Council Hears Santa Monica Boulevard Options [Recap]

Santa Monica Blvd. narrowsBeverly Hills City Council took a major step forward on Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction today when councilmembers agreed to create an appointed blue-ribbon committee to manage public outreach this fall. This move broadens stakeholder participation beyond the limited opportunities afforded by commission oversight and instead puts oversight of the process in stakeholders’ hands. In other developments, the Council  recognized that cyclists have a place on this key corridor and said safety was paramount. Let’s recap!

Presented to the Council in today’s study session were two decisions in the Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction project: the choice of one of four options for an oversight body; and direction on a palette of preliminary boulevard design options which may or may not include incrementally widening the curb-to-curb width of today’s boulevard. In an earlier post we assessed the process options and in a follow-up editorial we recommended that Council appoint a public steering committee. (TL;DR? Jump right to the Council discussion or the wrap-up summary.)

City Council heard the city’s description of the project, a proposed noticing scheme (to surrounding neighborhoods only), key stakeholder groups (businesses, nearby churches and homeowner associations but no mention of cyclists), and oversight options for design and construction.

Psomas proposal coverIn its presentation, consultant Psomas showed six design options drawn from seven originally presented in their successful bid proposal (right). The options included both scenarios: one in which the city would keep today’s curb-to-curb width; and another were the boulevard would be incrementally expanded in order to accommodate on-street bicycle lanes (and/or a landscaped median).

But the key item on the agenda was the public outreach and oversight process. What would that oversight body be? During public comment we delivered this comment to Council:

I’m here today because I value mobility options and I want tomorrow’s Santa Monica Boulevard to be universally accessible to all road users. A signature ‘complete street’ that is safe to travel regardless of one’s mode of travel is what Beverly Hills residents deserve in 2015.

We also deserve a truly inclusive public process for the reconstruction of this key corridor… not a pro-forma succession of workshops as so often characterizes planning with a decision rendered behind closed doors. For a project of this significance, two minutes of stakeholder comment at a microphone is insufficient.

What we need is a variety of voices from the public at the table. Before Council today are four choices. Of them:

I support the the Public Steering Committee structure. Beverly Hills desperately needs a broader discussion about multimodal mobility – as called for in our city plans – and this project can be the beginning of that process. Multimodal mobility is also the appropriate context for choosing the Santa Monica Boulevard design concept.

That kind of body has worked well for West Hollywood when it was crafting mobility recommendations for City Council.

I cannot support the Multi-Commission Committee option or support sole oversight of the process by the Traffic and Parking Commission. The focus here is mobility; most of the other suggested commissions are peripheral to the project. But they do have an important place when we have that larger mobility discussion.

Nor do I support Traffic and Parking Commission oversight. This commission is focused on parking permits, taxi and tour bus regulation, not mobility generally. And in my opinion, this commission on balance enjoys the view from behind the windshield. The mobility needs of pedestrians and cyclists seems not within its remit.

And the commission supervised the Pilot bike route planning process which adhered to a pro-forma process but largely left the concerns of cyclists – communicated through five meetings with the ad-hoc bike plan update committee – off the table.

Of course commissioners bring no particular experience with road engineering that would specifically recommend it.

Aside from the Public Steering Committee, I can support the City Council/Traffic & Parking Liaison committee. It would bring needed political accountability to oversight, and we have knowledgeable members on both the Council and the Commission to guide us.

I’d like to add that there is merit in keeping both ‘major scenarios’ on the table to keep our options open. And cycling can play a key role in traffic mitigation during construction. It’s a golden opportunity to encourage cycling to our community. – Mark Elliot

 

Widen or Not to Widen?

The key design and political question facing City Council is whether the boulevard need be expanded (perhaps by three feet or more) to accommodate the full spectrum of design options as presented by the consultant. Today the current width is about 63 feet. That doesn’t include an additional 20+ feet of right-of-way that the state transferred to the city when it assumed control of the boulevard (in 2005). Most of that additional right-of-way, land currently earmarked for the transportation corridor, lies on the north side and is greenspace..

The preliminary alternatives matrix [pdf] developed by Psomas shows these options (minus the one included in its proposal that included a third travel lane):

Design conceptsKey project goals include ‘complete streets’ treatment (goal #2), protecting green space (#3) and facilitating traffic flow (#4). Note that the original project request-for-proposal in 2012 which said nothing about complete streets. Had that document guided bidders, we would recreate tomorrow’s Santa Monica Boulevard to simply reflect the dangerous corridor that we have today.

Council Discussion

Councilmember Nancy Krasne spoke forcefully about the need to consider pedestrian and cyclist safety in the boulevard redesign. “Let’s take care of cyclists,” she said, supporting a 10-foot shared bicycle path on the greenspace as depicted in alternatives 2 and 5 (above). As if to emphasize that priority, she added, “Let’s deal super-safely with the cyclists.”

As for oversight goes, Councilmember Krasne supported the idea of a public steering committee. “I want the community totally involved,” she said. “I want as much input as I can get.”

Councilmember Julian Gold was most concerned with the construction phase impacts of the project. He indicated overall satisfaction with city staff’s proposal but suggested community-wide notice regarding the construction phase. “I’m thinking about [impacts] mitigation,” he said, clarifying, “Not [wider noticing] for the design phase.” As for the outreach process itself, Councilmember Gold was concerned that we reach key stakeholders (like churches on the corridor, he said) but otherwise was “fine” with the four commission/committee options presented by staff. For expediency he suggested that the Council itself could conduct the outreach process. “I’m not convinced that we couldn’t make it [the process] shorter if Council heard the conversation – to hear it out of the gate and then make a decision over two meetings, or maybe four meetings. I’d prefer to hear the public unfiltered” through another commission or committee, he said.

Turning to conceptual design, councilmember Gold called the safety of cyclists “high on my list” but then added, “I’m not sure what that would look like.” Of the proposed landscaped median, a feature that could possibly compete with a westbound on-street bicycle lane, he thought that a significant time delay higher cost could preclude it.

Councilmember Willie Brien indicated that his priority was not to lose greenspace. “I don’t see the need – we have the walkway and walkers and joggers pay attention to the cross streets,” he said. (But he didn’t mention cyclists; the ‘walkway’ is a crushed gravel path about 80 feet north of the curb that crosses N/S streets without curb cuts or marked crosswalks.) “I’m willing to look at all the ideas,” he said, but didn’t warm to the illustrated bike & ped path if it impeded church egress. “It’s about safety,” He said. “A south-side path we can look at.”

(City transportation division staff has long suggested a south-side, on-street eastbound bicycle lane but would locate a westbound compliment off the boulevard, perhaps on Carmelita which did not prove popular among neighbors during the Pilot process Council study session in 2012.)

As for the outreach oversight, councimember Briend said that the Traffic and Parking Commission was “best suited” but that the City Council/Traffic & Parking Commission Liaison Committee was acceptable. “As with any [stakeholder] panel you don’t get a community mix – it’s not representative,” he said, but “the Council-liaison committee in my view is a great way to go.” Echoing councilmember Gold he added, “The Council should be involved in this.”

Councilmember Krasne pushed back against the prospect of cyclists using the existing walkway with the current unmarked crosswalks and reiterated, “Bike safety is critical.” She said, “When they come off the curb they think it’s OK… but folks [in cars] are coming quickly and trying to beat the light.”

Vice-Mayor Lili Bosse addressed what she called the “fear factor” around incrementally widening the boulevard and urged the consultant to communicate to the public what may be gained if the width is increased. To accommodate a bicycle lane option, for example. “It’s more than just a diagram – these changes can create a positive effect like encouraging cycling.” The cross-section diagrams that are typically presented in workshops don’t often convey such possibilities, she said.

On noticing the Vice-Mayor called the staff report “very good” but added that the entire community should be noticed – especially during the design phase. “It doesn’t just belong to people here – people between Santa Monica and Sunset,” she said. “Everyone needs to know…to help create the vision.” She called for a “true outreach process.” Her first choice was an appointed steering committee and her second choice was the City Council/Traffic & Parking Commission Liaison Committee. “My priority is the most voices so that everyone feels they have ownership…My #1 goal is that the entire community is involved.”

Mayor John Mirisch agreed. “The blue-ribbon committee would be my preference. Plus [I favor] noticing the entire city.” He asked if councilmember Krasne agreed and she did. “That’s the way we should go,” he said. “Broad community involvement is a good thing [whereas Council-commission] liaisons may lock themselves into their viewpoints.”

As to design, the Mayor said that “greenspace concerns are justified” and acknowledged that the design need be coordinated with imminent Beverly Gardens renovation. “Bike lanes are important and safety is important,” he added. “How do we do it without losing greenspace – or losing the minimum?” (Our emphasis.)

Councilmember Brien replied, “My concern is this large a project without Traffic and Parking Commission or Council leadership.” He added, “I wouldn’t mind a liaison committee. We need somebody making the decisions – not just for design but for the mitigation [phase].”

Mayor Mirisch asked if the phases should be separate – perhaps the blue-ribbon steering committee for design and a Commission or liaison committee for the mitigation phase? “A two-step?” he asked. “Fine,” said councilmember Brien. “Maybe both working in parallel…Maybe the Chair of the Traffic and Parking Commission chairs the blue-ribbon panel?” Councilmember Gold agreed with Dr Brien. “Leadership is important – and it could be professional – but somebody needs to make the meetings move along.” Vice-Mayor Bosse responded that appointees could include experienced Commission members and Mayor Mirisch agreed.

With agreement that three committee members would be appointed by each councilmember, transportation Deputy Director Aaron Kunz said that he would be back with a resolution creating the committee. Should there be an appointed chair? he asked. Mayor Mirisch demurred. He likened the blue-ribbon committee to a jury that elects a foreman. “I have confidence in our residents,” he said.

Summary

The Council’s discussion suggested something about where they fall on the prospect of dual bicycle lanes for Santa Monica Boulevard. Councilmembers Bosse and Mirisch recognize the need and appear open to maintaining a design alternative that preserves the option. Councilmember Krasne puts safety as her top concern and supports an off-street combined use path, but may not have considered the merits of a dedicated lane. And councilmembers Brien and Gold appear less sympathetic to the value of dual on-street lanes (at least to our ears).

This Council study session wrapped with a few significant steps forward for this important transportation and civic pride project. Foremost is the unanimous support across council for pedestrian and cyclist safety. From there it’s just a small step to engineering a corridor that reflects complete streets principles throughout. That’s the policy guidance at both the federal and state level.

Then there is the agreement on a stakeholder committee over the alternative of keeping the process in city hall hands. Comprised of three members appointed by each councilmember, this 15-member body will oversee both the design and construction outreach processes.

And last (and perhaps most dear to riders), Class II bicycle lanes are still on the table. But the devil will be in the details, as Mayor Mirisch advised Psomas representatives. “You’ll have to work your magic” to fit the lanes in, he said.

How significant a shift is that from where we began a few years ago? Then-Mayor Jimmy Delshad once proclaimed from the Council dais, “We will not widen the boulevard!” But that option is on the table today. And just consider how far we’ve come from this 2010 staff report that was then presented to Council:

Santa Monica blvd staff report excerpt 2010

Back in 2010, boulevard widening was OFF the table and so were bicycle lanes for this key regional corridor.

Next steps will include committee appointments; determination of outreach process and noticing particulars; and the scheduling of public workshops or hearings. Stay tuned.

Thanks very much to Eric Weinstein for attending the meeting an addressing council, and readers Alek Friedman and Mel Raab and others for contacting City Council.