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!