We’ve followed the Gateway overlay zone planning process for two years because an impending policy change could well foreclose any opportunity to realize Santa Monica Boulevard as a signature active mobility corridor for Beverly Hills. When the City Council recently sent the proposal back for reworking, it seemed a reprieve to argue again for vision. But last week’s liaison meeting suggested to project applicants and their lobbyists to expect a pretty sweet developer giveaway – at the expense of cyclists, walkers and nearby residents.
We say developer giveaway because the three landowners that subdivided the former streetcar right-of-way on the south side of the boulevard literally banked on policymakers eventually changing the existing zoning. Upzoning from T-1 (transportation with very limited uses) to C-3 commercial would be giving landowners a license to print money because the uses (and value) of the land would change with a stroke of a pen. And that would add much to the bottom line of any project.
To be fair, the applicants have carried this land for many years as the city dithered on an appropriate policy for the gateway area (as they persistently remind policymakers). But while this strip behind the small shops on Little Santa Monica Blvd. is too narrow to be efficiently developed today given parking requirements (and ingress/egress challenges), when combined with commercial properties to the south, and liberated with a generous ‘overlay zone’ to let buildings rise high, it becomes very valuable indeed.
You see, the landowners are very eager to expand their margins, but as Council knows, and as neighboring residents fear, those fatter margins must mean higher structures (modeled at right in an older Gateway zone study) and yet more traffic for an area that is already a congestion disaster.
This is the last vast tract of prime commercial land available for development, yet the chief ‘public benefit’ demanded in exchange for this golden opportunity is some additional underground parking spaces beyond what’s required and the creation of landscaped setbacks at the Wilshire & Santa Monica intersection.
Where’s the Vision?
Why develop this land today? Great question. Negotiations have not been about why we should develop the land, or to what purpose to put it, but instead just how much office development we should permit. Kenneth Goldman, representative of the Southwest Homeowners Association adjacent to the gateway area, got to the point when he asked about the overlay zone that (as discussed) might allow four stories of offices adjacent to a low-rise area:
Is it too late to start talking about your vision for this street? Will it be pedestrian friendly and one or two stories or glass office buildings? Will it be an extension of Century City or [remain] Little Santa Monica as it is know?
He reminded those attending that the Peninsula Hotel was allowed to build beyond what was permitted in exchange for additional parking spaces, but those spaces were just turned over to the hotel for their use free and clear anyway. The irony is that one of the trade-offs for more height at the gateway area today is again for additional spaces… the Peninsula’s quid pro quo deal all over again.
Through all of the Planning Commission meetings we’ve attended, and now two City Council liaison meetings, the discussion has never touched on the opportunities for active transportation on the corridor. As we look beyond the auto, we’ve got to do a better job at facilitating safe travel for pedestrians and cyclists. But we haven’t had much truck with city officials.
Not that we haven’t tried: we’ve urged policymakers to take a bold step and indeed we attended this liaison meeting to again remind policymakers that we should make the Santa Monica corridor a signature ‘complete’ main street for our city when we reconstruct the boulevard in 2014. That would be a forward-looking statement instead of the likely look backwards to more of the same ol’ blacktop as officials seem to prefer.
Why We Can’t Expect Better
Don’t hold your breath for vision, Mr. Goldman. If we haven’t had it in Beverly Hills in a half-century, we’re not likely to get it in the next year or so when projects on the newly re-zoned Western Gateway break ground. So Good luck with that additional traffic and say goodbye to your view of the hills, Southwest Beverly Hills homeowners. Your fight is not the Metro tunnel but the developer giveaways that continue to compromise life here.
We wish we could have been more effective as a voice for active transportation in Beverly Hills. But the truth is that any transportation advocate under a bike helmet faces paid lobbyists and landowner representatives in every meeting. Every last one is suited up nice and prepared with a winning argument: More development is better for us and it’s better for you too. Our countervailing argument? Remember the walkers and cyclists.
Just look at the oversized development and mediocre design that has been characteristic of most everything built in this town in the last half-century and you get the picture. Brace yourselves: the new Gateway is on its way!