A worker leaves the construction site of the Expo Light Rail Line at the corner of 17th Street and Colorado Avenue on Tuesday. (Daniel Archuleta daniela@www.smdp.com)

Now that our City Council has reformed the old zoning ordinance into a new, more opaque document, it is moving on to the adoption of a specific plan for our downtown. Let’s hope that the new Downtown Specific Plan (DSP) will fare better and result in a clearer, more resident-friendly document. The DSP should be a fact-based, open public process that sets out a vision for the integration of the new Expo Line into the downtown area. The success or failure to achieve this may well determine our City’s future. Will thousands of new daily visitors bring vibrancy to our City, or exacerbate the current problems of traffic and overdevelopment — or both?

When the new zoning code was being re-written, the process appeared to be driven more by external forces than the needs and desires of the City’s residents. It was a piecemeal approach that corrected some problem areas but ignored others. This must not happen with the DSP. The stakes are too high. It should provide a fresh vision that preserves our unique beach character while looking into to a future with an ever-growing daily visitor population. The new Expo Line will bring thousands into our Downtown area and the pressures on our infrastructure and current residents will be immense. It will require an innovative, well thought-out analysis and solution.

Residents and visitors alike desire a unified shopping and walking experience, one that is both convenient and enjoyable. Currently this is not always the case. More of an effort is needed to integrate our main commercial spine (The Promenade) with the rest of the downtown commercial district. One way to accomplish this would be with more mid-block pedestrian links between blocks, providing additional smaller tenancies and perhaps lower rents. This would help to broaden and enhance the downtown retail experience.

If the mid-block pedestrian passageways were open to the sky and tree-lined, they could create pathways to unify the downtown district and enhance the pedestrian experience with a secondary east-west circulation network. They would add convenience, greenery, charm and openness to a dense downtown that has now been expanded to Lincoln.

With the expansion of downtown the center has shifted east. A new urban park on the City-owned land at 4th/5th and Arizona could become the “heart” and focal point for the entire downtown district. The commercial areas east of 4th would become more connected to the west end, creating a cohesiveness to the downtown area that does not currently exist.

The next step would be to create a pedestrian-friendly link to the Expo Station. While there has been a laudable effort by the City’s planners to anticipate the impact of the new Expo Line, the resulting plan may not be robust enough to cope with the competing pedestrian and vehicle traffic effectively. Would the planned Esplanade to the Pier and beaches function better if it bridged above the north/south bound traffic at 4th St., or at the Main St. to 2nd St. crossings? And what about the impact of traffic as people pick up or drop off at the new Expo Station? How will commuters exit the 10 Freeway towards the Expo drop-off or Downtown?

Aware of the potential for gridlock at this important portal to the City, the City Council recently contacted Caltrans to request a study. Although it is late in the game, such a study is now being conducted, but it is difficult to understand how it was not integral to the original design. The area in and around the old Sears building will of necessity become a transit hub for our beach community. As such, it will require ample parking and different transit options for those who are not yet at their final destinations. Wouldn’t it make sense to create a convenient linkage to Lincoln Blvd. as well? The fact that the Expo Line will be entering downtown at street level creates numerous safety and convenience challenges. Current estimates put the eventual ridership on the Expo at more than 30,000 per day. While not all of these riders will end up in Santa Monica, those arriving downtown will have a great impact on our streets and infrastructure.

The ultimate question for the new Downtown Specific Plan is “are there no limits to growth downtown, and if there are, what are they?” We have already become the most densely visited and populated beach town in California, and at some point the City will need to answer the question, what is sustainable? Until that happens, one way to control the impact is to limit the heights of new structures downtown to 4 stories. This limit could be revisited later, but in the interim would provide some breathing room for the City to upgrade its infrastructure as well as multi-modal circulation elements, experience the arrival of the Expo, and evaluate its impact on the downtown and surrounding areas.

In summary, we would challenge the planning staff to draft a new Downtown Specific Plan only after a comprehensive traffic analysis and infrastructure review, and an analysis of the projected and actual impacts from the new Expo Line. We hope that the recommendations resulting from such a study will be respectful of the land-use and zoning wishes of the residents and without bias either for or against development interests. Ideally, the new DSP would provide additional open space, public ways for the safe mixing of pedestrian and vehicular traffic, and insure that ample parking exists for residents and visitors alike at our new Expo Station.

It is already clear that the Expo Line will be a “game changer” for our “sleepy beach town.” Let’s do all we can to insure that it is a change for the better. If so, it will be a win for both residents and tourists so that Santa Monica can continue to be an attractive, enjoyable place to both live and visit.

Samuel Tolkin, Architect for SMa.r.t.(Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Thane Roberts AIA, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Armen Melkonians Civil & Environmental Engineer, Phil Brock Chair, Parks & Recreation Commission.

For previous articles, see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writings.

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