (the expiration date of RIFT) the city is looking at an increase of net revenues (increased revenue - increased costs) of $3.4 million. With RIFT, by that same year, the city is facing a decrease in net revenues of $5.9 million. So the overall difference to the city (in 2008 dollars) is $9.3 million. Again, let me spell this out -- that's net, i.e., after all revenues have been collected and expenses have been paid.

The report concludes:
RIFT’s negative fiscal results would require cuts in services, increase in taxes, or some of both, to maintain a balanced City budget.
Now supporters of RIFT argue that:
....studies, [which ones?] including one done by our own city, [that's interesting, as that's the one I've been quoting, so which are the other studies...I mean really, I want to see them] show that the revenues generated by new commercial projects DON'T MAKE UP FOR their greater environmental costs in electricity, water, waste, and public services."
A curious remark indeed, as page 28 of the study provides an easy to read little bar chart showing the LUCE alternative: $29 million in new revenue - 25.6 million in new expenses associated with that new development= $3.4 million; and the RIFT alternative: $17.6 million in new revenue - $23.5 million in new expenses associated with that new develompent =$ -5.9 million.

By my estimates, this could be as much as 3% of the city's revenue. Given the amount of fixed costs any city has (interest on bond debt, rent, salaries for essential employees, etc.) that's a huge loss for the City. An additional hit will be felt by SMMUSD and SMC. Is it any wonder that teachers, school administrators, school board members, police, fireman and the like are all against this?

RIFT is a revenue sink hole, and tragically, it still won't work.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Reason #5. This measure, will effect the ability to redevelop abandoned industrial sites in the city particularly along Olympic Avenue

Santa Monica has 400-acres of industrial land, some of it with vacant and rusting buildings occupying its terrain. The largest chunks of that land are along Olympic, a verdant, yet otherwise, pedestrian unfriendly thoroughfare, where among other things a “Paper Mate” factory once operated. Opened in 1958, it housed the company’s large stationery products operation where they made, among other things, ball-point pens, and those ubiquitous, “Flairs.”* At its heyday, its work force numbered more than 1,000, but at its closing in 2005, that number had dwindled to 214. The factory was the last significant remnant of our “beach town’s" industrial past (of the type which produced a utilitarian object), which also included Louver Drapes and Merle Norman cosmetics (and of course, the big kahuna, Douglas Aircraft, which I’ve written about in a previous post).

So what should happen to that land along Olympic? Well, for a city that prides itself on sustainability, nothing short of a street that accommodates pedestrians and cyclists as well as cars would seem appropriate. And if you look at LUCE, the land use component of the City’s new General Plan,, developed after a long, arduous and highly transparent process, and turn to pages 40-50, you’ll see a very thoughtful set of policies and strategies on everything from the mixing of uses, to the “graining” of the street grid (more on that below) as well as to the character of the streets and public realm. And while LUCE’s vision for Olympic doesn’t sound very beachy, heck, this area isn’t on the beach, and never was part of that scene.

Now some of the proponents of RIFT argue that with amount of existing commercial space already in the area, and the credit that RIFT provides for re-use there should be no problem providing enough local serving retail and services on the ground floor of residential uses. Well first of all, that assumes that a residential - only district (with local serving retail) is smart policy on a site within walking distance of a new light rail stop. As I’ve argued earlier, I don’t agree. Nor do I think it is smart from a market perspective to have so much of one use (housing) on any one site (too many eggs in one basket) and that fact alone will discourage most developers capable of taking on such a redevelopment.

But here’s the other rub even if a housing only policy was thought to be wise, RIFT won’t even allow for significant local serving retail unless the housing that is built is exclusively “affordable.” Look at what Proposition T says about the re-use of commercial space:

Projects that are subject to the limit but replace or remodel existing buildings could receive a “credit” for some or all of the existing building’s floor area. This credit would reflect the fact that the site already generates traffic. Availability of this credit would depend upon a comparison of traffic to be generated by the new building and traffic generated by the existing building. The measure establishes the formula for comparison.

So the details are in the formula, eh?

“Using the most recently available trip generation methodology and data from the Institute of Traffic Engineers (ITE)…” [So right there we start off with a whopping problem. As we’ve seen previously, in Reason #10, this methodology has been the subject of serious, if not fatal, critiques], “or a comparable source used by jurisdictions of comparable size to Santa Monica…” [I can just hear that debate now,] “…the city shall ascertain the number of vehicle trips per week (on a gross basis without adjustments for trip generation) [So right there, we establish that such things as Transportation Demand Management techniques, or credits for mixing uses, etc. will not be counted – sort of the opposite of an incentive]…associated with (a) the buildings to be remodeled or replaced (based on the size, design and primary use of the building for the past two years), and (b) the new building (based on the approved size, design and all conditions of approval affecting the use of the building). Each number shall be divided by the square footage of the building to ascertain for the purposes of this policy only, the projected trips per square foot for each building”

For more go to:

In other words, for the purposes of this ordinance, a factory of 2,000,000 square feet that once employed over 1,000 people, but that has sat vacant for 3 years is considered to have never existed! If by some bizarre set of occurances, the owners wanted to start making things there again, say films or video games or some other creative activity, they’d have to go through this ITE formula to see how much credit they could secure, which is probably about 12% of what’s there now. And as I said earlier, all this is assuming that this land should be utilized exclusively for housing. But why does that make any sense when it is only blocks from a transit stop? Why shouldn’t the city benefit from the asset by achieving the increased tax revenue that the commercial uses would provide, even while providing ample space for affordable, work-force and market rate housing. Why shouldn’t someone be able to walk to work? For example, LUCE spells out a vision for the Paper Mate site and surrounding area that reads in part:

Creative arts uses and spaces for artists to work shall be preserved and enhanced. This includes, but is not limited to, the development or adaptive reuse of small, flexible and affordable performance venues and visual arts spaces.

Sounds like a good idea, no? But as we’ve seen, the adaptive re-use of existing spaces, would count as new space, which will compete against medical office, and fast food restaurants.

Further to the east in what is now, essentially a set a distribution centers, composed of warehouse spaces and small manufacturing spaces:

The Mixed Use Creative District is envisioned as a mixed use commercial / residential neighborhood where opportunities for creative arts jobs are balanced with a variety of market and affordable housing and neighborhood serving retail and services. These uses will provide support for the Exposition light rail line by bringing jobs and housing closer to high-frequency transit service. [Note that] Land intensive uses, such as automobile dealerships and their associated operations, are not appropriate for the District.

Note that LUCE makes a distinction between commercial uses, because different uses are, well different, something that RIFT does not.

Part of the neighborhood vision is a new retail “Main Street” along the western end of Nebraska Avenue and northward along Stanford Street. This area should contain local serving retail and services on the ground floor of mixed use buildings or in stand-alone retail buildings.

Oh my God, stand alone retail!!! But read the rest of the document to discover that such retail will be of the urban type. So let’s say a Target store, or its ilk (one that doesn’t sell merchandise produced by abused or underpaid workers) were to come into the mix (which we’ve seen from examples throughout the nation can fit quite comfortably in an urban environment)? Think of the traffic that would generate. To which I would ask, how much traffic currently originates in Santa Monica and leaves in order to find such services? If you’re a Santa Monican, where do you go now to get to a store like that?

One of the things the pro-RIFTers, like the Friends of Sunset Park, complain about is a proposed 200,000 additional sq ft of commercial/office proposed for the area claiming 2,000 additional daily car trips through Pico neighborhood and Sunset Park. Well, 200,000 square feet of office may sound like a lot, but it's chump change compared to what’s at the old factory. What device will be used to clean that old factory site up? Who will pay to haul that scrap metal away? In addition, 2,000 car trips a day, is a ridiculous, suburban one. Given that this is near the future expo line, and given various TDMs, I can easily imagine, that number being halved, (without breaking a sweat).** My gosh, how did the workers at Paper Mate get to work? With creativity, I can see the overall number of car trips to be kept at near zero. You don't believe me...Stanford University was able to add 2,000,000 sf of R&D, and office space without adding one car trip!!!

But let’s face it, if the 200,000 squre feet of space that were added were anything like the Water Gardens site immediately adjacent to the west, that would be a crime. That project, a stand-alone single-use, office park, with no internal street grid, is the very epitome of what NOT to do.

And look what LUCE has to say in that area:

Affordable and workforce housing are highly desirable in this area. …Clear edges are envisioned for the northeast portion of the district to assure an appropriate interface with the adjacent existing residential neighborhood.

Key to the success of this neighborhood will be the creation of new streets to provide ninterconnectivity with the existing grid. The grid will connect to the new street system in the Bergamot Transit Village District and streets such as Stanford Street, Berkeley and Franklin Street should extend to the south and intersect with Olympic Boulevard….The combination of increased connectivity and local-serving retail and offices within walking or biking distance will tie into an overall trip reduction strategy for the neighborhood.
Earlier, I wrote of the LUCE’s strategy for the graining of the streets. One of the big advantages for the redevelopment of these lands as as an urbane, mixed use redevelopment is that it allows for a fine grained street grid to replace what is now a very coarse grained network of thoroughfares. This finer grain, allows multiple routes to any destination thus relieving the burden on any one street, like Cloverfield. It also allows narrower, more pedestrian friendly streets. Moreover, a fine grain is more pedestrian friendly (a number of studies have proven a link between small block size (fine grain) and "walkability," and allow for a much easier way to distribute a hierarchy of uses. This is a key element in the traffic reduction strategy, but it won’t happen without such a redevelopment, and RIFT will likely set that back decades. Proposition T is really bad policy.

* Paper Mate was owned by Gillette until its sale in 2001. If for some reason you’re interested in reading more about the Paper Mate factory (though not much more) see Gordon McKibben, Cutting Edge: Gillette's Journey to Global Leadership, Harvard Business Press, 1998.

** A detailed analysis of RIFT versus the status quo and LUCE can be found at:

Friday, October 10, 2008

Update on Reason #7: Measure R

Darrell's comment on Reason #7, is correct, the Purple Line is not funded, hence the application to the Federal government for funding under the "New Starts" program. Measure R will, if passed provide an additional source of funding for the Purple line, a much needed one, but it is not the only likely source. I strongly support Measure R, but win or lose, planning for the Purple Line will likely continue. The current planning is for the line to extend "to the sea," Its funding "to the sea," however will rely on "transit supportive policies," being in place. I believe that LUCE does just that (again, I'm not talking about Century City densities here, yee gads), but Prop T kills those policies.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Reason #6 This measure will seriously affect the ability to humanize Lincoln Blvd and Pico.

Okay, show of hands if you think Lincoln Boulevard conjures up your image of a funky little beach town. How about Pico? Does the seemingly endless string of used car dealers, car repair shops, fast food joints, and car washes, hovering about 8 feet away from 7 lanes of fast moving traffic just make you yearn for those lazy days spent watching surfers from your beach chair and eating funnel cakes on the pier?

Okay, maybe it's because I've only lived here for three years, maybe I haven't yet been jaded by all the schmutz (a technical term we urban designers use) on these two corridors, but I simply can't accept them as appropriate for a community that prides itself on being among the most sustainable in the nation.

So let's call Lincoln for what it automobile sewer.

But in this case, past doesn't necessarily have to be prologue (at least not the recent past). Both corridors could be made more humane, more pedestrian friendly, more like something we'd be proud of than something we'd avoid.

Lincoln is the tougher of the two as it is a state-owned road, and a very wide one at that. But there are wider and more pedestrian friendly boulevards in the world. The key is what happens at the edges. Can Lincoln be developed with wider sidewalks, so as sites are redeveloped the new building face is set further back to permit a larger sidewalk (a minimum of 16' is necessary, but I'd suggest up to a 30' sidewalk along Lincoln)? Can adequate street planting and pedestrian scaled lighting be provided? Can we, with some sort of "form based design code," assure that new buildings have ground floors that are scaled to the pedestrian, in terms of windows, signage and architectural detail? And yes, dare I say, it maybe some of them, could be up to four stories in height!! Not all of them, as I'm not interested in a four-story buzz cut look, but some, you know at busier intersections for example, so that we could actually develop some of that idiosyncracy that beach towns tend to offer.

"Let's not canyonize Lincoln" is the response I've heard, when something remotely resembling this vision is offered. One current candidate for City Council called my "vision" for Lincoln "apalling," even before she knew what it was (I'd say with her gift of precognition, maybe I should vote for her).

But I'm not talking about a canyon. I'm talking about buildings that are of a scale appropriate to the width of the thoroughfare. I'm talking about what we in the Urban Design world refer to as, "framing the street," i.e., designing the street to be as much a public space as it is a thoroughfare for cars. It's the condition that makes Wilshire decent, and Lincoln, not. On Pico, which is consderably narrower, buildings should be somewhat shorter. And in all cases buildings should be designed to transition to the residential neighborhood behind them. This is all doable - with redevelopment, i.e of course, the kind that RIFT will, in essence, prohibit. So voting yes for Proposition T, is also like saying Lincoln Blvd. is just fine the way it is.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Reason #7. This measure will impact the likelihood of the Wilshire Boulevard subway from ever getting to Santa Monica.

When Antonio Villaraigosa was elected Mayor of Los Angeles, he also became Chair of the Board of Directors of MTA or Metro as it has rebranded itself. In that capacity he announced his intention of completing the Purple Line subway, also known as the Wilshire Boulevard extension, or the “Subway to the City.” At present the Purple Line extends from Union Station to Wilshire at Western (yes L.A. does have a subway) while a longer branch known as the Red Line, extends through Hollywood to North Hollywood. Now that Congressman Waxman has overturned the prohibition on constructing the Wilshire Blvd. subway, Metro is busy studying the feasibility of the Purple Line extension, holding community meetings in West L.A., Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, and Santa Monica, while contemplating the details of the best route and attempting to precisely define station locations -- all this as they go about the task of estimating costs and ridership.* This effort is, in part, preparation for an application to the federal government to help fund the project to the tune of…, well who knows yet, let’s say many billions of dollars. This application will go into a pool of other deserving proposals where it will compete under the “New Starts” program. Applications that offer the most riders for the least cost per rider will tend to rise to the top.

Estimating the potential ridership is a key part of this funding application. The feds have to believe the applicant’s numbers. Applications for systems where the employment and housing densities surrounding the proposed stations are already in place are the easiest to support. However, “transit supportive” land-use policies (e.g., zoning, general plans, specific plans, etc.) surrounding proposed stations can also be compelling to federal government reviewers, particularly where there is a robust mix of uses provided for in those policies (with emphasis on employment, I would add).

Wilshire Boulevard, outside of Santa Monica, is the most densely populated corridor in the nation not currently served by high quality rail transit (i.e., a subway). And as you look at the Wilshire corridor, it is pretty obvious that the busiest station along this alignment would be in Westwood, though Century City and Beverly Hills probably provide some pretty good numbers on their own (yes I know Century City is not along Wilshire – but planners are contemplating a bit of a detour so as to incorporate that employment rich area). It is easy to imagine that a “new starts” application with those stations in the application would provide a cost per rider ratio that would hold its own against applications from New York City (the 2nd Avenue line) or Washington, DC (the Dulles Airport extension through Tyson’s Corner), among others that are being prepared.

However, west of Westwood, densities begin to drop off, particularly as Wilshire moves into Santa Monica. It is true that a stop in the vicinity of Wilshire and 4th Street would seemingly deliver a good cost/rider number particularly as there is not only a large employment base, but also a significant tourist and destination retail draw in that location.

But there is a lot of tunnel and track and several potential station locations in between Westwood and 4th Street that wouldn’t look as compelling today from a cost/rider point of view, as the rest of the system, but with transit supportive policies in place might still be projected to look good, or good enough, in the future. And when I say transit supportive, I'm not talking Century City scale of development, I'm talking Miracle Mile density of development. However, given a 75,000 square foot annual cap on commercial development in the entire city of Santa Monica, as is proposed with Proposition T or RIFT (with no priority given as to where those square feet can be built) it is pretty doubtful that the cost/rider ratio can be anticipated to be any better in the future than it is today. The tunnel and stations between Westwood in L.A. and 4th Street in Santa Monica would simply be unlikely to deliver the ridership to justify the cost. The cost/rider equation would be so low as to bring down the overall average weakening the application for the entire project.

If you’re a member of the Metro Board (which consists of 12 voting members, most of whom are elected officials with, but one member from Santa Monica) then you have a big decision to make. You have to triage the application, decide what to save and what to jettison in order to have the best chance of success. Should you submit an application with absolutely boffo numbers that extends the line to a terminal station in Westwood, or submit one with what is likely to be a weaker cost/rider ratio that extends under a 20-to 25-block stretch of corridor with an unsupportive RIFT land-use policy? As sexy as it sounds to say “subway to the sea,” I think the choice will be obvious.

How ironic it would be, if a land-use policy such as RIFT, aimed at reducing traffic were to wind up being responsible for negating the possibility for high quality transit in Santa Monica along its most significant commercial and employment rich corridor.** It would be tragic enough if such unintended consequences could not have been foreseen, but in this case, they’re in plain sight if we just open our eyes.

*For more on the public process visit:

** Yes, I know the Expo line, a light rail, which for the most part will run on grade, may one day also get to Santa Monica if a route through Culver City can be negotiated and funding secured, but its potential impact on traffic reduction while not insignificant is in my opinion simply no where near what the Wilshire line’s would be. Ideally, Santa Monica should be fighting for both lines (as they go to different places) plus a third line running south on Lincoln to the LAX and El Segundo.

Monday, October 6, 2008

An Intermezzo to discuss the mythology of RIFT

I received a rather angry email today from a political candidate, who after questioning my motives for opposing Proposition T (i.e., because I am an architect and urban designer, I must be in league with the devil), finally got around to the real issue, writing:
"....most residents do not want to make Santa Monica into SF, DC, NY or even WLA or Playa Vista. We don't need out of towners to tell us what our city should be like. We want to keep what's left of our small beach town atmosphere."
Voila, I thought! This the hidden agenda, to preserve "what's left of our our small beach town." This is at the heart of what I call the mythology.

Maybe it's because I am a newcomer (having lived here three years), but I can't quite reconcile how a city that was home to 30,000 air-craft manufacturing jobs could be thought of solely as a small beach town. Clearly, Santa Monica has had another side to itself, a manufacturing town that played a critical role in the machinery of World War II production aircraft. The Santa Monica that I visited, perhaps twenty-some years ago, I guess after Douglas had closed down, was forlorn, and somewhat down on its heels. It was neither funky, nor laid back, but I'm not sure it's the Santa Monica that's remembered with as much fondness.

The comeback of Santa Monica over the last 2 decades is remarkable, clearly a case study for planners across the country. But this selective memory of the city, by at least a few of its long-time inhabitants, seems to be at the heart of almost every land-use debate in Santa Monica, and one, that in the context of RIFT must be addressed head-on.

Proposition T will not preserve what's left of the "small town beach atmosphere." In fact it will kill it. As I've argued previously (see Reason #9), Proposition T will have the effect of substituting housing-only districts for any sort of sustainable mixed-use development. The housing will be of some density (to be negotiated, no doubt) and cause more traffic than the uses that Proposistion T aims to limit. That new housing will bring even more "outsiders" into Santa Monica, who will demand services, shops, nightlife, etc. They will vote, both with their feet and at the ballot box. These new residents are unlikely to share the same concerns as those who would advocate "keeping what's left of the "small town beach community."

In other words, Proposition T will simply not accomplish the existential preservation goal some its proponents have invested in it. The situation reminds me of a prize fighter on his last legs, swinging wildly, hoping to land a lucky punch, but lacking any strategy or tactics to get back in the match.

On election night, if the measure passes, proponents will pop the corks and celebrate. But in five years, this existential preservation issue that seems to haunt this City will reemerge. Who really won that election five years ago the RIFT supporters will wonder, their faith in the myth of this measure dragging. Of course we all will have lost.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Reason #8. This measure will hurt our city's efforts to halt global warming.

Now you might ask how could a measure aimed at reducing traffic by capping commercial development contribute to global warming? Well, as suggested in previous posts, it’s because this measure simply won’t reduce traffic, not one little bit. Indeed it will more than likely increase it.

How can this be you ask? Isn't it a given that less commercial development= less traffic? Isn't that what RIFT's supporters confidently argue on their own web site?

“Despite what the opposition claims, traffic engineers agree that new development creates more traffic.”

Well, no it isn't a given. The fallacy is evident when one asks the question, what traffic engineers are they talking about? Not one competent traffic engineer I know (and I actually know at least 50 working in small towns to large cities--and in universities) would ever make such a bold claim. Most traffic engineers will tell you the effect on traffic depends on factors including: what kind of development, what's in the area, what the context is, how much parking is provided, what sort of Transportation Demand Management programs are part of the project, if congestion pricing part of the equation, etc. So the question remains: What kind of development are those traffic engineers talking about? Not all new development creates new traffic.

But supporters continue:

“And the city itself has said that commercial development creates far more traffic than any other kind.”

As we’ve seen from Reason #9 below, this comment is unsupportable. It was made by one traffic engineer with the City who is using outdated ITE standards (for more on ITE Standards see Reason #9 published below). But the argument goes on to say:

“Without some limits on commercial growth, traffic will continue to worsen every year. Developers know it, the city knows it, and so do residents.”

Now this is the kind of argument worthy of Sarah Palin (okay, I couldn’t resist). If proponents of RIFT say it over and over, than I must know it? Is this a faith-based initiative? Developers don’t necessarily know it, because it’s not necessarily true. The arguments sound so much like the Republican Vice Presidential nominee: circular reasoning, no specifics, and a proponent who doesn't really understand the complexities inherent in the issues.

“Our only hope for curbing traffic growth is to slow down the type of development that generates the most traffic.”

Well, on this point I do agree, but that type of development, the kind that generates the most traffic, is the low-density, single-use development that got us here in the first place. Unfortunately, that development is precisely the opposite of what Proposition T aims to accomplish.

So let’s get back to global warming. We know that 40% of carbon emissions come from transportation, so every effort to reduce single-occupancy vehicle use should be the highest priority. Yet when Terry O'Day, Executive Director of Environment Now, claims that RIFT will actually cause global warming, his comments are met with a patronizing dismissal by the Prop-T proponents. The pro-RIFT website features the comment that "he's a reasonable young man," as if to say, but totally naive. Well since Mr. O'Day can hardly be considered a tool of the developers, and doesn't strike one as naive, there must be another explanation for his assertion.

Let me attempt to provide it by asking these questions: Does anyone really think that putting a cap on commercial development in Santa Monica will somehow make the demand go away? Does anyone  think that the demand will not simply be satisfied somewhere else, like West L.A, Venice, Marina D.R or Culver City? From a tax revenue point of view, our loss is their gain. But wait a minute, people will still have to drive there. Santa Monicans will drive further, and folks coming in will cut through Santa Monica to get there. Moreover, the possibilities for true mixed-use development here in S.M. will be diminished, and we will return to making housing-only bedroom communities. What do you think that will do to the traffic? That's what O'Day means by arguing that true mixed-use development adjacent to transit is an ESSENTIAL part of the project to reduce, and ultimately reverse global warming. We do not live in a little cocoon here in Santa Monica

Wouldn’t it make sense, therefore, to locate a mix of jobs and housing at, say the future light rail stop at Bergamot Station, so folks could take public transit to work? Walking, bicycling and using public transit to get to jobs and retail services are effective at doing reducing global warming. Minimizing Vehicle-Miles-Traveled (VMTs) is another method. That is, even if you have to drive in your car, if you drive less, you burn less fuel and emit less carbon. Proposition T, will clearly have the opposite effect. Santa Monicans will drive further to get to services outside of the city.  Medical office workers and patients will drive between hospitals and doctors’ offices where they could have otherwise walked. Employees will drive through Santa Monica on their way to new jobs in Venice and Marina Del Rey, where they would have previously stopped in Santa Monica.

But maybe you're thinking: Look, I get what you saying, but don't we have to do something? Yes, and there's plenty the city could do. We could emulate cities like Belleview, WA, or Boulder, CO, cities that, like Santa Monica, lack rail transit, but have made serious inroads into traffic congestion without mindless development caps:

In downtown Bellevue, utilizing Transportation Demand Managment techniques, the drive-alone commute rate fell by 30% from 1990 to 2000, falling from 81% driving alone to 57%.

In Boulder, since 1995, the drive-alone rate for employees working downtown has fallen almost 30%, from 56% driving alone to 36%, while the transit mode share (busses) has more
than doubled from 15% to 34%.

Finally, in downtown Stockholm, Sweden, six months into the trial of a "congestion pricing" experiment, the average traffic reduction across the control points between 6:30 AM and 6:29 PM has been 22% -- IN SIX MONTHS.

Where do I get these examples? Well Santa Monica is hardly the first city in Southern California to wrestle with these issues. A traffic reduction strategy report compiled for the City of Pasadena pointed me in this direction. It's available at:

So, once again I'm not arguing for the status quo and for doing nothing. I am arguing for a more thoughtful land use strategy that combines a mixing of uses with robust Transportation Demand Managment techniques that allow us to create a much more vital, equitable, convenient, and sustainable city than we have today. Proposition T takes us in the opposite direction.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Reason #9. RIFT is biased against lower income folks

Wow, you say, that's a fairly bold assertion. Especially in light of the fact that a cap on commercial development is likely to result in even more opportunities to build housing, which should bring down the cost of housing, and therefore make life more affordable no? In short, No.

When we look at affordability, the cost of housing is just one part of a larger equation. Folks who purchased housing way out in Apple Valley in San Bernardino County or Santa Clarita under the rubric, "Drive till you qualify" learned that lesson fairly recently with the rise in gas prices. I implicitly learned that early in my own career, when I moved from New York City to Charlottesville, VA. You would think that my quality of life would have improved by that move, since housing in the latter is considerably cheaper. But in New York I didn't need a car, while in Charlottesville, I did. The savings in rent were more than eaten up in the expense of automobile ownership. With the cost of automobile ownership estimated to average $8,000/year (after taxes),* working families who don't need two cars, or even one, are simply better off then those who do. Those families can afford to have their children participate in after school activities because they don't need to take off work to schlep them to those events. Note that the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) views affordable housing,
"...within the context of neighborhood design, where pedestrian quality, the provision of public space, and walkable access to services [and jobs] become an essential part of the affordability equation. ...the emphasis is on mix rather than any one form of housing by itself. New Urbanism elevates the principle of urbanism, within which the quality of diversity is seen as essential."
So building affordable or work-force housing that is not intimately connected with jobs and services is simply not a very good strategy. Again you might argue, "Hey, Santa Monica already has plenty of jobs, and plenty of retail. What we don't have is adequate housing for the people who staff those jobs." All of this is true. We certainly need housing at all price points, and I would hope that housing grows at a faster rate than job growth specifically for that reason. At the same time, however, the most robust mix of jobs, services and housing is probably the best prescription to ensure an adequacy of car-reduced and car-free options for both residents and employers alike. That's a more equitable equation for lower income families.

So again, I'm not arguing for the status quo. The machine is broken, that's clear, but the tools required to fix it are are more varied and more precise in their nature, more like those of a surgeon, than those of say a rough carpenter installing plywood. In other words the building of "housing-only" areas strikes me as a really bad idea.

Reason #10. Proposition T-RIFT, will not stop development, just commercial development. The increased housing will generate even more traffic.

Really, you might say, how is that? Well land has value based upon what someone can use it for. So, if I'm a landowner, and I've got an underutilized asset, (such as a lot of parking, and an unused building on my land) what can I do with it? Since the only thing available is to build housing, I'll build, guess what? housing. Won't that be better you ask, since that housing will help to equalize the jobs to housing inbalance that Santa Monica currently, "enjoys?" Moreover, doesn't housing generate less traffic than commercial development? Indeed the pro-Measure T web site asserts:

"According to the city's own traffic engineer, commercial development brings in 3 to 4 times the amount of traffic as new residential development. Therefore, by slowing the pace of commercial development, Prop T will reduce the future growth in traffic congestion."

But if you're a traffic planner or engineer and you buy this argument, than I've got a bridge in Alaska to sell you. Here's what two of the nation's premier traffic planners, Adam Millard-Ball and Patrick Siegman, have to say in, Planning Magazine, about the "traffic generation" methodology behind this assertion.

The [traffic generation] methodology has long been seen as a routine process, undertaken by traffic engineers based on Institute of Transportation Engineers manuals. Increasingly, however, planners are realizing that conventional traffic impact analysis creates serious hurdles for compact, transit-oriented development.

The problem is simple: Traffic study methodologies are designed to analyze single-use, auto-oriented suburban development proposals. Although thousands of pedestrian- and transit-friendly traditional neighborhoods exist —indeed, this was the predominant pattern of development before World War II— the most commonly used manuals contain virtually no data on them.

In fact, the recommended procedures for preparing a trip-generation report declare that such places are not proper candidates for study.

ITE's Trip Generation is the customary reference for figuring the number of vehicle trips likely to be produced by a given amount of development.... However, as the companion Trip Generation Handbook reports, "The data contained in Trip Generation are, by definition, from single-use developments where virtually all access is by private automobile and all parking is accommodated on site."

Why is this true by definition? ITE's recommended site-selection procedures for a trip-generation study declare that it should be possible to isolate the site for counting purposes. Therefore, selected sites must have "no shared parking...; limited ability for pedestrians to walk into the site from nearby parcels; [and] limited transit availability or use.."

"These procedures rule out counting the traditional mixed use neighborhood, which, for ITE, has too much shared on-street parking, too much walking from place to place, and often too much transit.

As a result, although millions of Americans live, work, and shop in traditional streetcar suburbs, mixed use neighborhoods, and downtowns, Trip Generation's 1,822 pages offer no insight into their travel habits.

(to read the entire article go to:

Well, using the out of date formulas of the traffic engineering industry each housing unit generates 8-12 car trips a day. Let's say, for this exercise, a new housing unit is 1000 square feet (a teeny bit small for an average, but easier to do the math). By the same industry standards, each new 1000 square feet of office space would generate 8-16 trips a day, more or less the same. Retail space would generate about 10 trips per 1,000. But those are the most suburban standards assuming, everyone drives for every trip. The reality is however, that buildings per se do not generate traffic in themselves. It is the position of these buildings within the urban environment that determines the traffic load. Retail space in downtown Santa Monica generates only 40% of the traffic that the same amount of space would generate in the suburbs. The reason being that the City uses a "park-once" strategy, so each car trip is more efficient. Moreover, there are Transportation Demand Management techniques that office building owners utilize that easily reduce car trips by 50%, (incentives for car pooling, biking, walking or utilizing public transit) and possible more (like having a mix of service retail uses near the office space minimizing lunch hour trips).

But why, you ask, is the housing number as high as it is? Well, again this is a number generated primarily from single-family suburban houses, which are on average considerably larger than 1,000 sf and occupy considerably more land. However in high value communities such as S.M. the unit sizes are smaller, and the density greater, but the amount of cars don't go down very much UNLESS the housing is in a mixed-use neighborhood, where residents can walk, bike or transit to shopping and work, precisely the kind of development Measure T prevents. But the pro-Proposition T forces assert that the:

Lantana Entertainment expansion on Olympic/Exposition near 28th/Stewart... will bring 200,000 additional sq ft of commercial/office space and 2,000 additional daily car trips through Pico neighborhood and Sunset Park...

But what if the project were not to be built? We'd no doubt get 200 or so residences, with somewhere around 8 -12,000 car trips per day generated (using the same methodology), with considerably less tax revenue for the City. But you could argue, with the housing we're no worse off, so maybe it's worth taking a chance on this. Except there's a third possibility: why not split the difference? Why not work toward on a one-to-one jobs to housing ratio in every major project, or within a specified geographic area so that a true reduction in traffic could be achieved? Imagine the sheer pleasure of being able to walk to work? That would require a progressive land use policy, that granted, we haven't achieved in this City. However, one thing's for certain. We we will never achieve that kind of enlightenment if this RIFT comes into being.

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