Will We Lose Historic T-Zoned Property to Offices?

[12/19/2011 Update: Beverly Hills Planning Commission took no action on the overlay zone described here. It was continued to a meeting in late January for further discussion.]

Pacific Electric at Beverly Hills Station
Pacific Electric at Beverly Hills Station

Beverly Hills was not always the car capital we see today. At one time our city was the junction of two busy Pacific Electric rail lines, one a spine of the PE’s Western Division along Santa Monica Boulevard; the other the shortest route Downtown via today’s Burton Way. With the rails long gone, it’s the history that is next to go if Beverly Hills rezones the right-of-way.

The short story is that in the half-century since the venerable old PE Red Cars plied the rails, once connecting Beverly Hills to Santa Monica and Hollywood (and points farther east), the right-of-way land adjacent to Santa Monica Boulevard never was rezoned. Then as today it’s designated for transportation uses only (called a T-zone in Beverly Hills). Any other use requires City Council action.

Riding the right-of-way at the Western Gateway
Riding the old PE right-of-way at the Western Gateway

But land ownership travels separately from zoning, of course. Investors stepped in to buy the land under the right-of-way, and there are now three property owners near the city’s western gateway that want to build on it. And we’re not talking a railroad: they want offices and lots of floorspace. Given the peculiar nature of the land, that means more height and greater bulk. And that means the neighbors are not happy.

The landowners, who bought the lots land long ago, when the T-zone in place kept the land price in check, want the city to rezone now. The city had its chance to buy, but declined to do so. They say it’s just “fair” to allow them to develop.

It’s the Policy, Not the Project

But the problem isn’t the project(s) per se. Rather it’s the policy shift that would allow any development on this land that has long been zoned for transportation.

Transportation advocates see this linear corridor along Santa Monica Boulevard from Century City to West Hollywood as the last, great opportunity to create an active transportation corridor atop the old right-of-way. Think Rails-to-Trails and you get a sense of the opportunity.

Parcels along the right-of-way near the western gateway
Parcels along the right-of-way near the western gateway

Yes, Beverly Hills did miss a golden opportunity to preserve this land for future use. But that’s a mistake that we should not make again by letting it go now.

The time to engage this policy discussion is now. Several weeks ago, the Planning Commission held a special meeting on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving to hear the latest western gateway development proposal. It was too big and bulky to gain the nod of Commissioners, forestalling immediate action.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the Commission is shaping for City Council review a zoning overlay – a special application of a zone – to make development happen. Should the city permit office construction on one or more parcels near Wilshire & Santa Monica, we’ll lose the integrity of the old PE right-of-way.

What Opportunity Could Look Like

Visualization of a bike lane and active transportation corridor on Santa Monica Boulevard
A bike lane and active transportation corridor is a perfect tribute to the Pacific Electric line!

With a little imagination, can’t we see the Santa Monica Blvd. corridor take shape as a walking trail and bike lanesĀ corridor? The land is already there to connect two city gateways as well as attach the civic plaza, business triangle, and potential art gallery district to an active transportation spine – something our city desperately lacks now.

This could be an important Westside amenity that would both recall its transportation past while tipping its hat to the future of transportation here in the Southland. It could be a redemption of sorts for this long-fallow land if only policymakers preserve the old right-of-way for active transportation purposes. It’s not just a local issue!

Keep your eye on our Planning Commission. It meets again this Monday, December 19th (again, the week before a major holiday!) to review the zoning overlay [agenda: link or pdf].

Read more about the issues and policy implications underlying that possible action and have a look at theĀ Western Gateway Staff Report for more detail. Be prepared to think about all of the better uses for this key historic transportation corridor than yet another bland office building!