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.

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