A Hovenring for Beverly Hills!

Hovenring illustrationThe Netherlands has created what may be the most spectacular bike facility ever: the Hovenring. This lighted, suspended parallel interchange facility hovers atop a roadway interchange but does much more: by literally and figuratively elevating bike travel above car travel, the Hovenring completely inverts the American approach to transportation and makes rider safety paramount. Could the Hovenring be appropriate to move riders safely through the awful Santa Monica and Wilshire intersection in Beverly Hills?

Northern Europe enjoys a well-deserved reputation for bike-friendly streets. Protected bicycle lanes and bike signals seem de rigeur in every major city in Denmark and the country is rolling out protected  inter-city bike highways. Are riders finally enjoying some parity when it comes to transportation infrastructure investment? Let the Hovenring in the Netherlands answer this question!

Hovenring overviewUnlike every other piece of mobility infrastructure we’ve seen, the Hovenring (‘hovering ring’) demonstrates a total commitment to safer cycling in the Netherlands. The roundabout safely separates bike traffic from the junction of a busy motorway and a collector street below. The Hovenring also puts the state’s imprimatur on non-motor mobility; here  it’s as legitimate a form of transportation as any other.

How to use the Hovenring? Like any conventional roundabout: approach, yield to oncoming traffic from the left, then circle counterclockwise and exit. But unlike other bike-friendly roundabouts this one does so with considerable imagination. Yet the Hovenring is not alone in literally (and figuratively) elevating riders above the motor traffic. Behold UK architect Lord Norman Foster’s proposal for London bicycle infrastructure: The Sky Cycle:

Sky Cycle by Norman FosterThe Sky Cycle would  accommodate 12,000 cyclists per hour on  cycleways elevated above existing railway lines. Riders would enter and exist via via 200 entrance points, according to Cycling Weekly, which wasn’t impressed. The publication lambasts Sky Cycle for failing to address the “dysfunctionality, screwed priorities and inhuman scale” of the London urban environment.” Copenhagenize dismisses the megaproject out of hand. Arch Daily says, “It will never work.”

We’re sympathetic; we believe it is far better to incorporate multiple modes of transportation into our existing circulation system. But is it simply pie-in-the-sky? Consider that urban planners have long embraced the elevated walkway (Los Angeles has a few skyways) and Foster has an excellent track record planting his fanciful designs in cities across the world. If it doesn’t come first to London it may well surface in Dubai (where they would do well to air-condition the system).

Even if the Sky Cycle is never realized as a standalone system in the UK or elsewhere, it baits our imagination concerning what is possible. Yes, it’s an aspirational proposal but it is one upon which we can draw for inspiration.

A Flyover for Beverly Hills?

We look at the Sky Cycle and marvel at the Hovenring. We can’t help but wonder, can’t such innovations be deployed here in Southern California? Why not start our real multimodal mobility planning efforts at the worst intersection on the Westside – Wilshire at Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills – where our city officials haven’t lifted a finger to improve the experience for riders. Indeed here’s what road users negotiate today:

Wilshire-Santa Monica intersection

The complex juncture of North Santa Monica, South Santa Monica and Wilshire boulevards tests the patience of rider and driver alike!

We’ve called it an intersection that simply fails because riders are put squarely in harm’s way on approach from any direction. As the Brits would say, this intersection is “not fit for purpose.” Consider:

  • Wilshire riders face a long slog across both North and South Santa Monica boulevards (it’s a particular challenge for slower riders to make the light heading westbound, which is slightly uphill)
  • North Santa Monica eastbound riders are squeezed between the #2 lane and the turn lane (which also doubles as a bus stop). No bike lane or even dotted lane markings guide us, and no bike box gives us a head start. And,
  • North Santa Monica westbound riders must negotiate dual right turn lanes  at Wilshire, which sow confusion because most riders are unsure where to wait safely for the green light to continue straight.

The westbound rider who hugs the right-hand curb to the right of the dual lanes finds it impossible to cross because motorists turn right at high speeds on both the solid green and the green arrow. So the rider waiting for the solid green is trapped as cars zip past. On bike count day we saw rider after rider start across but then get hemmed-in by those turning vehicles. Forced to turn right, riders then circled back to try again. Frustrated riders anticipated the green arrow by dashing as the last of the cross-traffic passed. It was madness. Don’t our transportation officials see it? You bet. Heck, we’ve told ’em.

It is nearly as dangerous to wait in the #2 lane. This lane allows traffic to continue straight and to turn right and would seem to be recommended. But pity the rider who waits in the #2  lane for the solid green: she’s strafed by moving traffic turning right at speed even from her lane behind her. So as she waits for the solid green to proceed, drivers  eager to make the turn risk her life and limb to squeeze by. Beverly Hills has chosen to do nothing to address this hazard.

How Do We Do It?

Tunnel concept via ThinkBike's Richard ter Avest

The tunnel concept provides cyclists with a down under solution to road conflict.

First we turned to the Danes. What would they do to improve this intersection? Architect Richard ter Avest, who was in town to attend the LACBC’s ThinkBike conference a few years ago, practically sighed. It’s a mess, he said. He proposed separating the grades by elevating the vehicular traffic or tunneling for bikeways. But elevating the roadway is an expensive proposition and tunneling has its own detractors (for safety reasons).

We needed another approach. The flyover? We’ve talked before about the opportunity to use a flyover for bike traffic at this intersection as part of the Gateway overlay zone discussion. We get to thinking: perhaps the Hovenring offers a model for grade-separating the modes? So here’s our conceptual illustration what a Beverly Hills Hovenring:

Wilshire-Santa Monica hovenring

The Beverly Hills Hovenring

What recommends a Hovenring at this intersection in particular? Santa Monica and Wilshire boulevards are both among the busiest Westside thoroughfares (a combined near-100k vehicles on average daily). This intersection is among the worst, too, for congestion (with a level of service grade of ‘F’). With more development on the horizon, and without successfully shifting more traffic to other modes (as it says we should in our city plans), we’ll see rider safety  further compromised. We need either a full-on rethinking of how we handle surface traffic here or….

Wilshire-Santa Monice hovenring visualizationWe need to start thinking big. Hovenring big. Sky Way big. And there’s a good argument for it: city leaders want to make a big statement here at our western Gateway.

In fact, we’ve heard it time and again our policymakers debate development here and call for a signature project for this intersection. What better statement to make than a Hovenring? It’s a win-win: an attention getter that gets motorists out of riders’ way.

More on the Hovenring

The Hovenring is a dedicated bike facility in the major southern city of Eindhoven (off the E25 autoroute to Utrecht and Amsterdam). From the Hovenring site:

The bridge comprises a 70-metre high pylon, 24 steel cables and a circular bridge deck and is made out of circa 1.000 tons of steel. The cables are attached to the inner side of the bridge deck, right where the bridge deck connects to the circular, concrete counter weight. This way, torsion within the 72-metre diameter bridge deck is prevented.

Opened in 2012, the Hovenring has already placed in the Dutch Design Award contest and secured a spread in National Geographic for designer ipv delft. But the Hovenring is more than an eye-catcher; it’s a statement about taking responsibility for road users. We need some of that here in Beverly Hills. Why not start with building our own Hovenring?

Hovenring design

Hovenring design. All facility images courtesy designer ipv delft.

Beverly Hills West Gateway Liaison Meeting [Recap]

Gateway site aerial view

Gateway parcels to the west of Wilshire Boulevard: a golden opportunity for active transportation found and lost.

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.

Gateway land use study intersection model aerial

The Gateway vision that endures today: tall buildings with plaza setbacks.

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!

Gateway Update: Still Under Council Consideration

City Council meeting July 26, 2012For those who have followed the progress of the proposed Gateway overlay zone for the western end of Beverly Hills, closure is still not at hand! We’ve covered this most significant rezoning policy change in many years for the past 18 months because it has clear transportation implications – and they’re not good. So we’re not disheartened that City Council held off on a final decision this past Tuesday. The slow progress of the policy change through the Hall pipeline indicates that we’re not the only concerned stakeholders!

Gateway area parcel map

Parcel map showing the three Gateway projects at Wilshire & Santa Monica boulevards.

The owners of large parts of the current T-1 (transportation) zoned land around Wilshire & Santa Monica in Beverly Hills are champing at the bit to develop the Gateway. The land is a 40′ wide strip where the Pacific Electric streetcars used to roll all along SM Blvd. (Parcels 1-3 at left.) Now this end the land is in private hands, bought many years ago under the current zoning that prohibits most uses except transportation. (For a rundown on the Gateway proposal see our recap.)

Nobody is happy to see this land unproductive, but the city’s planning apparatus appears so anxious to develop this land and adjacent commercial properties that they are willing to concede additional height and floor area on the commercial parcels if new structures built on both the commercial land and the T-1 zone behind it and if they cough up additional public parking underneath in a garage. You see, the neighborhood is called ‘under-parked,’ which means our policymakers expect many more people to drive here.

So if the proposal carries, we would see a likely 4 story building replace these modest retail shops fronting Santa Monica South (below). These shops remain undeveloped today because redevelopment would have to meet minimum parking requirements under the code, and there is no way on parcels this small. Hence the interest in combining the commercial parcels and T-1 land into one project.

Gateway shopsYet this is precisely the kind of neighborhood character that we should work to preserve. Unlike much of the adjacent Business Triangle, there’s character here in the eclecticism. Look at South Beverly: it is gaining steam economically because of its modest-scale retailing bones. Robertson and several blocks on Doheney have much of the same possible upside because they too are low-rise and ready for hipsters. But this opportunity is lost on policymakers and our city’s Small Business Task Force.

A Couple of Things

Gateway Starbucks site looking southwest

The Starbucks site looking southwest toward Century City.

The theory of ‘under-parked’ applies only if you frame commercial activity through the car windshield. That means overlooking the high cost of providing free parkingfor people who choose to drive and it ignores the fact that the Gateway is one of the most transit-accessible areas in the city! It is served by two bus lines and is only a walk away from the heart of Century City. Indeed next door a coming 48-story tower (in City of Los Angeles) will put many more shopping shoes on the ground sans car. And it is across the street from what will one day be a big complex on the Hilton property. And it is adjacent to the Business Triangle. To a walker, cyclist, or transit rider, it’s not under-parked at all because there is simply no reason to drive. We should be limiting parking opportunities and not expanding them!

And second, that T-1 land is zoned for transportation for a reason. For half a century through the streetcar era, it served that purpose very well. And it can again serve that purpose in our multimodal mobility era if we reserve/preserve some or all of the T-1 strip of land for human-powered transportation. Think walk & bike path or native plant gardens & bike path that stretches from Century City to West Hollywood. It could mirror the Beverly Gardens Park to the north and be the kind of great, green corridor suitable for this old stretch of Route 66.

The good news is that it could have sailed through on Planning’s assurance that the Gateway proposal is sound policy. But it’s not, and rightly the City Council felt enough trepidation to hold off on the Gateway overlay zone. For the moment we have a reprieve. In the meantime, planning staff will reformulate the conditions that will shape any eventual project. But the extent to which project applicants adhere to them will solely be decided on discretion: the future Planning Commission and City Council will be free to depart from them.

Gateway land use study intersection model aerial

The Gateway vision that endures today: tall buildings with plaza setbacks.

Now, we may well wind up with a behemoth project that provides no mobility, returns scant ‘public benefit’ (in planning parlance) and only serves to impede our view of the hills like so much other recent development. (See the preliminary massing study at right.) Indeed we may yet see our own Beverly Center rise on this narrow strip of land. So let’s be thankful that Council took a breather. Stay tuned!

LACBC ‘Beverly Thrills’ Ride a Success!

Ride start: the John Wayne statue on Wilshire & La Cienega

Photo by Colin Bogart, LACBC.

On Sunday we joined the LACBC for the latest ride in its great Sunday Funday series: the ‘Beverly Thrills’ 13-mile ride though the streets of Beverly Hills. This easy ride brought over fifty riders to our well-tended blacktop. Short of the Gran Fondo or Amgen rides, it’s a record. (For the record those rides kept riders out of the hills.) For this ride we traversed the boulevards and stop signed sidestreets to visit Greystone mansion. But was a thrill was in the offing, it was the steep descent back down. We worked up a sweat and wicked it away. Here’s the recap!

Pickfair in postcard viewThink about Beverly Hills and what comes to mind? Rodeo Drive’s boutiques. Celebrities  like the all-American Will Rogers. Landmark estates like Pickfair (left), the famous home of silent film stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. And the hotels like the Beverly Wilshire & Beverly Hills Hotel.

Beverly Hills has its darker side too. Though we’re too banal to lay claim to the savory history of noir, we’re on the ‘death tour’ for a few untimely departures at the Hilton recently. And on this ride we breezed past the Menendez home, where a notorious double-murder kept Court TV in business for years. Beyond notoriety, though, no tour would be complete without a nod to celebrity. We’ve had our share, but recently they are regarded less for their civic duty than for cracking up cars and simply being famous. Celebrity ain’t what it used to be.

Pickfair post renovationThe city has changed in other ways too, and not always for the better. For one thing, Pickfair is long gone, of course, replaced by a newer version (right). Done in by collusion between officials disinclined to protect historic properties and property owners eager to remodel, Pickfair suffered the ‘scrape’ rather than the scalpel. C-list crooner Pia Zadora felt that Pickfair needed a rehab and, well, like so many TV renovations, it just made more sense to start anew.

And then there’s the bread & butter: how City hall earns its keep. The city once staked growth on resource extraction; oil and cultural production were a rich vein to tap, so to speak. Today, however, we depend on tapping people to pay for our outsourced services, and to plug our forecast $20-40 million public parking garage deficit. Sales and occupancy taxes are king today. We’ve exiled our high-profile oil rig to pasture.

You heard that right: our famously insular city so insensitive to external concerns depends on out-of-town money to keep us afloat. And rather than invest in facilitating new modes of mobility, instead we invest in accommodating the motorist’s choice by furnishing a rather expensive place for them to park. Often for free. Why? Our thoroughfares are more congested than ever. It’s like a civic heart disease where vehicular slogging hobbles the circulatory system of the central Westside. Beverly Hills is the coronary that every day sends our region to a trauma center.

Perhaps it was appropriate then to make the pinnacle (literally) of our journey the Edward Doheny’s Greystone mansion, nestled into the foothills above Beverly Hills. For one thing, the mansion is huge, and was simply a gift from the oil tycoon to his son. So it is a testament to the remunerative opportunity that is big oil. Proof positive that wealth trickles up through the class strata in American society (we could say “gushes” in this case). But it also shows that privilege courses down through the bloodline – a gift that keeps on giving.

But here too the picture is complicated: Greystone itself has its historical baggage: Doheney’s son was reportedly killed in the house by his secretary, both of whom were implicated in the Teapot Dome scandaltrail later that year. The city bought the grounds in 1965. Greystone, here we come!

Gateway Goes to Council Tonight

Planning Commissioner Rosenstein gives an overview

Planning Commissioner Rosenstein gives an overview of the Gateway conundrum.

With the hoopla surrounding the Sustainable Parking Standards Act of 2012 (AB 904), we note that the Beverly Hills City Council tonight [agenda] will hear a proposed high-density overlay zone for the city’s western gateway. This timely because the proposed state legislation would require all California cities to adopt reduced parking minimums in “transit-served areas,” while the ‘Gateway’ overlay is crafted in no small part to require developers to over-provide off-street parking – that is, even more parking than is required by the current code. How do we accomplish that? By trading too much height & bulk and by upzoning the old railroad right of way while asking for too little in return.

Tonight the Beverly Hills City Council will probably vote to adopt the final EIR and proposed overlay zone for the city’s western gateway. You probably know the area even if you don’t recognize it as a gateway of any kind: where our streetcars once traversed town, today a forlorn strip of land sprouts weeds, chain link fencing and a few parking lots. And the intersection of Wilshire & Santa Monica Boulevard North looks like an urban coronary as sclerotic vehicular congestion puts us into mobility cardiac arrest. Not least, the nearby low-rise commercial strip fronted by Starbucks at Wilshire & Santa Monica South withers amid the uncertainty of redevelopment.

Gateway shopsThe western gateway area is the final frontier for Beverly Hills planning visionaries. Let’s let our imagination wander. The Santa Monica Boulevard corridor is our new civic axis, a greened corridor with active transportation uses that connects our city east & west and opens the City Hall & the central business district to new visitors. With reconstruction of the Santa Monica corridor scheduled for 2015, we have a unique opportunity to realize our first significant civic project here in decades, one that will complement the new Annenberg Center & gardens when it opens next year.

If we were to purchase the old railroad parcels at the east and west ends of the city, we could make a new Gateway Gardens Park into a multimodal spine for transit, cycling, walking and driving. It could  bridge Century City and West Hollywood to invite cyclists in rather than discourage them as we do today. With cyclists and walkers comes much-needed foot traffic for the  business triangle. That, a recent small business task force findings report said, would be invaluable to keeping our retail base healthy.

Thinking about mobility, let’s connect more dots. Such a new civic axis would for the first time begin to integrate active transportation right into our city’s broader mobility system. That would reflect the spirit and letter of our city plans, which call for new forms of multimodal transportation, and functionally speaking would link to proposed bike routes on Crescent Drive and Burton Way right at the Civic Center. The western gateway could be the gateway to new ways of moving around the city.

Just imagine that the new gateway brings joggers, cyclists and walkers to the old Pacific Electric streetcar corridor – instead of just another office building clogging up the skyline as is proposed today. That would provide much-needed thematic coherence to Beverly Hills.

One more dot to connect: imagine that the reconstruction of the intersection that we love to hate, Wilshire & Santa Monica North. A rotary there would increase traffic throughput while creating a signature portal. With a rotary in place, surrounding development must respond. The City Council tonight will hear about setbacks and plazas, but these will look out on the horror show that we have there today, and who wants that? With a little imagination we can create a signature gateway and advance the three key concepts – a new boulevard, an active-transportation themed linear park, and a rotary – in order to connect the dots that never seem to get connected in Beverly Hills.

This is the kind of vision that policymakers like to talk about but rarely achieve here. And the process behind the proposed overlay zone shows us why. The proposed Gateway overlay zone was crafted by the Planning Commission and presented to Council in a way that merely signals the persistence of pay-to-play development here. Yet another mediocre project at the gateway will herald visitors with an advance look at what they can expect from our CBD. (Landowners and their lobbyists will evidently have it no other way!)

Parking, Parking, Parking!

Gateway site aerial view

Gateway parcels west of Wilshire Boulevard

The gateway planning process also highlights the limitations of relying too much on parking requirements and too little on the market in order to dictate the appropriate supply of off-street parking. From the beginning the Planning Commission has looked to redevelopment of the western gateway’s low-rise commercial properties on Santa Monica Boulevard South to “substantially offset the parking deficiency in the neighborhood.”

Today these (C-3 zoned) shops give the area its distinctive character. But they also bear the burden of onerous minimum parking requirements – a key provision in the planning code that straightjackets adaptive reuse because new uses would trigger current parking minimums.

In more progressive cities, this clutch of shops would be the focus of planners with an eye toward historic re-use. They’re irreplaceable. Artists, creative professionals, and art galleries just love this kind of urban low-rise district. Indeed policymakers have described the area as a potential ‘gallery district.’ But artists and gallery owners often can’t often afford the higher rents characteristic of new mid-rise development. For a city that has struggled to incubate a coherent creative culture, we have an opportunity here if we don’t flush it in our haste to prioritize car parking.

Look only to the hip shops on the 3rd street corridor in Los Angeles, the mid-Wilshire corridor, and the haute modernist showrooms near here on Beverly Boulevard to see how arts-related uses and commerce favor the old. These areas are accessible to transit and so is our own gateway area. These areas will become even more accessible to cyclists, and so should our gateway area.

Why not invite new uses for these existing retail structures? Again, our parking policy precludes it. Instead of welcoming that new café, bookstore, or restaurant, say, we will require most new uses to meet suburban-like parking requirements. That means that a proposed planning vision for this commercial district on our most-used bus lines (Wilshire & Santa Monica boulevards) can’t look back to a successful mid-century urban planning model but must instead appeal to a parking approach that is already falling out of favor.

Brace Yourself: The Gateway Overlay Zone is Back!

Sonya Dakar building

Western Gateway welcomes you to Beverly Hills!

The Beverly Hills Planning Commission will again consider an overlay zone proposal for the former Pacific Electric railroad right-of-way (ROW). We’ve covered this extensively in the past because the railroad land offers our last opportunity to re-imagine the entire Santa Monica Boulevard corridor for something other than motor traffic and banal office uses. In the last March meeting, the commission considered a change in tack toward form-based zoning: tell applicants what we want and let them figure it out. We’ll know it when we see it. Is that good enough? Can’t we find a better use for this land than another building just like this one?

Pacific Electric right-of-way looking-east

Transportation-zoned land (former Pacific Electric right-of-way) looking-east.

The action concerns three T-1 (transportation) zoned parcels at Santa Monica & Wilshire boulevards.* It is a long and complicated story, but the bottom line (as we’ve reported before) is that both the landowners and the city want to see something built now on the old railroad land because Beverly Hills policymakers dithered for too long. Their ambivalent approach over the last decade has left the land an eyesore. And a real profit opportunity. Except, that is, in the eye of railfans: we like to imagine those old Red Cars sweeping through from West Hollywood across Doheney (below) to the station that used to stand at Canon and Santa Monica.

Pacific Electric Alongside Santa Monica Blvd West of Doheney

Courtesy Tom Wetzel

With an EIR about to be finalized and project designs in the pipeline, the pressing question remains, What exactly should grace our city’s western gateway on this land? And the task for the commission is to answer the thorny question, How do we encourage applicants to provide it? Ah, the devil has always been in the details!

Landowners salivate at the prospect of developing one of the last, large undeveloped parcels left in town for commercial uses. Commissioners want to see aging shops that front SM Blvd. South get a facelift. And planners want to see more-than-ample underground parking (which means that applicants will have to dig deeper into their pockets).

Gateway site aerial view

Gateway parcels west of Wilshire Boulevard

It is a planning puzzle the likes of which we don’t get in planning school. How to encourage good design even if we can’t exactly specify it? How can we ensure that development will proceed in coordinated fashion when it’s all patchwork ownership? And how to ensure that this narrow strip of land – one that stretches to the eastern gateway – retains some of its historic function as a transportation corridor? “We’ll know good design when we see it,” the commissioners say as they set about crafting an overlay zone to encourage development but yet put some limits on the building envelope.

As for the question of transportation use, well there’s no easy answer here. The City Council liaisons last Spring declined to embark on a corridor-wide exercise to imagine the future of Santa Monica Boulevard. With reconstruction of the corridor now pushed back to 2015, time appears to be on our side for a better solution (even if official interest is not).

Yet time is fleeting too. When Gateway comes before the commission next on May 24th, our commissioners will likely move forward to create a form-based overlay zone as discussed in the March meeting. Planners call it building to the vision instead of to prescriptions. But if there’s anything lacking in Beverly Hills it is vision.

Santa Ana Corridor map

Santa Ana Corridor as envisoned by rail-to-trail proponents.

But we need not imagine what a renewed Pacific Electric could look like. There are existing examples where communities celebrate the historic transportation function of the Pacific Electric railroad with new uses. In the San Gabriel Valley, for example, the Pacific Electric Inland Empire Trail effort puts human feet to a 20-mile stretch of the old railroad from Claremont to Rialto. In Orange County, an effort is underway to develop 20 miles of the old West Santa Ana Branch for use as a linear park (or even bus rapid transit).

These communities find new transportation uses for old rail lines, so why can’t we? Our task is much easier: work with only a few miles of the old right-of-way that’s right here in our own city. Is it because we can’t take the long-term perspective that we see taking shape in the San Gabriel Valley and Orange County?

Do you have a vision for how this land could be put to a higher and better purpose than, say, yet another business triangle-type banality? Let us know. We’re anxious to fill the ‘vision void’ with something that commissioners can really chew on.

The Nitty Gritty

* The three projects in the Gateway are 9900 Santa Monica and 9848 and 9817 Wilshire Boulevard. The focus is on 9817 Wilshire, which is currently zoned T-1 (Transportation). Adjacent parcels to it are zoned C-3 (commercial). The overlay zone would establish incentives to develop the railroad and commercial land in tandem and it could include either a precise prescription or a more general form-based direction to applicants. At this meeting, the commission will consider a staff recommendation and resolution adopting a revised EIR and creating an overlay zone and set of accompanying conditions that would permit development on the right of way for the first time.

Bike Plan Update Committee #5

Eastern Gateway right-of-way visualized

Santa Monica Boulevard of tomorrow at the eastern gateway.

The Traffic & Parking Commission’s ad-hoc Bike Plan Update Committee met with a few representatives from the bike community on March 21st, the fifth meeting to date in the process of bringing bike facilities to Beverly Hills. Transportation planner Martha Eros presented an update on the two key initiatives currently underway: the Bike Route Pilot program and an effort to install new bike racks citywide. We also heard from Transportation director Aaron Kunz about the next steps in the reconstruction of  Santa Monica Boulevard, which could be reconstructed as a multimodal corridor (as shown here at the eastern gateway). This informational meeting broke no new ground, but here’s the recap.

Santa Monica Boulevard Reconstruction Process Next Steps

Starting with Santa Monica Boulevard, this key regional corridor could be the kind of high-profile, identity-enhancing street that Beverly Hills needs. It’s all here: it connects our city’s eastern and western gateways, running by City Hall and the new Annenberg Center at Canon; it affords access to our central business district, the triangle; and it is steeped in history as historic Route 66 (Chicago to the sea) and the location of the city’s first railroad station. How we reconstruct this corridor – and how it incorporates a bike facility – will determine how cyclists pass through (and into) our city.

Transportation chief Aaron Kunz informed us that the next step is to issue a request for proposals (RFP). With responses from outside consultants, the city will choose a design firm, which will provide alternatives. The city will then choose, and the project will be put to bid. Design alternatives aren’t expected before the close of 2012, with reconstruction completed by the end of 2014.

What are our participation opportunities? This first step will find City Council offering general direction to Transportation. “Our #1 consideration are bike lanes on the boulevard,” Aaron said. “If they give us the go-ahead, we’ll issue the RFP.” The City Council will study the core elements of the RFP in early April, when the broad outline of the project will begin to take shape. Specifics will be decided toward the end of 2012 (once a design firm is on board) though a series of public outreach meetings.

We will need to follow the RFP process closely to ensure that the city lives up to that commitment. This is our opportunity to provide elected officials with our perspective on what a future Santa Monica Boulevard should look like.

Our participation is important even at this early stage because our city has no complete streets language in our General Plan’s circulation element to guide the policymakers. In fact, our General Plan was adopted the year before the state finally mandated incorporation of complete streets principles (though a year after the state law went into effect). We will need to follow the RFP process closely to ensure that the city lives up to that commitment.

Bike Route Pilot Program

Next to Santa Monica Boulevard, the Bike Routes Pilot is the best hope we have for making a positive change in mobility in Beverly Hills over the medium-term to long-term. As presented here, the Pilot has passed its first hurdle – the City Council nod [recap] – and now moves on to the community outreach phase. We’ve been critical of the way the Pilot was scoped but we seem to have no choice but to follow through on what we feel is too limited a program – it changes no parking or affects no vehicular flow – to get us where we need to go. That said, the Council could have deferred action on it. So there we are.

The informational presentation pegged the first community presentation as April 11th with one following on April 25th and a presentation/hearing before the Traffic & Parking Commission on May 9th. That latter meeting is our best opportunity to shape the recommendations that will go to City Council, so sharpen your pencils!

Colorado Boulevard envisioned for multimodal mobility

Colorado Boulevard envisioned for multimodal mobility.

The one area of concern here – and it is a big one – is that Transportation will undertake this effort as a pro-forma exercise without doing the heavier lifting of actually communicating why multimodal mobility is in the public interest. Here we could take a page from the Santa Monica playbook (right). Prescribing major change for Colorado Boulevard as a multimodal corridor, the city put forth a truly energizing vision (in a positive way) to give the community a reason to support the effort.

The worst case would be replicating the Metro station fracas, where our school board and city leaders seem to intentionally background  the substantive issues. If we don’t help the community envision what that could look like, merely the prospect of change could inflame baseless opposition.

New Details Released on the Gateway Overlay Zone

Riding the right-of-way at the Western Gateway

Riding the vacated Pacific Electric right-of-way at the city's Western Gateway.

When we heard that Planning had convened a sub-committee meeting for the Gateway project last week, we were stumped: we’ve followed the process for the past year, and several times indicated our interest in being kept informed about Gateway-related meetings. But we weren’t notified, and indeed in the past we haven’t always been. And we’ve complained. What was this sub-committee meeting about anyway? Today we were able to connect with staff planner Michele McGrath who filled us in the details. In brief, no applicants were present and the staff and Planning Commissioners took the opportunity to nail down some proposed development objectives.

When the public received notice of a March 14th sub-committee meeting after-the-fact, we were suspicious: the meeting had not been announced and was not noticed through the usual channels, like an online posting or email alert. We inquired multiple times by phone and email but received no response, leading us to post a rather critical comment and wonder whether this was a tête-à-tête between the city and the applicants – without public stakeholders present – or something else.

Ms. McGrath said that applicants were not included in the sub-committee meeting, and that only staff and Commissioners Daniel Yukelson (Chair) and Craig Corman (who suggested a form-based approach to the overlay) attended. The meeting was intended to nail down some of the particulars prior to the full Commission meeting this coming Thursday, which is understandable given that last week’s meeting was a bit of a surprise for all in attendance.*

Now, a just-released sub-committee staff report explains in how a new commercial planned development gateway overlay zone will incorporate “broader design flexibility” to achieve Commission objectives while imposing certain limitations (e.g., a development envelope) on the three Gateway parcels. As the staff report shows, the Commission is seeking balance the city’s “garden-like quality” with encouragement of “iconic architecture that promotes the image of the city.”

A New Approach: ‘Objectives’ Spell Out the Vision

Planning Commissioners had earlier struggled to ensure public benefits like “substantial area dedicated to green space” and “appropriate setbacks” from the boulevards were included, while not discouraging imaginative, even iconic design and architecture for this key area. Commissioners in this effort first sought very specific requirements; now they lean toward broad zone ‘objectives’ to communicate to applicants what we want to see in place of the low-rise commercial structures on Santa Monica South, and the vacant transportation zone (T-1) land behind them.

These objectives are key because rather than establish a by-right set of regulations for the zone, as proposed the Commission would use them in their discretionary to approve or deny proposed projects. So the Commissioners would decide whether a project met the development objectives, of which 12 are enumerated in this staff report, or whether to waive them if approval is in the public interest. That’s very considerable latitude given that the public will likely not turn out to comment at some later date, giving the Commission a freer hand.

There were 12 objectives identified. Pedestrian connectivity, for example, was a key concern of Commissioner Cole’s, and the objectives go far in foregrounding it:

“Project design shall be internally and externally consistent and allow for pedestrian, bicycle, and vehicular access and connectivity within and between Gateway Overlay Zone properties, the adjacent C3 properties, and residential and hotel development built or planned across North Santa Monica Boulevard….Development shall be designed with pedestrian-oriented amenities and uses at the ground floor that encourage pedestrian activity during daytime and nighttime hours.”

Better Bike has consistently advocated for an integrated active transportation component on Santa Monica Boulevard. We believe that non-motor mobility will play an ever-larger role in addressing our transportation challenges, and so have consistently suggested that the Gateway overlay zone mandate such facilities. We’re not so influential as a Commissioner, however; and without any backup from the community in these meetings, we’re just some guy wearing a bike helmet.

What could we achieve if we focused on it? The Gateway overlay zone could ensure that bike lanes, ample sidewalks, and running path are all specified in development standards, for example. While pedestrian connectivity is clearly highlighted in these objectives, a cycling facility is not so prominently addressed:

“Development shall incorporate adequate land dedications or easements that may be needed for future transportation and roadway improvements, including possible bike paths, bus shelters, pedestrian bridges or similar improvements.”

These objectives fall short of ensuring that cyclists will one day have a regional connector and local bike route as the transportation improvement that we need. Why? That stated objective is only conditional: “possible” puts future active transportation into the realm of the hypothetical. Ideally, defining the future transportation function of the Gateway would proceed hand-in-hand with our ongoing discussions with the city about a citywide bike route system, but the city has preferred to isolate the Bike Route Pilot from other processes like the Gateway.

Because the proposed overlay zone would accord considerable discretion to the Planning Commission when it reviews proposed projects, it’s essential that we get this right, right now.

It’s All About Transportation Options

Bike Backbone Network map

The proposed Bike Backbone. Yes, that's a dotted line through Beverly Hills because we ain't part of it.

The bike community has been very vocal about seeing the regional ‘backbone network’ completed with a connection between Century City and West Hollywood on Santa Monica Boulevard. In meetings with Traffic & Parking Commissioners and Transportation division officials we’ve indicated that our priority is Class II bike lanes for this corridor.

Yet the “bike path” that is mentioned too briefly is not even the proper way to think about a transportation facility. When we look at the success of segregated bicycle facilities in other cities, we can see that there are real differences between off-street paths (Class I) and on-street lanes (Class II). Bike advocates seek transportation solutions, and for that on-street bike lanes are the best mode-segregated option (particularly where regional connectivity is concerned). Bike paths, by contrast, can be mixed-use. That’s great, and as an amenity we support it as appropriate for the Gateway in addition to on-street lanes.

Pacific Electric at Beverly Hills Station #2

Pacific Electric at Beverly Hills Station #2

We’ve been so closely following the Gateway process because it is historically and thematically a golden transportation opportunity for everyone who values active transportation. Recall that the corridor is the former right-of-way for the Pacific Electric interurban railway that a century ago connected Beverly Hills to the beaches, Hollywood, and Downtown Los Angeles (our second station is pictured at left).

We don’t want to see our transportation legacy simply given away to yet another generic office development. Beverly Hills certainly has enough of that, and one could argue (and we do) that it’s because not nearly enough attention is paid to the land use decision-making process in our city. So when standards are developed, it’s time to pay attention. This is our chance to lay down a marker for pedestrian and regional bike connectivity for the whole of the Santa Monica Boulevard corridor. Let’s be sure that the proposed form-based approach to the Gateway includes clearly stated objectives and even direction to applicants: active transportation has to be an explicit development objective.

This Thursday’s meeting is our opportunity to help the Commission shape these development objectives before they are codified. We’ll only secure the transportation facilities that we deserve if we speak up now while the standards are being crafted. Calendar the meeting right now.

*Michele also said that this meeting was mentioned – not noticed per se – at the conclusion of the 3/8 Commission meeting. Better Bike had already departed and the audio file of the meeting was somehow not posted for another 8 days – which was 2 days after the sub-committee meeting.)

Planning Commission Revisits the Gateway [Recap]

Planning Commission Gateway field visit looking east

We’ve followed the city’s Western Gateway planning process closely since early 2011 because we see a golden opportunity to integrate active transportation into coming development around the signature intersection of Wilshire & Santa Monica boulevards. So we eagerly anticipated the second site visit by the Beverly Hills Planning Commission on March 8th to envision new development and measure proposed setbacks. Like the Commission’s first visit, the Gateway welcomed an entourage with tape measure in hand to anticipate the major change that will turn this unsightly area into a signature gateway to the city. The development of vacant transportation-zoned land at the Western Gateway presents an unprecedented opportunity to get mobility right in Beverly Hills. Bike community members have met with Transportation … Continue reading

Planning Commission Revisits Gateway

Planning Commission field visit 2/9/2012

The Beverly Hills Planning Commission will again revisit the city’s western Gateway – literally – via a bus tour during the next scheduled Commission meeting on March 8th at 1:30. [Agenda] Reprising their earlier January visit, the Commissioners will get another firsthand look at the Wilshire & Santa Monica Boulevard(s) intersection and continue to discuss the proposed overlay zone there. Read the staff report & show up if you’re concerned about bike lanes on the Santa Monica corridor. If you’ve followed the overlay zone to date, you’ll recall that the city wants to hasten development of the vacated former Pacific Electric right-of-way on the south side of the Santa Monica Boulevard North corridor. (The T-1 zoned land extends boundary-to-boundary, but … Continue reading

Planning Commission Discusses the Gateway

Planning Commission in action

On Feb. 9th the Planning Commission met to continue an overlay zone discussion that was continued from January’s meeting. The overlay zone, if enacted, would be a newly-formulated land use designation specifically tailored to the city’s western gateway, where Santa Monica Boulevard enters the city and where a proposed project for the Starbucks corner (at Wilshire) is currently under review. This is no academic discussion, however. How the Commission formulates this policy will have a lasting impact on the future transportation uses of the Santa Monica Boulevard corridor. We’ve been following the overlay zone discussion since last April, when a City Council liaison committee comprised of two members from the City Council, two Planning Commissioners and city staff met to … Continue reading

Better Bike Pacific Electric Ride

Last weekend’s ride along the abandoned Pacific Electric right-of-way through Beverly Hills was an exploratory romp along the rails (so to speak) to put into historical perspective  the role of railroads in the development of Beverly Hills. The transportation patterns we follow today do originate with the rails, which first came to this area in the 1890s. By 1900 we had a station here, and in 1932 we got a second, larger depot. But by WWII it was over for passenger rail in Beverly Hills. Nevertheless,these early rails did establish a pattern for transportation that continues to this day, and will likely determine tomorrow’s transportation patterns will too. We took a tour to see how it looks today. Better Bike … Continue reading