We often hear community members express complaints about the Whole Foods at Wilshire and 23rd and that the new Zoning Code should include development standards to discourage this type of development.
The concerns most often expressed include:
• It generates too much traffic.
• It has insufficient parking.
• Employee parking is not provided and so they park in the residential neighborhoods.
• It’s too big and out of scale with the surrounding area.
• It’s not pedestrian friendly.
Let’s consider each of these complaints.
It’s too big. Whole Foods is approximately 29,000 square feet, and is essentially one story with a small two-story portion. As such it’s about the same size as the Bristol Farms at Wilshire and Berkeley (28,000 square feet), a little bigger than the Vons at 14th Street (20,000 square feet), the Pavilions at Montana (22,000 square feet) and is quite a bit smaller than the Ralph’s on Cloverfield (42,000 square feet). The reality is that grocery stores are big. Certainly there are smaller markets. The Whole Foods at Fifth Street is about 10,000 square feet, not the size that grocery stores prefer as they cannot provide all the items that customers want and expect. Since we are the customers, it is us that want larger markets. Why would we want to have zoning codes that don’t allow what we as a community want.
It’s out of scale. When we look at Wilshire between 20th and 26th streets we see quite a lot of variety in building size. At 20th is the six-story office building on the north side and the one-story retail stores on the south side, at 22nd the three-story medical building on the north and a four-story office on the south, at Chelsea the six-story Union Bank building on the south and Douglas Park to the north, and at 26th street a three-story office building to the south and a one-story retail building to the north. There is a lot of variety. It is hard to then claim that it is out of scale in terms of height. Then there is the issue of the footprint. If we want the larger size market and markets on two levels are difficult, then the footprint has to be large. Can this be mitigated so that it doesn’t look as large on the street? Well that is what was done here. The Wilshire elevation is divided into three parts — the two flanking ends and a central entry/dining and outdoor merchandise display area. This strategy is somewhat successful in this regard.
It’s not pedestrian friendly. We respectfully disagree with those who make this claim. The outdoor dining areas and the outdoor merchandise display certainly add interest to pedestrians walking the street. If we compare this market to some of the others listed above it is vastly superior.
It generates too much traffic. We don’t know the actual number of customers per square foot of store area who patronize this market but it certainly seems busier than the others listed above but that could simply be that the aisles are tighter. However we think we can all agree that it is a well-patronized store.
So who is going to this Whole Foods? It’s mostly north Santa Monicans. We base this on the notion that folks living south of the 10 freeway would most likely go to markets in their neighborhood including the Whole Foods at Lincoln and Rose. Folks in West L.A. would do similarly and if Whole Foods is their market of choice there’s one at National and Barrington. And the folks in Brentwood have their own Whole Foods as well as other market options. So the traffic going to Whole Foods is mostly being made by us. If we remove the Whole Foods from this location we certainly don’t stop eating, and we still need to buy groceries and we simply drive to another market. The traffic remains and the trips are longer and therefore the traffic gets worse. In fact decades ago we would drive from Santa Monica to Mrs. Gooches — now Whole Foods — in Beverly Hills. Now we walk to the local Whole Foods. And we do see quite a few folks walking and biking to this Whole Foods. Based on this we would argue that this Whole Foods actually reduces traffic especially if we consider vehicle miles traveled.
It has insufficient parking. The problem here is not a lack of parking — the second parking level down is never full — but rather that the parking is difficult and unpleasant to use. This results in folks preferring to cruise around the block looking for that elusive street parking spot. This creates a lot on unnecessary local traffic circulating around the immediate neighborhood. The problem with the parking is the uninviting steep ramp that starts immediately at the sidewalk. Then the aisle where folks have to turn is based on compact stall dimensions creating real challenges for those in larger vehicles. The stalls themselves often have pipes and other items encroaching into the stall width making getting in and out difficult. Then once parked, there is no stair providing easy and quick access to the store. One has to wait for the rather slow elevators. So the amount of parking is not the problem. It’s the design that is the issue. The city has already made revisions to the parking standards to avoid some of the problems this parking garage has.
Employees are not provided parking. (This has changed recently with team member parking located across the street. That is a temporary situation as that site is proposed for redevelopment. Therefore we will exclude that in this discussion). As parking for all employees is not provided on site, some park in the residential neighborhoods beyond the adjacent preferential parking zone. However these areas where they are parking are mostly single-family districts and as single-family homes are required to have a two car garage it would seem that this should not create problems. But this is a big cause of complaint. Either residents are not parking in their garages or they have more than two cars. Either way, it seems that a public space — the street — should be a shared resource available for all to use — unless of course this is a parking challenged area, which it is not.
However, providing employees with parking, especially free parking, further encourages employees to drive to work, which then contributes to added traffic. Perhaps the best solution toward solving this issue is to encourage the development of more housing and especially affordable housing along transit boulevards. Let’s provide housing that encourages the use of transit. This is exactly what the 2010 Land Use and Circulation Element envisioned.
The authors live, work and have diverse architectural and consulting practices that include Santa Monica construction projects. They are Michael W. Folonis, Gwynne Pugh, Linda Jassim, John Zinner and Hank Koning.