Traffic Demand Management (TDM) is a program City Hall has touted as the answer to gridlock on city streets. TDM is a program in which property owners and employers will offer incentives to employees and residents to forego the use of cars. It assumes many employees will live in the immediate area, and will ride a bike, walk or ride the Exposition Light Rail Line to work.
But the Housing Authority has shown that the average employee in the area can afford an apartment at rents of $1,000 to $1,500, while market rate housing in the Bergamot area is expected to be around $2,400. Unless rents are brought in line with wages, the area will not house local workers. Remember, the light rail only travels along a single line in space. Most riders will live in a small area within a mile of the tracks. People living elsewhere may take buses, or they may drive to work in Bergamot, defeating the plan for the area.
The proposed TDM program turns on the assumption that the developers can find enough people who can afford area rents and will still give up their cars.
In the past, Santa Monica has been notoriously lax about enforcement. Because the charming pocket parks around Downtown were not part of land deeds, they disappeared with ownership change. Because enforcement was not in place, Craig Jones, developer of “Jonesville” (the area between Seventh and Fifth streets, Colorado Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard) was able to negotiate the bundling of all his affordable apartment units into one building. He immediately syndicated all his market-rate building at the current multiplier of the yearly rents, then walked away when it became apparent that the current multiplier of the affordable housing rents would not cover the cost of construction. Jones was reportedly living in Thailand. The city lost 54 affordable units.
The goal of development is profit. The shorter the time frame of an investment, the higher the return. To facilitate the highest return in the shortest amount of time, developers sell the project or parts of the project as soon as is feasible. The Hines development agreement supposes the various buildings in the project may be built by different developer/owners. So Hines will be selling entitlements to others and letting them do the developing.
In the Hines agreement, there are interesting limitations for the TDM program and interesting bits of information about how it will be managed.
First, it is considered a “community benefit.” Now, any sane person without a profit motive and need to manipulate the perception, would agree that a public benefit is one that benefits the public more than it burdens the public. It’s no community benefit if, after all the gambits have been tried, there are still more car trips than there were before the project was built. It may have mitigated the damage the project has done to the area traffic pattern, but it hasn’t benefited the public. The additional traffic will steal time from commuters who don’t fit the profile of biker, walker, transit rider and need to make a living in the area. The TDM may have made it possible for the project to be built, as it contributed to the perception used to justify the adding of more height and density to an already gridlocked area. However, it should not be classified as a public benefit. As a project mitigation measure it’s a benefit to Hines and no one else, forcing many people to change their lifestyles to benefit Hines.
The goal of the TDM is to equal the number of car trips for each building as estimated in the environmental impact report. The TDM kicks in when the first creative office building receives a certification of occupancy. At the end of the first year, a report is required. If the Average Vehicle Ridership (AVR) equals 1.75 times the goal, it’s considered a pass. If it equals 2.0 of the goal, it’s considered a good faith try. If after the second year the building has not met its goal, the TDM manager can sit down with city planners and make some changes that will make it easier for the buildings to meet their goals. Defaults bring fines, but it’s not considered a default if the TDM manager is working with City Hall “in good faith.”
When the project is built out, total p.m. car trips (between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.) will be monitored by card keys that identify the user as employee, resident or visitor. Carpool cars count as one-half a trip. Visitors who pull tickets don’t count toward the TDM total as they’re considered neighborhood shared-parking patrons.
Because different developer/owners may be involved, the build-out calls for a project transportation coordinator, who will manage the program, handle yearly reports, maintain a website and monitor progress. If for any reason this TDM program sunsets, or fails, or is diluted by the City Council (as they excused Saint John’s hospital from building their parking structure) Hines will be gone, and the residents who have lived their lives here will have to cope with a major traffic explosion.
Unexpected things happen with enforcement. At a Planning Commission meeting several years ago, Tim McCormick (former head of Building and Safety) said in his yearly report, “My department has had 1,300 calls for service without a single call back.” If that kind of failure happens with the Hines TDM, Hines will have pocketed the profit while the area becomes swamped with unmovable traffic.
For no reason can this TDM program be allowed to fail. It must be in place for the life of these buildings, not as a public benefit (which it is not), but as a protection from the excesses of development, in place to protect the city, the residents and the region.
Ellen Brennan, retired stockbroker, former chair of the Pier Restoration Corp., authored this column. She and other members of the Our Town group can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.