As a former City Council member and mayor, and a community activist in Santa Monica for more than 30 years, I have seen my share of local development controversies. There have been some projects I have actively supported and some projects I have actively opposed, believing that good development can benefit our community while objectionable development can truly harm.
The City Council of today should learn from both the successes and mistakes of its predecessors, especially the big mistakes, because they will be with us for decades.
In the late 1970s and the mid-1980s, pro-development council majorities made several zinger mistakes. At the urging of a pro-development community group of business leaders and residents, they approved over 4 million square feet of commercial office parks, most of it in the Olympic Boulevard corridor. Many community members, including Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) and two SMRR-supported City Council members, myself and David Finkel, objected to these projects, particularly the Water Garden and the project now called The Arboretum.
We argued then that these large, self-contained commercial office parks would generate intense local traffic and would not generate significant community benefits. As revenue generators they would be modest; as traffic generators they would be prolific.
Nor was there reason to think those projects were likely to generate jobs for residents. Instead, they would be stand-alone commercial campuses that would bring in thousands of employees and their cars each day during the morning rush hour and the same thousands would leave the city in the evening. There would be little spin-off economic-development-value from these self-contained projects.
Nevertheless, the pro-development council majority ignored objections and approved those projects. The lessons we have learned since have clearly validated the objections expressed then by the larger community. Overwhelming traffic in the morning has become legendary traffic in the evening — legendary not only locally, but throughout the region. Trying to leave Santa Monica in the evening along Olympic or any other east-west arterial has become preposterous: it regularly takes an hour to make it a couple miles to the 405.
Yes, worsening traffic on the 405 and other parts of the Westside contribute to this malaise. But there is no denying that the council members who voted “Yes” on millions of square feet of office parks have burdened this community in an avoidable and unnecessary way, to little positive local benefit.
Perhaps the council members of that time could claim innocence: “We didn’t really know,” Olympic and other arterials had unused capacity. Maybe then, but not so today.
This coming Tuesday the council will deliberate on the nearly 800,000 square foot Hines project at the site of the old Paper Mate plant at Olympic and 26th Street. About half of the proposed Hines development will also be commercial office space — among the most traffic intensive uses. The project will be across the street from a future Exposition Light Rail station. It is also across another street from the 1.2 million square foot Water Garden. There is over 3 million square feet of office park in the immediate area.
The likely burdens of this project are clearly evident. The council knows full well that the traffic generated by commercial office space in the proposed Hines development will come in the morning and leave in the evening, layered on top of the dreadful traffic already generated by the Water Garden, The Arboretum, Colorado Center and the Viacom building.
I believe that approval of this project would clearly be piling on, adding excessive traffic into the teeth of arguably the worst traffic gridlock in L.A. County. This fact is inescapable.
It is true that almost half of the Hines project is residential. In my view, the residential portion of the project should be welcome. A residential project similarly scaled with only ground floor commercial services should be welcome. Traffic generated by such a residential project would be much less and would not follow the same pattern and not create the same burden as commercial office space.
In addition, a smart development agreement could require those residential units to be actively marketed to employees at nearby office projects, helping to reduce traffic from those developments.
What might justify the council ignoring existing traffic conditions in this corridor and adding significant new traffic to an already exceptionally bad situation? New revenue to a cash-strapped community? The $2 million per year in estimated new revenue from this project is quite modest and certainly does not justify adding to the mounting traffic burden of this corridor of the city, especially as the city is experiencing a rebound in its economy and local revenue.
The proximity to the much anticipated Exposition light rail station? As a transit advocate, I object to the expanding transit system being employed to justify otherwise unwise development. I believe in enhanced densities around transit, but that does not mean all existing conditions or likely local burdens should be ignored, obviously. Santa Monica is already one of the highest density communities in the entire region. It is an important reason why Expo ridership projections are quite high.
Residents of Santa Monica who voted overwhelmingly for Measure R in 2008 expected that the Exposition line would help bring relief to peak hour traffic in this corridor and not simply serve as a political pretext to worsen it with unwise development.
Some say that this project is an opportunity for Santa Monica to anchor its position as the “capital of Silicon Beach.” Frankly, that status is already well and sufficiently anchored. I do not think we as a community gain much when the creative talents of the digital workforce simply drive in in the morning and leave at night. Rather, we should create opportunities for this workforce already here to actually live amongst us and truly become part of our community. That is what a mixed-use, primarily residential Hines project could provide.
Unfortunately, a residential project is not what is before the city. Unfortunately, the environmental review for this project did not evaluate a truly residential alternative. Thus, it is unclear that the council could approve a project with all residential above the first floor and neighborhood commercial on the ground floor without beginning deliberations anew. If necessary, that is exactly what they should do.
If that is not possible, then the council should just say no. Save everyone the hassle and the expense of fighting it out at the ballot box.
Denny Zane is the former mayor of Santa Monica and Co-founder and former Co-chair of Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR). Currently he serves as the executive director of Move LA, an advocacy group for public transit.