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Planners Ponder Colorado Esplanade Traffic Quandaries  

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By Ann K. Williams
Lookout Staff

September 16, 2011 -- What started as a discussion of grand aesthetic principles ended up being a detailed parsing of traffic patterns in downtown Santa Monica, as the Planning Commission got its first glimpse into the design process of the Colorado Esplanade.

Peter Walker and Partners presented its vision of a pedestrian-friendly stretch of Colorado Avenue, which will carry thousands of visitors a day from the Expo line terminal at 4th Street to the Santa Monica Pier, with side trips to the downtown commercial district and the Civic Center and the to-be-completed Palisades Garden Walk Park.

“What we design here is something that could be on a postcard,” said Adam Greenspan of Peter Walker and Partners. The Esplanade should evoke “the excitement of arriving here.”

Though Greenspan made it clear that his firm was still in the pre-design process – “pull(ing) out the building blocks” was how he put it – there were a few ideas he dwelt on.

The pier sign at the end of Colorado Boulevard will play a large role in the finished design.

Iconic pier sign inspires Esplanade designers.
Photos courtesy of PWP Landscape Architecture.

“It's an inspiration for us,” said Greenspan. “It's the image that sits in everybody's head when they think of Santa Monica.”

The gentle incline that leads to the sign will be framed by trees, however the lanes and sidewalks approaching it are configured.

Beyond that, as far as design aesthetics went, he showed the commission a series of slides showing examples of the world-famous firm's work that he thought was relevant to the Esplanade project.

They included the newly opened memorial park and fountains at the Ground Zero in New York City – a model, he said, of simplicity, elegance and durability.

Most of the other slides showed public gathering places and walkways framed by lush plantings, designed to allow pedestrians to linger.

Perhaps the most striking of these was a complex built around a casino in Singapore that featured a 58-story-high park planted with lush tropical vegetation.

But the better part of Wednesday's discussion revolved around how to manage the traffic on the stretch of street his firm is supposed to transform.

The Expo line will empty up to 400 passengers every five to seven minutes into an already crowded area. Getting them, and the cyclists expected to pour into the area, from place to place while keeping cars and buses moving was the challenge.

It was Greenspan's specific drawings that showing how various traffic lanes will have to be reconfigured that had the Commissioners' scratching their heads.

Greenspan showed a number possible configurations, but seemed to settle on two variations.

One involved reducing traffic to three lanes, while widening the sidewalks. Traffic could go two ways on Colorado Boulevard and Main Street would continue to T into Colorado Boulevard before jogging to 2nd Street as it does now.

The other version involved “justifying” the lanes, which meant that vehicle lanes would occupy the northern side of Colorado Boulevard, and the southern sidewalk would be enlarged. In this version, there would be two lanes for motor vehicles, going one way – west to the pier and the beach.

Main Street would veer left, smoothly connecting with 2nd Street, creating an area on the south side of Colorado around Main Street that Greenspan called the “Gateway Plaza” which could be designed as an entry to the Civic Center.

Whatever the configuration of the Esplanade, it would have to be built to coordinate with the Expo line, which will reduce Colorado Boulevard to two lanes between 17th and 4th streets. Between 5th and 4th streets, Colorado will be one-way, going west.

Commissioner Hank Koning said he was concerned about traffic circulation.

“When we look at things like westbound [on Colorado], that means the eastbound is going somewhere else,” Koning said. “Where is that somewhere else, what happens to that?”

He also brought up the fact that the city's building a new parking structure that will add more spaces downtown, attracting drivers northward.

Some of the downtown stakeholders he spoke with were “energized” by the possibility of making the Esplanade one way, said Greenspan. It might take some of the pressure off the intersection at 4th Street and Colorado Avenue, they told him.

Chair Jim Ries seemed to agree. He suggested that traffic could be reconfigured so that 5th Street could be the entrance to downtown from the freeway, while 4th Street could be the exit.

While traffic seemed to be the discussion's focal point, it wasn't the only thing commissioners talked about.

Trees mattered. Commissioner Jason Parry wanted to be sure that they weren't removed unnecessarily. And Ries urged Greenspan to plant “large canopy trees,” not palms.

Several Commissioners liked the idea of moving some retail into the ground floor of Santa Monica Place facing the Esplanade, to “activate” the street.

In all, they were pleased by Greenspan's presentation.

“You have a lot of potential out there, so I urge you guys to think outside of the box and bring us something special,” said Ries.

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