By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. October 13, 2015

The Downtown Specific Plan on tonight’s City Council agenda brings together many issues of today – density, housing, mass, height, open space, light, air, views, commercial viability, jobs, culture, preservation, sustainability, pedestrian orientation and mobility, to name a few.

The needle in the haystack is City Staff’s historic request for the Council to set forth a comprehensive long-term planning approach for what they are calling the Access Gateway Master Plan for the area between downtown and the Civic Center, and Ocean Ave. and 5th St.

“A comprehensive approach to public planning of future infrastructure investment and appropriate development standards is preferable to project by project consideration of individual parcels,” says the staff report.

That’s true, but understated. In the City’s 1997 Open Space Element, we envisioned capping the I-10 freeway between Ocean Avenue and 4th Street, and creating new public spaces on top. If we plan this right, we can knit together the downtown, Pier, Civic Center and Expo light rail station; we can gain significant new public cultural and open space; and we can change circulation patterns to relieve auto congestion and promote pedestrian orientation.

As recommended by Staff, “the master plan area would include the three properties bordered by Colorado Avenue on the north, the freeway on the south, 5th Street on the east and Ocean Avenue on the west. There is currently a Development Agreement application pending for the Wyndham Hotel at 2nd/Colorado, and staff has had recent discussions with the owner of the Sears property regarding potential redevelopment of the portion of the site surrounding the historic Sears building. The third site within the boundaries of the plan area is the City owned TOD [transit-oriented development] site adjacent to the Expo line terminus station.”

I would include consideration of the Big Blue Bus (BBB) site to the master plan’s scope – not because I see relocating the BBB, as much as there may be logical redesign issues on the BBB site that respond to changes in the Master Plan area.

For the sake of next steps, let’s assume we all agree that it makes sense to do this kind of comprehensive planning. One big question is financing. The other is process.

To comprehensively plan this area will require unprecedented coordination between the City and other stakeholders, including Caltrans, the Big Blue Bus, Sears, the Felcor Corporation (which owns the Wyndham Hotel) and the private property owners adjacent to the City TOD site. Then of course, there is the public.

Council should ask staff to return with a model that can intimately involve these stakeholders, so that everyone can start with a clear understanding of everyone’s needs and desires, and what are realistic expectations of what the community would support.

As a member of the public, I’d work from some public goals as starting premises – especially capping the freeway between Ocean Ave. and the Main Street Bridge, and from the Main St. Bridge to 4th St. That means that we’d plan what for what happens at Sears and the Wyndham sites, based upon how they’d relate to these new spaces, and vice-versa.

For the Sears site, this is the time for world level bold thinking, like a world class museum or theatre.

The Sears building was built in 1947 and landmarked by the City in 2004. That landmark status is important, because it means the building’s facade is not going to change. That affects its future use, because the building has few windows, and won’t have more in the future. That likely means no commercial office space or residential. But it could mean an incredible world class cultural site, like a museum or theatre that doesn’t need windows. With three floors (two above, one below), the possibilities are great.

Then there is Sears’ 200-car parking lot. It’s not in the City’s interest for any future development of the Sear’s site to block the westward views from the Expo station, which was built on a raised platform to create a view towards Tongva Park and the Pacific Ocean. Furthermore, any new auto-dependent development there would bring more cars through the curb cut (which we want to eliminate) on the Esplanade into Sears’ parking, conflicting with the stream of pedestrians heading down the Colorado Esplanade from the Expo station. This is not a conflict we want to encourage, nor do we want to invite more auto traffic to the already stressed 4th/Colorado intersection.

City Officials should help Sears realize that their existing parking lot isn’t the place for future traditional development, and that their expectations should be re-calibrated to think creatively along with the City.

Greatness could be achieved by capping the I-10 freeway between Main and 4th and creating public plazas and walkways and complimentary low rise restaurant/retail on top of the freeway and in the current Sears parking area, all adjacent to the world cultural facility in the Sears building.

To pay for the Sears portion of this deal, the City should solicit and identify through a global Request for Qualifications/Proposals) some person/entity/organization that has the interest and where with all to take advantage of such an opportunity, and be willing to pay a fair price to Sears.

In return they get a once-in-a-lifetime cultural venue in a landmarked building in a world class location, benefitting from massive public investment, next to public plazas covering the I-10 freeway and fed by the Esplanade, across street from the Expo light rail station and across street from (what will eventually be) public parking on the southern end of the TOD site (meaning the cultural facility doesn’t have to provide parking itself) – all with proximity to the Pier, Tonga Park and the Third Street Promenade.

To fund the freeway cap, a fee established specifically for this could apply to any development within the master plan area. But it could also be something that applies to developments across the downtown pay into it as a community benefit or as something required, depending upon the type of project. Then there are more progressive ideas like reform of Proposition 13 to establish a Land Value Tax that captures the increase in land values in the nearby area as a result of public investment, and returns that to the local community for reinvestment in parks and affordable housing. A LVT zone across the entire Expo corridor in Santa Monica could be a great tool for public reinvestment and fighting gentrification.

Beyond these funding measures, a regional Joint Power Authority (JPA) with the Cities of Los Angeles and Burbank makes long term sense, as both cities and Santa Monica seek to cap major freeways in their area. Such a JPA should seek state and federal funds to fund such green urban infill as a climate change mitigation/adaptation funding mechanism, making our dense urban areas more livable and reducing the carbon footprint to visit large open spaces. Certainly cap-and-trade funds within the state could apply. Once this JPA is established and beginslobbying for state and federal funds, other cities will want to join the movement because they have similar needs and opportunities to gain urban open space.

After the Council weighs in on a lot of the big issues of today on Tuesday night, let’s hope they also give forward moving direction on a big issue for tomorrow.

Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004).  He can be reached via Twitter @mikefeinstein

Inside/Outside‘ is a periodic column about civic affairs Feinstein writes for the Daily Press, that takes advantage of his experience inside and outside of government.

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