The Santa Monica Boulevard Blue Ribbon Committee was formed by Beverly Hills City Council to provide conceptual design recommendations regarding the major reconstruction project scheduled for 2015. (Read more on our project page.) Next year City Council will choose a final design. At this introductory meeting of the commission, we discussed project goals, chose a Chair and Vice Chair, and received public comments. Here’s our recap.
The ‘blue ribbon’ committee’s purpose is deceptively straightforward: to collect public input concerning the reconstruction of the corridor; to reflect on public input in light of project scope and goals; and to evaluate design alternatives and possible project ‘enhancements.’ The committee will then make project design recommendations to City Council. (Find more information on the city’s project page or on our own more informative project page.) Fifteen residents (including yours truly) were appointed to serve.
There are competing ambitions for this project: to facilitate traffic flow; to enhance travel though our city; to increase safety for all road users; and perhaps to include an active transportation facility like segregated bicycle lanes. The fourteen members of the committee were appointed (three per councilmember) and charged with balancing the elements that may comprise this key regional corridor, including sidewalks and parkways, medians, turn lanes, crosswalks and bike or pedestrian accommodations. Ten of the fourteen appointees attended.
Susan Healey Keene, Director of the Community Development Department (which recently internalized transportation planning) called this capital improvement project a “legacy project” because it will have a significant effect on the community. Sean Vargas, Project Principle for design-engineering consultant Psomas, framed the discussion; Michael Meyer represented planning subcontractor Iteris to talk details. (Both firms have experience in Beverly Hills. And as befits a city that these days contracts almost everything out, our own transportation staffers were mostly mum.)
As presented to Council in September, conceptual alternatives range from a re-do of the current boulevard (at a minimum) to an expansion with landscaped median and bicycle lanes. Here is the matrix that Psomas developed to frame the discussion:
Vargas described the history of the corridor and noted the six project goals that frame the committee’s work (read more in the city’s project PowerPoint):
- Rehabilitate the infrastructure
- Consider ‘complete streets’ to enhance safety and promote other modes
- Respect the character and protect green space
- Maintain access to the business triangle
- Minimize construction impacts
- Maintain vehicular flow
Meyer described ‘complete streets’ (the second goal) as “an important statewide policy initiative” intended to make travel “safe for all modes.” Whether driving, walking or riding, he said, equity in access and choice of mode are key principles. (That is an approach that fits with our incoming Health and Safety Commissions priority to support ‘healthy lifestyles.’) His PowerPoint presentation devoted three slides to complete streets and followed with two more slides that addressed the bicycle lanes option. “Connectivity on Santa Monica on either side is something to think about,” he said, and noted that within the existing curbs only one on-street (Class II) bicycle lane would fit.
Committee member Dr. Barry Pressman asked, “Have you considered South Santa Monica for the bicycles?” Only if it becomes “problematic” on the main corridor, he replied, but that’s not likely “unless the project scope is changed” (to include the south boulevard). “Is widening part of the potential scope here?” Dr. Pressman asked. “There’s not necessarily one size that fits all here – not one cross section” Meyer said. “The character of the corridor changes segment to segment.”
Vargas framed the choice as either keeping the existing curb width and working within it, or else planning to widen the boulevard by “about three feet” to gain flexibility. Committee member Kathy Reims said, “Councilmembers agreed that they would not agree to lesser green space.” Vargas acknowledged that “goals will compete” and asked the committee to consider whether a greened (11-foot) median might suffice to “minimize the loss of green space” should a few feet of grass be needed.
Kathy then asked if there was any significance to the order of the project goals. “Not top to bottom, no,” Vargas replied.
We then moved on to the second order of business: selection of Chair. After a secret ballot Dr. Pressman was chosen as Chair. “He introduced himself. “From what you’ve heard, how well do these concepts fit our thinking?” Then he wasted no time in getting to the point: “To get bicycle paths on this corridor, I’d like to you to look at South Santa Monica [as an alternative] at least conceptually.”
Vargas said that dual bicycle lanes on the main corridor meant that the south boulevard need not be considered. “But if we include bicycle lanes on only a part [of the north corridor], then it’s our duty to ask, Where will the bicyclist go?”
Chair Pressman next suggested that the committee prioritize the goals. “I’ll start from the bottom,” he said. “Traffic flow.” He asked committee members if that was most important and six raised hands. (Everybody agreed that rehabilitating the corridor was the point of the project and not a goal.) He then asked about maintaining character and two said that was most important. Without continuing through the rest of the list, the Chair proclaimed the committee agreed: flow was most important. Then there was some pushback. As he tried to assert “the Chair’s prerogative,” committee members called for a more formal evaluation mechanism. Each prioritized his top-three choices (to be tallied later).
Public comment (from roughly 25 attendees) seemed to revolve around bicycle lanes.
- Ron Durgin reminded the committee that bike lanes or no lanes, every travel lane is available to the cyclist. He noted that the term “vehicular flow” precluded consideration of bicycles because they are not a vehicle under state law. As a result, he supports a complete streets approach for the project design.
- Kory Klem called for on-street lanes for Santa Monica North and described an earlier suggestion for a bike path in the park as “challenging” to execute safely.
- Mel Raab also supported SM North bicycle lanes but suggested ‘a flex lane’ in order to “liberate” space for those who commute via Santa Monica. “I’ve put my life in my hands,” he told the committee.
- Another community member called for keeping lanes off Santa Monica North to preserve capacity (“Bike lanes are a collector street issue,” he said).
- Yet another suggested closing Santa Monica South to traffic to make way for bike lanes there (“A non-starter,” the Chair replied).
Chair Pressman asked Ron about a Santa Monica South bike route leading to Burton Way (eastbound, in lieu of on-SM lanes). Would cyclists “embrace” it? Durgin replied, “I think so.”
Written Comments (submitted to the committee)
- Preserve and improve water fountains and running paths in Beverly Gardens park, perhaps including a “walking bridge” to facilitate safe crossing;
- Consider regional traffic patterns when evaluating bike lanes and a boulevard median because cut-through traffic is already a problem north of SM and South of Wilshire;
- Create a “bike PATH” in Beverly Gardens Park for families who want to ride and teach their children to ride but who don’t feel comfortable competing with traffic; and,
- Support a “bicycle share lane” on Santa Monica North to link to existing lanes east/west of our city (approving of the sharrow lane on Crescent) but don’t create a planted median on the boulevard.
This first Santa Monica Boulevard Blue Ribbon Committee meeting adjourned until the next meeting on December 10th with a final meeting on January 8th. Staff will get back to us with goals and conduct two mobile tours of the corridor.
[Update: staff provided a weighted ranking that has the ten committee members prioritizing the goals as follows: 1) maintain vehicular flow, 2) preserve character, and 3) maintain access to the triangle. (Only yours truly mentioned ‘complete streets’ as a top-three goal. As for the mobile tour, read our recap. Read the meeting meeting minutes from 11/7 as prepared by the city.]