What is so attractive about those charming neighborhoods in Portland, San Francisco and Seville? They are oriented to and serve the local community. Generally, we think of neighborhoods by their characteristics. Linear neighborhoods such as on major boulevards often are challenged by the dispersed geography. Wilshire in particular suffers from a lack of pedestrian activity. The concept of a “complete neighborhood” is that it provides most if not all of the resources, services and community engagement and identity that we generally need in our daily lives. This might include a laundry, grocery stores, cafes and restaurants and other shops that serve the adjacent community. Other resources might include daycare or preschools, a post office or UPS store and businesses professional and otherwise. Ultimately it is about the people that make up the neighborhood. In the concept of the complete neighborhood this means kids, working families, seniors, people of all income levels. Ideally, if the resources are available we should be able to live, work, and play mostly within the immediate neighborhood. If the neighborhood is sufficiently complete and of the appropriate density, these activities can be accomplished by walking to them.
The average person takes approximately seven trips a day: such as going to work, taking the kids to school, going to the market and going to a coffee shop. In a neighborhood of sufficient density, a number of these trips can be made by walking. This has numerous benefits. It removes the hassle of driving, looking for a parking spot and all the associated vehicle costs. Walking is beneficial for health and for ‘neighborhoodliness’. We see people we know, we get to know our neighbors, we see their gardens, storefronts, get to know their kids and pets. Not necessarily friends but neighbors. These are the attributes of a walkable neighborhood, especially one that is complete.
So why is density so important, and what is sufficient density? It goes back to the concept of walkability. The idea of being a neighborhood and neighborliness. Generally, it is assumed that if the destination is a quarter-mile away (a five-minute walk) or less, it is most efficient to walk (as it takes longer to drive, park, etc.) and many will walk if it is 1/2 mile away. This is especially true if the walk is interesting and entertaining, i.e. stuff is happening. The other piece to this puzzle is economic sustainability. For a couple of short blocks, the population required to sustain businesses is around 1,500 households (a figure researched and formulated by David Dixon of Goody Clancy urban planners from Boston) If this is a walkable neighborhood this will require housing in the region of three to five stories within that 1/4-mile radius. Otherwise the businesses need to attract people from around the greater region to drive to them. They cease to be locally serving and consequently generate additional traffic. In fact Metro has determined the density is so low on Wilshire Blvd. that there is no intention to provide the Subway to the Sea, it stops at the VA, which could have relieved traffic issues.
Neighbors do not know neighbors and the community ceases to be complete. So — Wilshire Boulevard. Is it the core to a complete community? Not as it stands today. Many of the retail outlets are not for the neighbors but are destinations. The lighting store, the tobacco store, the dead oversized storefront, where a destination low end shoe store existed, now gone. Perhaps more importantly, is it walkable? Pedestrians are a dying breed, rarely to be seen. A multi-purpose trip takes getting into the car to go from one place to the next and to a place generally with inadequate parking. This does not make this a desirable neighborhood for daily tasks and creating community. So how can this be improved? Allow appropriate development to happen. The LUCE envisioned 3-5 story development along Wilshire and other boulevards with the ground floor and residential above. This would make a big difference. Oh and parking. All new development will be required to have all its parking needs met, unlike existing businesses. What a relief.
The LUVE initiative would make development impossible as the cost and unpredictability of development make development highly unlikely. These are complex issues that were teased out through a very long public process in the LUCE. Referendums on prosaic development are counterproductive and pernicious. The City works through well-crafted regulations that were developed through a well ordered visioning process rather than an emotional and simplistic reaction process proposed by the LUVE initiative. Vote no on LUVE if you want a great neighborhood.
By Gwynne Pugh
Gwynne Pugh was a Planning Commissioner in Santa Monica for 7 years and a resident since 1975.