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.)