Planning Commission Revisits the Gateway [Recap]

Planning Commission Gateway field visit looking east
What a view: That Wilshire & Santa Monica intersection is sure in need of improvement!

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 officials four times to identify possible bike routes and have pressed our interest for bike lanes on Santa Monica North, the regional bike corridor for which Beverly Hills today is a missing link.

Gateway Starbucks site looking southwest
The Starbucks site looking southwest toward Century City.

Because Gateway project applicants very much want to see the transportation-zoned land they own developed, our policymakers have an opportunity to mandate an active transportation (aka human-powered mobility) component as part of these projects. And they enjoy sufficient leverage to achieve it. The Planning Commission could for example make pedestrian and bicycle access an integral part of every new development in the Western Gateway overlay zone. That is, If the city values multimodal mobility.

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

Just imagine an on-boulevard Santa Monica bike lane and an adjacent jogging path that threads serpentine-like through native plantings – all thematically integrated with new commercial structures and open space atop the old Pacific Electric right-of-way (right). It already connects Century City with West Hollywood because the old streetcar line did too. If we can connect city gateway to city gateway with a new facility here, we might herald, finally, our city’s very belated recognition that the future of mobility won’t be entirely about the automobile.

The Active Transportation Opportunity

How golden is this opportunity for both property owners and the city? Consider that Beverly Hills is largely ‘built out,’ as the policymakers say, so there’s scant new land available for commercial development. And there’s even less land upon to which policymakers can apply an entirely new zone. Every commercial parcel in the city already comes with vested development rights, of course; but at the Gateway we have an opportunity for a fresh start on commercial standards and an opportunity to encourage active transportation as a mandatory criterion for new development.

Or the city could throw it away and simply permit new offices without a significant public benefit concession. That’s what active transportation advocates fear will happen because there’s significant money on the line here, and, well, one can’t underestimate the persuasive power of a hearing room full of men business suits, all of them having an interest in maxing out this opportunity.

Gateway setbacks diagram
Yellow areas indicate acutal & proposed setbacks that would pinch bike lanes on Santa Monica Boulevard.

The Commission in February, however, identified very narrow setbacks (at left) which could have very well pinched the room available on the boulevard for bike lanes, possibly even precluding them. With the Commissioners on the verge of horse-trading away our leverage, we asked Transportation to work with the Commission to get it right before codifying standards that lock us into an auto-mobility past.

The Transportation division, though, has not responded formally to Better Bike (or to the Commission) with the requested data. And another action this past week suggests that this division of Public Works is not harboring much interest in streets that are safe for cyclists.

What’s at Stake? Profit

Gateway land use study model aerial view
Big change is suggested by this Gateway land use study model!

From the landowner’s perspective, there is an opportunity to raise as many as four stories of new offices at the  Starbucks corner, where that site, and adjacent low-rise two-story development, characterizes one of our city’s few small-scale retail districts. For the applicants who bought that T-1 land, that’s golden because it was purchased about a decade ago at transportation-zone prices.

Merely turning the key on new commercial zoning is a huge boost in value. And with a vote from the Planning Commission and the nod by City Council, this T-1 land is gold.

Gateway land use study intersection model aerial
The Gateway vision that endures today: tall buildings with plaza setbacks.

The hitch is that because the potential of the T-1 land in isolation is limited, it should be developed in conjunction with the adjacent commercial parcels (the land under the Starbucks and the adjacent shops) in order to maximize both parcels in tandem. Combining the T-1 zone with the adjacent C-3 zone properties using a proposed ‘overlay’ zone would result in a a much larger project – which is like willing the lottery – especially if the Planning Commission allows new projects could rise to 4 stories – as proposed at the corner of Wilshire and Santa Monica boulevards. That’s taller than we currently permit C-3 development.

What’s at Stake? Community Benefit!

From the public’s perspective, we have significant leverage to exact an appropriate ‘community benefit’ (as planners say) from the applicants, who among them own land on three parcels on both sides of the Wilshire & SM intersection (though only one project application is pending).  Because policymakers hold the cards on re-zoning, we have latitude to essentially dictate what we want to see. If it is feasible under market conditions, then we can get it.

Shops on Santa Monica South
Low-rise retail on Santa Monica South adds character to the Gateway area.

Community benefit can mean a variety of things though. Commissioner Rosenstein believes that the area is ‘under-parked,’ and he’s been a forceful advocate for increasing off-street parking there (below-grade garage capacity). In his view, requiring applicants to over-provide parking allows the city to realize an opportunity to permit redevelopment of today’s non-conforming commercial  properties where the current code and its parking minimums essentially locks them in (as parking evangelist Donald Shoup complains.)

Gateway land use study pedestrian zone diagram (2006)
Pedestrian connectivity was considered important in the Gateway Land Use Study (2006)

Commissioner Cole has argued that development standards here need to accommodate pedestrians. As proposed recently, the overlay zone would have only 5-foot wide sidewalks on Santa Monica North, for example, which is nobody’s idea of pedestrian accessibility (to say nothing of aesthetics). It’s worth noting that the land use study for the Gateway (2006) identified a key pedestrian circulation function around the Wilshire & Santa Monica intersection. Shouldn’t that be maintained in any final development standards?

And of course, Better Bike has urged commissioners to consider the future of transportation in Beverly Hills, which should certainly include a much more robust active transportation component – namely cycling – and this corridor is key. But in the last meeting, it wasn’t looking so good for cyclists.

Where are We Now: On the Cusp of Form-Based Zoning?

Until this March 8th meeting, the proposed overlay zone standards discussion proceeded on a conventional track: let’s tell developers what they can’t build (not over X stories, no greater floor area ratio than such-and-such, and no closer than X feet to the street). That is the standard regulation of land use. Because we’re advocating for enhanced active transportation for the SM Blvd. corridor, we’ve been most concerned with mandating sufficient minimum setbacks so as not to foreclose future bike lanes there.

In this meeting, Commissioner Corman sprung a surprise on the applicants: he proposed general, non-specific prescriptions for form in lieu of specific restrictions on development. Rather than tell them what not to build, he said, let’s tell them what we want to see, and offer sufficient flexibility for applicants to realize it. [Read the meeting minutes].

His prescription suggests the opportunity for form-based zoning, which eschews the traditional regulatory parameters in favor of encouraging development that conforms to broader objectives such as scale and relationship as well as mobility concerns. If we want a walkable environment, for example, it’s not clear how floor-area ratios will get us there, but if we illustrate our specific expectations, it is more likely that the private-sector can meet them.

Commissioner Corman’s proposal garnered unexpected support. The Commissioners liked it because it lets them off the hook for finely-parsing standards to get what they want and avoid the kind of development that they don’t want. Applicants like it because they like flexibility, as long as the total development ‘envelope’ (planner-speak again) is liberal enough to mine the gold (i.e., it ‘pencils out’). Flexibility could open the door to imaginative development, and if the Commission makes a strong enough statement in its guidelines we might get a satisfactory transportation component.

The trouble is that project approval becomes entirely discretionary;new development in e overlay zone would only have to pass muster with the Commission. Securing the public benefit depends on the Commission holding fast to good standards. Indeed, the Commission may well step back from them if the economy dips, or the applicant comes forward with a hardship, or if simply politics comes into play. (Never!)

Or the Commission may simply craft guideline objectives too ambiguous to be effective. Instead of mandating an active transportation component be included, for example, the Commissioners may simply indicate general support for regional connectivity without specifying that a bike lane facility need be included.

These fears came to the fore just this weekend when the Commission indicated that a Gateway sub-committee meeting was held on March 14th without notice to any community-side stakeholders (including Better Bike) who had indicated an interest. We only heard after the fact (two days later). We expect that project applicants were invited, however, which raises a question about the transparency of the entire Gateway process. We’ve previously indicated our concerns about it.

There is good reason to keep this process open rather than closed. And it’s all about mobility. In our communication to Transportation, we noted that last year’s City Council liaison meeting surfaced enthusiasm for a transportation component and even a ‘greenbelt’ for the Santa Monica Boulevard corridor. It resonates today with Commissioner Cole’s concern for pedestrian accessibility,  as well as our own prescriptions for integrating active transportation facilities into our overlay zone standards.

Backbone missing piece mapWhat’s the problem with that? Project applicants want to maximize every single possible square foot of buildable floor area, it for them it seems very much a zero-sum equation. They press for tall buildings, narrow setbacks, and overly-general objectives but don’t want to yield to other uses (like active transportation) via setbacks or land dedications.

We see multimodal mobility as hardly zero-sum; we want to increase mobility overall in order to get more folks moving via all modes. Our city plans calls for it; our Small Business Task Force noted the need for greater foot traffic; and then there’s the regional piece too: the Gateway could close our missing link in the bike backbone network.

Calendar the Next Meeting

The next Planning Commission meeting is this Thursday, March 22nd at 1:30 pm in Council Chambers room 280 [Read the agenda and calendar the event.] If you’re at all interested in the future of active transportation in Beverly Hills, or merely in the development of the city’s Western Gateway, we urge you to attend to communicate to Commissioners the importance of walking and cycling to our city’s future. [Updated to reflect the correct date.]