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Listen to the rhythm of a gentle bossa nova ...

By Frank Gruber

The lights are much brighter there,
You can forget all your troubles,
Forget all your cares, and go ...

--From a song that was popular about the time Santa Monica closed Third Street to traffic and created the Third Street Mall.

That time, for any young people reading this column, was the sixties, when Santa Monica's population boomed, but its downtown went to seed, as freeways and malls depopulated downtowns all across America.

Santa Monica's downtown is now booming. Its revival has launched dozens if not hundreds of imitators, both public and private, around the country, and its problems now are the problems of success, not failure.

Over the past six years the city has developed plans to address some of these problems, but, just when construction is set to begin, the plans are under attack.

Local attorneys Tom Larmore and Chris Harding, representing a new organization called the "Santa Monica Transportation Council" (SMTC), have asked the Coastal Commission to deny approval of the city's plans.

The SMTC has not articulated its substantive complaints about the plan, or the motives of its members, beyond what is contained in a letter Larmore wrote to the Coastal Commission asking the Commission not to approve the project until the city conducts what the SMTC claims is a required environmental review. From the letter, it is clear that the SMTC has concerns about parking and traffic.

It is worth taking a look at the recent history of downtown Santa Monica before considering the merits of the current controversy.

Back when Petula Clark was at the top of the charts, a popular solution for dying downtowns was to close streets to traffic and build parking structures, to make downtowns more like suburban malls.

Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, this rarely worked, and in Santa Monica the Third Street Mall was, by the eighties, more seedy than ever.

There were many people with ideas to revitalize the area, but one big problem was the fact that there were so many different property owners, and they found it hard to agree on what they wanted and how much they were willing to pay.

Fortunately, the city stepped in and created an entity, now called the Bayside District Corporation, to coordinate redevelopment of the Mall.

A long public process led to adoption of a specific plan in 1986. Designers were hired, assessments were assessed, and the old mall received a makeover in 1989 and 1990. There were many skeptics.

At the same time, the city approved -- in fact encouraged -- the construction of three multiplex movie theaters on the Mall. The combination of the redesign and the theaters was an instant success. So many people flocked to the newly renamed "Promenade" that traffic was never permitted on the new roadway the city had intended to open at night.

While some residents complain about the large number of tourists who crowd the Promenade, according to a recent city survey, 66 percent of Santa Monicans visit downtown at least once a week and another 25 percent visit at least every month. I expect this level of use is unusually high in America today.

Yet, with success came new and unexpected problems. For one thing, the crowds of people created more congestion on the sidewalks than there was on the streets, particularly where narrow sidewalks had to accommodate both pedestrians and people waiting for the many buses that serve downtown.

While businesses on the Promenade were thriving, other businesses, particularly on Fourth Street, suffered, partly because their customers were drawn to the Promenade, and partly because the city had removed all the parking on Fourth to ease freeway traffic onto the new Fourth Street on-ramp. People wanted a downtown that was more than one busy street.

Others complained that the one-way streets (Fifth and Broadway) were dangerous and distorted traffic flow.

All of these problems prompted the city, in 1994, to establish the "Downtown Working Group" (DWG), consisting of three council members and two planning commissioners, to study downtown's problems and develop solutions. I was privileged to be one of the planning commissioners on the DWG.

Working with Roma Design Group, the same designers who had designed the Promenade and who had just completed the city's specific plan for the Civic Center, as well as city staff and parking and traffic consultants, the DWG, which was chaired by former mayor Paul Rosenstein, heard from the "stake holders" in the district, as well as the public, and crafted a two phase plan to deal with circulation and "streetscape" issues.

The first phase largely consisted of turning Fifth Street and Broadway back into two-way streets and returning some parking to Fourth Street.

The second phase called for a redesign of Santa Monica Boulevard and Broadway between Ocean and Fifth, to widen the sidewalks to give more of the public way over to pedestrian uses.

This "Phase Two" is at the heart of what is now called the "Transit Mall," which acquired that name when federal transportation funds became available to pay for it. The plan facilitates transit with improved bus stops and by dedicating an eastbound lane on Santa Monica Boulevard and a westbound lane on Broadway to buses. (The plan eliminates westbound buses on Santa Monica and eastbound buses on Broadway, thus making traffic better for cars in those lanes.)

The impacts of Phase Two on traffic were extensively studied because, as one can imagine, it is rare in Southern California to take asphalt away from motorists and give it to pedestrians. City Council member Bob Holbrook, for one, a member of the DWG, was quite skeptical, as were others, and the impacts were analyzed and re-analyzed.

The traffic engineers who studied the plan concluded that because of changes to traffic patterns, widening sidewalks will not materially affect traffic flow, and at the end of the day the circulation plan received near unanimous support from the merchants, property owners and members of the public who participated in the process.

As for parking, the plan removes metered spaces on Santa Monica Boulevard, but adds nearly as many on Fourth Street.

After the City Council approved the streetscape and circulation plans in 1996, the city hired new designers to make architectural and artistic plans. The DWG supervised a long series of public hearings where these plans were reviewed, sent back, and reviewed again. There was also additional traffic review.

There were also many questions about important details, such as valet parking and deliveries, and staff continued to work with local merchants even after the overall designs were approved. Yet even those merchants and property owners who had concerns about these issues favored the overall plan.

So what's the beef? Frankly, I don't know, but it is hard to understand why the SMTC waited until the city is awarding construction contracts to form itself and go public with its complaints.

Unfortunately, it is typical for people to ignore the public process and later complain that a project is flawed because it lacks "consensus" or needs "further analysis" or "one more study."

The downtown plan is not a theory hatched in an urban design seminar, but something that was created in response to real world problems.

My own belief is that the name of the project, "Downtown Transit Mall," has given people the wrong idea -- that the Promenade will be turned into a bus depot. The plan will enhance transit, but the fundamental change will be to give people downtown the option of walking east or west as well as north and south.

Maybe someone should hire a lawyer and form a new organization: "Santa Monicans for a Multi Directional Downtown."
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