June 30, 1997 - From the June, 1997 issue

Westside Urban Forum—Transportation & Quality of Life

The time is ripe, pundits say, to seriously evaluate how transportation and environmental review policy have impacted our communities’ quality of life. This fall, Congress will reauthorize the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) in some form. And here in Southern California, an apparent resurgence in real estate development brings these questions to the fore. 

Late last month, Westside Urban Forum invited City of L.A. Planner and transit advocate Deborah Murphy to lead a discussion of these issues with Simon Pastucha, L.A. City Councilman Mike Feuer’s Planning Deputy; Frances Banerjee, Assistant General Manager, L.A. Dept. of Transportation; Michael Davies, L.A. Dept. of City Planning; and Dennis Zane, former Santa Monica Mayor, now Principal at Urban Dimension. TPR is pleased to present the following excerpt from the discussion.


Frances Banerjee: "[W]e have to remember that we are changing communities, not just managing traffic."

Deborah Murphy 

The topic of transportation and quality of life in communities consumes most of my professional and personal life. 

For many years, we have recognized the interrelationship between transportation and quality of life in Los Angeles. At one point, we believed the ideal transportation alternative was a shiny, new, high-tech single occupancy automobile with electronic everything, windows that seal us off from the outside environment, a parking space everywhere, and roadways free of flow interruptions like pedestrians or bicycles.

Only recently have we begun to understand that true quality of life comes from greater choice of transportation beyond the car, and that cities that are built with more than just asphalt. 

The balancing of the design of the public right-of-way for people on foot, in wheelchairs or strollers, on bikes, in cars, and on public transportation is critical to the future of all communities. 

We must recognize the secondary impacts of traffic mitigation measures. Are we better off for all the widenings we have seen over the years? I don't believe so. For every vehicle lane that is widened in the name of easing traffic flow, a sidewalk is narrowed, mature street trees are removed, or historic street lights are destroyed—all at great expense. Our streets are regional thruways at the expense of our local communities. 

Many organizations have brought national attention to this issue: the Federal Transit Administration, the Livable Communities Initiative, ISTEA [the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act], whose reauthorization after six years will come this fall in Congress, the Local Government Commission and SCAG's Livable Places Initiative, and the Surface Transportation Policy Project in a report released about a month ago called "Mean Streets" on pedestrian safety. 

And citizens everywhere are taking to the streets. Whether it's to their neighborhood Starbucks or bagel store, or to an outdoor entertainment district like the 3rd Street Promenade, Old Town Pasadena, Downtown Long Beach, or neighborhood gathering places like Montana Avenue, Larchmont, Lameirt Park, Monrovia, Whittier Boulevard in East L.A., Pacific Boulevard in Huntington Park, or Brentwood Village, people are rediscovering walking, even if they have to drive somewhere to do it. [Laughter]

But isn't part of this rediscovery a search for community? People are expressing their desire to connect to the commercial areas immediately around their residential neighborhoods. They are looking for retail and service businesses to locate near them so they don't have to travel across town in heavy traffic to do simple errands. 

Residents are asking for traffic calming devices to slow down cars in their neighborhoods. Merchants are organizing business improvement districts, many of which invest heavily in pedestrian streetscape improvements. And farmers’ markets are springing up all over. 

This is all happening on and around our public streets. Beyond simply being roadways for cars, streets are a place to gather, to walk our dogs, to shop, to catch a bus, to ride a bike, to sell our wares. 

But is the street ready for people? Are city agencies ready to start thinking about more than just moving cars as fast as they can? Are developers prepared to build buildings that are easily accessible to pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders? Are citizens ready to give up some of their time and convenience to enhance the overall character of their neighborhoods? These questions are the focus of today's panel discussion. 

As Councilman Feuer's Planning Deputy, Simon, you see development proposals before most other people in your district. You have said that, at least on the Westside, development is back in L.A. You also have said that business as usual for reviewing these projects isn't going to work anymore. What changes in the review process would you like to see? 

Simon Pastucha 

For the last year and a half, the number of inquiries about significant projects on the Westside has increased markedly. In each of those projects, the bottom line issue is always transportation. 

We can't continue how we were—simply mitigate traffic by widening some streets and increasing the capacity of intersections. Now, neighborhood groups and businesses are seeing a deterioration in their quality of life. We have to figure out a different way. A good start would be developers looking at what other modes of transportation they can enhance. And the City's blindly saying, "you need to have so many parking spaces and you need to mitigate so many trips," is no longer the answer. 

Because the Westside is already fairly well built-out, the next big phase of development will largely be infill, fitting into the existing structure, instead of outward growth. This alone necessitates a new approach to planning.

We have seen the beginnings of a new approach with the planned Santa Monica Boulevard Transit Parkway between Beverly Hills and the 405 Freeway. This will be one of the biggest public works projects on the Westside in dollar-value. One primary objective is to increase regional mobility, but the MTA has also been working very hard with the community on how to enhance their quality of life at the same time. 

They have looked at how pedestrians can move comfortably along Santa Monica Boulevard, how transit riders can have better waiting areas than just a bench on the side of a dirt hill, and how to move cars well and still avoid a bottleneck at the 405. Keeping neighborhood cut-through traffic to a minimum is another goal. 

Deborah Murphy 

What have community members been asking for on that project? Are they talking about pedestrian issues or just mobility? 

Simon Pastucha 

Area businesses want parking, visibility and easy access for everyone—neighborhood residents, included—not just people coming off of the major boulevards. The residents want to decrease cut-through traffic, slow traffic on their streets, and they want better access to local businesses, especially in Century City. Soon, residents north of Santa Monica will be able to access the Century City Shopping Center on foot for the first time.

People all over are starting to ask how they can take their kids for a stroll, take their dog for a walk, or get to the mall without having to deal with parking and the traffic. 

People are also beginning to look at their individual neighborhoods as distinct from the larger Westside region. 

Deborah Murphy 

Michael, you have been intimately involved reviewing development proposals. Do you see pedestrians amenities and transit access making their way into the approval process? 

Michael Davies

In general, we are much more successful incorporating pedestrian and transit amenities into major public works projects like the Santa Monica Boulevard Transit Parkway project. When a project is publicly funded, public input is generally much greater. For private development, however, the lens through which City staff review a project is still that of traffic impact. 

Interestingly, L.A. City Policy, as laid out in the proposed Transportation Element and the General Plan Framework, is that development and growth should occur in the City's centers. We want to focus development where the infrastructure can support it—a more efficient street system, better transit service, the likelihood of rail transit to service the center, and so on. 

Despite this policy, though, our analysis still narrowly focuses on how many intersections will be significantly impacted by traffic generation. As long as we're in that box, any development—even in an accepted center—is going to face a cumbersome environmental impact report or traffic study. 

And when projects do get built, our standard mitigation tool kit invariably calls for street widening, which can have significant secondary impacts. In some cases, the fundamental fabric of the local area is changed in the name of facilitating vehicular movement. 

If we had a slightly more enlightened longer-term view of an area—not limited to a 500-foot radius around a project site or expanded only as far as the nearest freeway ramp or major highway intersection—different mitigations could be imposed with essentially the same value. And yet we'd have a higher quality of life and better protect the environment around the development. 

But, thankfully, through the General Plan Framework, the Transportation Element, and different leadership at the Department of Transportation, there are many more possibilities today than there were even five years ago—certainly more than ten years ago. 

Deborah Murphy 

Many of us urban designers and planners kiddingly call traffic engineers "plumbers" because they seem just to want to move the contents of the street as fast as possible.

Frances, you are a brave and courageous administrator of a large department of traffic engineers. In this large city where traffic mitigation is supposed to answer everybody's prayers, how have you been able to encourage your staff to think of streets as more than just places for cars?

Frances Banerjee

First of all, despite the common perception that we are the "Department of Traffic Analysis" [laughter], we are really one of the few multi-modal transportation departments in the country. We manage all the taxi systems, the new smart shuttle programs, parking, crossing guards, all the community DASH buses, special events, the Cityride services for seniors and the disabled, and are working on Smart Corridors.

Speaking to traffic mitigation, when I first came to DOT, I was amazed at how much of the environmental review process is addressed primarily through the trafic analysis. 

This is an enormous city, but, on average, only 35 to 40 environmental impact reports are prepared each year. So how is the review of growth handled? Negative mitigation declarations. If you can mitigate traffic impacts to an acceptable threshold, you can avoid the environmental review process, which most project proponents prefer because the process is complicated, full of unknowns, and entails potentially lengthy public review. The review process needs to be streamlined because in it, issues of overriding consideration including issues such as street widening and other community issues can be best addressed and trade-offs decided.

There are three things we can start with to revise our processes. Change the systemic way we frame environmental review at all levels of government—State and federal, both. Have a better, more integrated tool box. And engage our partner, the Public Works Department, throughout the process. Though LADOT is responsible for streets from curb to curb, the sidewalks are the domain of Public Works and are critical to the pedestrian experience.

The Hill Street Transit Avenida project, which the Department is currently spearheading, is a good model of a different approach to improving a street. We are working there to balance all the needs of a truly multi-modal street. Hill, like other major bus streets in the City, has between 1200 to 1500 buses on it every day. In addition to bus riders, it also has significant pedestrian traffic generated by Angelus Plaza's seniors, the Grand Central Markel, Angels Flight and the Pershing Square Metro Rail station. We are using new, more comprehensive tools extensively on Hill to manage bus traffic, auto and truck traffic, pedestrian flow, provide better signage, and implement extensive streetscape improvements. We are doing similar work on the Figueroa Corridor, Glendale Boulevard and Vermont Avenue.

Programs like these working with new development are important, but in the context of improving L.A.'s pedestrian environment we need to realize that the dimensions of 95% of existing sidewalks will not change in our lifetime. We need to implement programs to improve the existing built environment, and our Department is a ready and willing partner towards this end. We have worked extensively with the Planning Department—and we're on a new page. Actually, we are at the beginning of the first chapter in a new book.

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But again, beyond just focusing on just review processes, we need new projects designed in our City that set standards of excellence. Demonstration projects like Hill Street are great examples for the rest of the City. 

Deborah Murphy 

Dennis Zane, as our lone non-City of Los Angeles representative, how have smaller cities like Santa Monica developed a more comprehensive, balanced approach to building a transportation system—not just thinking about the car, but also the bus system and economic development and land-use goals? Can a city the size of L.A. do what you have done? 

Dennis Zane 

Things have worked in Santa Monica because we' re cozy and conservative [laughter]. 

This discussion reminds me of one I participated in six years ago, during the height of the so-called slow growth movement—which was, not coincidentally, also the height of pressures for development in the region. It was proposed that, with all the population growth that we anticipate here, there really is no question—we can't afford to have slow growth.

Against the argument that population growth commands new development, I countered that that very dynamic dictates the political gridlock we now see. Without an alternative to simply driving forward, we just have a prescription for gridlock not only on our streets, but in our political processes. In the end, it makes for a far less livable region.

I was taken with what Frances had to say about expanding our tool box. We need to shift to a comprehensive planning perspective. For example, to create communities that handle growth effectively and provide proximate access to basic services, work, transit and entertainment without wild congestion, perhaps our most important mitigation strategy is housing. And I don't hear that as part of our discussion. 

As it stands now, too many people have to drive too far to get to the Third Street Promenade and the few other places like it in the region. We want to have downtowns like that all over so people don't have to travel so far and, thus, create congestion. Areas of exclusively commercial intensification are intrinsically traffic driven traffic generators. 

When we developed our Downtown Redevelopment Strategy, we asked ourselves, how do we get commercial activity of sufficient density to be sustainable without having dramatic and intolerable traffic conditions in our community? The answer was to surround the commercial area with significant multifamily housing. This creates a local marketplace that doesn't need to drive at all. 

That housing marketplace in Downtown Santa Monica has not been fully developed yet, but several multifamily projects are in process. These will create a new marketplace and allow the expansion of Downtown without generating the sort of traffic that all-commercial development would. They will help build an environment that needs to be heavily pedestrian-oriented. 

Were Westwood to make creating itself as a neighborhood and community center a real priority, development opportunities and commercial activity would come about without the kind of traffic that regional centers simply seem to draw. 

Century City has a lot of similar opportunities, as well. Many who work in Century City who would love to live close at hand. No doubt you could create a marvelous residential environment there. If we undertake a redefinition of how we mix our communities together, we would greatly widen our tool box—without widening our streets. 

Deborah Murphy 

Simon, since they are in your district, can Westwood Village or Century City make some of these changes? 

Simon Pastucha 

It's possible, but 20 years of planning & development brought these neighborhoods where they are. Also, Century City is basically built out. If the proposed high-rise on Avenue of the Stars goes in, it would be the last allowed under the specific plan. 

And Westwood is the same. It is a tightly-regulated specific plan area. Right now, there is no flexibility to increase the residential component.

And beyond that, property values are still quite high in Westwood. Thus you don't have the same opportunities you did on Third Street, where you were, in many respects, starting from scratch. Changes are possible, but the battle is a lot tougher. We need to set our sights on where we want to be ten years from now and figure out how to get there. 

Deborah Murphy 

Let's focus on Century City, which, strictly speaking is a mixed-use area. It has housing and commercial, but there is no way to get from one to the other. The housing developments all have big walls around them, and the message is clear: you must get in your car and drive, even if you just want to get from your apartment on Olympic to your office building on Santa Monica Boulevard.

Frances, can Century City be healed as a mixed-use community? 

Frances Banerjee 

This is really a question of managing change. Century City is from an era of projects including Las Colinas in Texas and Roosevelt Island in New York, that are very large­scale "new towns, in town," self-contained places with distinct, single uses.

We are now moving towards a planning process that has to be much more community based. People need to feel comfortable with new projects and change. 

But often times these discussions end up on traffic issues, and this is still the main issue in Century City. What is really at issue is residents' willingness to have change in their community. Much debate is fueled by people who are fearful of change especially if they have not been involved in the early phases of a plan. But traffic is a neutral argument area—it's faceless and doesn't belong to anybody. 

To whatever extent we have been able to respond to neighborhoods' concerns about traffic, we cannot control how comfortable people are with change in their environment. And we have to remember that we are changing communities, not just managing traffic. 

Deborah Murphy 

Michael, what about the new Transportation Element will support this new way of thinking? 

Michael Davies 

As tempting as is it is to take up a topic like healing Century City [laughter] ... 

The Transportation Element includes streetscape guidelines and an explicit statement of selection and performance criteria for streets and how they are to function. It includes street types, such as transit priority streets (typically bus-priority), and pedestrian priority street segments—types we did not previously have in the General Plan. 

I can't do justice to the document in this brief time, but I will touch on how to tie project analysis in with the General Plan. 

We don't do enough as a City to actively encourage growth where we feel it is appropriate. We need to arrive at a consensus on where development should be focused—not on a project-by-project basis, but in the context of the 465 square miles of the City. There are many factors to consider. Stable, low density neighborhoods, the hillside areas and areas that are subject to coastal regulation are inappropriate for high density development, for instance. 

We also need to look at how the public transit system being built offers opportunities to provide proximity—not just mobility. We aim to provide opportunities to live comfortably in a quality environment within close proximity to shopping, entertainment and employment opportunities. 

Those are where the opportunities are in the next 10 to 15 years, provided the City makes good on its 1993 Land-use Transportation Policy's commitment that development and growth—including housing—is most appropriate around transit facilities. The City needs to support this policy and start revising its development review procedures and the municipal code-parking reductions and other incentives for housing—so we're not fighting the same battle everywhere in the City, every step of the way. The General Plan, the Framework, the Centers Concept, the Land-use Transportation Policy all have to be made real. 

The Warner Ridge case, which came when I was Hearing Examiner for the Planning Commission, illuminates the costs of the City's not fully committing to its own policies, First, the 20-acre property is literally across the street and just outside the boundary of Warner Center, an existing center. So, from inception, any large project was arguably inconsistent with the Centers Concept (although one could also question the Center boundary). 

Initial proposals for the property called for condominium housing. But the predominantly single-family neighborhood and existing condominium community adjacent to the site didn't feel multifamily housing was appropriate and fought it off. The neighbors preferred an office park, and the developer proceeded to do a specific plan for that sort of project—consistent with the Community Plan for that area. The Planning Commission approved it, but the City Council voted it down, and litigation ensued. 

These kinds of bloody battles often stem from the nonacceptance of policies such as the Centers Concept or the Land-use Transportation Policy. We need to get to the point in the City where we have defined boundaries for land-uses that, if not inviolable, are at least dependable. If someone wants to try to go outside of the City's plans, then the gauntlet is thrown down. They could choose to fight a battle and have a two-to­three-year development approval process with uncertain outcome. Or they could choose to build in a center, where the assurance is that it is consistent with the City's General Plan. They can know the Plan is on their side, and rest assured that the rules of the game are not going to change midstream. 

We encourage intense and compact development in certain areas policy wise, but we need to show it in the way we process cases. It involves using the whole toolkit. It may include changing how we do our traffic analysis, giving greater credit for transit proximity, and so on. We need to bring all those things to bear, so we are working in unison on the development of the City. We need to commit to what we agree on a policy basis, and not change our minds. 

Deborah Murphy 

In closing, we can't just talk about people getting out of their cars, we have to do it ourselves. I challenge each one of you to make at least one trip a week without using your car—walk, bike, roller skate, take public transportation, just once. Maybe you'll like it—I did.

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