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.