Council Shoots Down Target
By Jorge Casuso
After four hours of often-intense deliberations, the City Council Thursday night voted 5 to 2 to turn down a proposed downtown Target store fearing it would gridlock already crowded streets.
If the decision by the slow-growth council -- which recently set up a task force to study the thorny issue of downtown traffic -- came as no surprise, the breakdown of the vote was unpredictable. The Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights majority split its vote, with SMRR's Green Party faction siding with the two anti-SMRR, pro-business councilmen.
The debate ranged from technical traffic counts to overarching visions of downtown, but it always circled back to the traffic that would be generated by the proposed 162,000-square-foot store at the corner of Fifth Street and Santa Monica Boulevard.
"'It's the traffic stupid,' that's the issue," said SMRR Councilman Kevin McKeown, a Green Party member. "The traffic impacts would be unabsorbable."
"We are choking ourselves off in the Bayside and it's frightening," said Councilman Herb Katz, a SMRR foe who was a member of the board of the Bayside District Corp., which runs the downtown. "If this project comes on line now, I think it will be a disaster. I think it's a good concept, but I think the traffic is major and this can destroy an entire downtown."
"The one thing that I am sure about is that this project will have a dramatically negative impact on traffic in the downtown core," said Councilman Richard Bloom. "This project is going to have a devastating effect on traffic downtown. People won't want to come downtown."
"In my mind sustainability is when we get a win win win," said SMRR Mayor Michael Feinstein, a Green Party leader. "I don't think this is the model we need for the downtown. Sometimes when something doesn't fit exactly, something better comes along."
Council members Ken Genser and Pam O'Connor disagreed.
"I've heard loud and clear the concerns about traffic, but I think we are dealing here with a downtown, not a neighborhood," Genser said. "Downtowns are congested if they are successful. We need a downtown that serves residents."
O'Connor, a historical preservationist, urged the council to seize the opportunity to forge a new vision of an urban department store that would energize the streets around the bustling Third Street Promenade.
"In Santa Monica we are always looking for new models," O'Connor said. "We have gone out on a limb. Is it the right location? No other site would fit this.... The setting is appropriate. I think it would strengthen small businesses and draw businesses that want to build on that energy."
O'Connor argued that the traffic studies -- which measured everything from so-called incremental impacts to overlap walk credits and direct passerby reductions -- are "engineering estimates."
"It's based on their (the traffic consultant's) best guesses," O'Connor said. "We don't know what's on the horizon that will impact how people use automobiles."
Before casting a final vote, several of the council members urged Target officials -- who mounted a two-and-a-half-year effort that culminated in an intensive grassroots lobbying effort -- not to give up.
Agreeing that an affordable shopping venue was sorely needed in the increasingly upscale downtown, they urged Target to continue working with the City to either make the proposed site work or look for an alternate site outside the downtown.
"I don't think we can deal with the traffic, but we can deal with the need and desire for affordable shopping," said Councilman Robert Holbrook, an opponent of SMRR. "I'm not going to vote for this project, but I'm committed to looking for another site. I hope the Target company doesn't give up on us."
"I don't want Target to give up," Katz said. "I think something can be worked out. Maybe not tonight."
Katz urged the City to consider hastening the planned synchronization of the downtown traffic signals if construction of the Downtown Transit Mall -- which, among other things, will widen sidewalks, carve out dedicated bus lanes and add trees and benches -- is delayed in the courts.
"If we could delay this project to wait until we get our downtown traffic resolved, I could support it," Katz said.
"The traffic isn't going to get fixed," Genser countered. "It's gong to get worse (even) if we don't build one more square foot."
O'Connor and Genser argued that the proposed site was the best -- and only -- location for a department store.
"I don't think there will be another available location," O'Connor said. "It would have to be an island by itself. It will create more impacts for residents."
"A Target-type store anywhere else in town will have incredible negative impacts on residential areas," Genser said. "Other sites will require more car trips."
Although the debate centered on traffic, much of the discussion touched on the need for affordable shopping and the impact a large retailer would have on small, independent stores.
"The kinds of locally owned businesses we have are probably not going to suffer from a Target," Genser said. "Our own study showed the opposite. It might improve business for some.
"Pedestrian areas die when they rely on trendy uses," Genser said. "In order for downtown areas to have a long life they need uses that are part of regular life. The entertainment uses are fickle."
Bloom disagreed that there was a pressing need for a Target, noting that many of the items it carried could be found on sale at more upscale department stores such as Macy's and Robinsons May, which have a wider, and higher quality, selection.
"We've reached a place in this city where Target is the pinnacle of retailers that we seek," Bloom said. "Target has its merits, but its service isn't particularly good and the selection is not particularly broad. I don't think Target should be the ideal that we're seeking," Bloom said, as Target supporters in the audience hissed and grumbled.
"Things are changing very rapidly in this world in business and retailing," Bloom said. "A project of this magnitude will have an impact citywide. Residents may not go to Main Street or Montana or Pico Boulevard."
Feinstein said he too had concerns -- ranging from traffic to the chain store's impact on small businesses and its reported use of sweatshops abroad. Affordable shopping, he predicted, would eventually be provided by small independent stores that would cater to the needs of the residents who are moving into downtown affordable housing development encouraged by the council.
"We have to look at our vision for the long term," said Feinstein, a SMMR and Green Party member. "In the long run, I think we would have the affordability. We don't have to settle with the chain stores.
"I'm not saying that I could never vote for something," Feinstein added. "I just don't think that this works in all the pieces, and maybe I'm going to get busted and I'm going to lose in the long run, but maybe not."
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