Dear residents against the Hines project,

How do you solve a problem that is already unbearable by rallying to do — nothing?

I offer my opinion here out of concern for our shared future. I gain no financial benefit, nor do I have any project before the City Council now, nor in the foreseeable future. And I feel your fear and frustration, but I do not share it. I suspect that the difference between us is a consequence of our holding on to very different visions of what the future may hold.

Your vision, in my humble opinion, is looking into the rear view mirror, reminiscing of days of old when there was just not that much traffic — yet. I hear you wanting to “fix traffic,” which is the same as wishing that people would just get off the streets so we can all drive again. And I observe you blaming congestion on development and growth, which in your mind has ruined the bucolic low-key beach life you once had.

What you fail to understand is how traffic and the low-key city you reminisce and mourn are really two sides of the same coin. That unique moment in time you wish to return to, when driving was unobstructed, was only a fleeting state by design. We built wider roads than we needed to be ready for future traffic. The dreaded growth was built into that scenario from the very first moment.

Driving is hugely wasteful in land use, and all that land that is dedicated to our automobiles costs money to be maintained with funds, which especially after Prop. 13, cities generate more and more through development fees. In the car-based, low-density city you must grow and sprawl, otherwise you are cutting off your financial nose to spite your face!

But there is also another vision for the future, and that picture is a bit more promising. And I thought this vision is one I shared with many residents in Santa Monica.

My vision includes transit as a mobility alternate, not a replacement, to our cars. As I stated before, just inserting transit into the car-based city does not work — unless you intend transit only for “other” people to get out of your way. But, let’s hope in Santa Monica we still are better than that.

Density is the enemy of the car-based city, but it is a requirement for the transit city, at least within walking distance to the transit stops. For transit to really succeed, one must prevent people from needing their own car for any portion of their trip, because once people start to drive, most of them will just keep going.

If you really wanted to improve traffic, you’d need to get lots of people off our roads. I do not know of a mechanism to do this in a free, democratic society. Unless driving becomes un-affordable, there will always be enough folks who will think that today is “their day,” and they will drive — and usually they will get stuck.

Every year, the Economist magazine ranks the livability of cities from all over the globe. And the winner and runner-up cities are all equally congested to us. However, what makes these cities great in spite of this is what else they have to offer, and that includes strong alternatives for getting around, such as public transit and bicycles.

What is at stake with your resistance against the Bergamot Transit Village is whether we all are saying “yes” to a better future, or choose to bury our head in the sand and hope against reason. The transit net Metro is building is our lifesaver in greater L.A. We owe it to ourselves to provide it with the best possible conditions to function; that means density at the stations, no matter who says what against it.

The Bergamot Transit Village is not a perfect project, but this is not the point. It is much less dense than it was technically allowed to be, it went through our review process, has been revised and adopted and has at last been deemed to be in conformance with local development rules. It deserves to be built now. We cannot rewrite rules on a project by project basis. If we don’t like the outcome of our own rules, then let’s rally to write different ones!

For instance, if we want smaller developments with more design variety, then stop insisting on parking minimums! They favor corporations who aggregate parcels so that they can then build one really large and efficient parking garage. What is happening to Santa Monica is not that suddenly bad or greedy people (who you call “corporate developers”) took over, rather this is an obvious consequence of the car-centric rules we operate by, rules which you support. If you keep insisting on making projects car friendly, they will create environments more akin to Century City rather than the pedestrian, funky, low-key beach paradise we all want.

And if you must oppose projects in Santa Monica, I wish you would focus on all of those projects, large or small, that are outside the half-mile walking distance from an Expo Line station because those projects will for sure contribute to more congestion, little by little. Believe it or not, the Bergamot Transit Village might actually work better for us all than you dare to hope. There is enough pent up demand locally for a life without the automobile. This project makes that possible. Let the Bergamot Transit Village happen and wait and observe.

It might turn out to be good for all of us.

 

Gerhard W. Mayer is an architect who lives and practices on the Westside. He is also a chair of the American Institute of Architects L.A.’s Urban Design Committee.

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