January 14, 2022 - From the January, 2022 issue

Thomas Small on Culver City’s Embrace of Tactical Urbanism & Rapid Urban Prototyping

Earlier this month as a continuing part of the Move Culver City project, the city launched the Circulator, a free shuttle bus that takes people through downtown Culver City into its Arts District and offers a promising mobility response for the rapidly changing city center. In this interview with TPR, former Mayor and councilman, Thomas Aujero Small, discusses Move Culver City and Culver City Forward, two projects created to help the relatively small metropolis in the heart of LA’s Westside more readily absorb new population and development  through better communication with the government, companies, and residents. Small emphasizes the opportunity for tactical urbanism and rapid urban prototyping to help cities solve the problems that accompany rapid economic growth and increasing demand for housing and multi-modal mobility solutions.


Thomas Aujero Small

“If you look at Silicon Valley and Seattle and San Francisco, there have been there have been a lot of unintended consequences from the tech boom that have badly affected the communities… We've formed Culver City Forward to address exactly those issues.”

With a mission to bring together leaders from Culver City's business, government, educational, philanthropic, and community groups to provide a nonpartisan, fact-based platform to strengthen Culver City's economy and support local workforce, elaborate on the work of Culver City Forward and why you're dedicating to it so much of your time and energy?

We saw the opportunity and the need to create an organization like Culver City Forward to fulfill that precise mission because Culver City, as many people know, is now the home to a number of huge multinational tech corporations.

We founded Culver City Forward to work in that space between the big tech companies, the city, and the community. If you look closely at Silicon Valley, Seattle, and San Francisco, there have been a lot of unintended consequences resulting from the tech boom that have badly affected these communities. There's also been a lot of thinking and programs initiated to mitigate the downsides of rapid economic growth, but the latter localities have been behind the eight ball on staving off the tremendous housing, transportation, and environmental problems that have accompanied economic prosperity.

We've formed Culver City Forward to address exactly those issues.

As we're struggling to get past COVID, the amazing thing is that the process of tech-driven growth has not  missed a beat in Culver City. If anything, it's accelerated because Amazon, in particular, has done so well. Apple is right there poised to take on that growth also. I think most people reading this will probably know that Apple recently announced that they're going to build 550,000 more square feet of office space in Culver City. They're in the process of developing that now.

Share what Apple is likely to find at its community meetings in Culver City? 

Whenever there's a project of this size, there are many aspects to it. There's going to be a lot of commentary and a lot of items to discuss as this project moves forward. Some of the activists in the city are very keen for the traffic from that project not to enter and exit from Washington Boulevard, but rather from Venice Boulevard because Washington now only has one lane of car traffic in each direction. That'll be one point.

Depending on how Apple reacts and how they go forward, they could have a wonderful time collaborating with Culver City because there is certainly a core group of folks in this town that understand the value of that economic vitality and how that engine of growth can drive a lot of improvement in the city. There's also a strong contingent of folks that want Apple and the other companies to be responsible citizens and believe that that's not their intention. We're just dipping our toes in the bowl of getting to know each other with Apple now. There's a lot riding on this project and how the process of entitling this project goes down.

Given your opening comments, allow a provocative question: does Culver City have the wherewithal to address these rapid growth challenges, or are city leaders helpless victims of technological change and societal growth?

The first thing that came to my mind when you ask that question is for God's sake, no. At the same time, I would also hope that we're not completely helpless in front of this. I would hope that we can learn from history and that Apple and Amazon can learn from history to not repeat the mistakes of the past—that we can understand what's happened in the other places where they had tech booms and that we can find a new model to work together to create a better society.

What's so exciting is how much Culver City can be a model for that because it is technology and media that are driving growth. If we can find a model where we can work with this tech boom to accommodate the infrastructure needs, the transportation needs, and the housing needs that accompany this growth, we will really have done something that can be looked at nationally and internationally.

Silicon Valley cities for decades asserted that they could only solve their environmental, housing, and transportation problems collectively with “regional” solutions. They admitted that each could not deal with their infrastructure and livability challenges while competing with each other for economic growth opportunities. Is the situation with Culver City, centrally located in Los Angeles’ Westside “Silicon Beach,” similar?

It's a very interesting set of differences. I have had a number of discussions with mayors of Cupertino and with council members and mayors in Redwood City and other small cities in that area. Culver City has a couple of key differences. First of all, Culver City has a preponderance of the largest companies in a very small area. There's not a sense of competition. I think that we can work together as a community of cities to deal with this issue, and I don't see the competition for the development being a problem.

We do need to come together to deal with these issues on a regional basis. Certainly, the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation is part of that. We've talked to them quite a bit and are eager to cooperate with them on a regional basis, but a lot of these issues that deal directly with having these facilities located in such a small space are unique to Culver City.

The other difference with the Silicon Valley communities is that Culver City is a real city. We have a real, walkable downtown with a tremendous restaurant culture, a tremendous arts community, and theatres. We're a small city, but a real city. When Apple was building its mothership in Cupertino, it really didn't have anything to do with the city. It's a suburban community, and that big facility is off by itself. Culver City is a unique place in that way, and so we have a unique opportunity to work with them.

The template for mobility in Culver City is rather unique. The City is literally located at a crossroads on the Westside of Los Angeles. Share with our readers the extraordinary planning and mobility challenge the city’s grid template presents Culver City?

That brings me to the Move Culver City project and its history. I felt that I had the relationships to bring excellence in urban design and engineering to the city. We knew that we had a problem, which is that there is a huge amount of cut-through traffic going through Culver City to go from the east to the west and the west to the east. SCAG data tells us that about 70 percent of that traffic is that cut-through traffic.

When we set out to try to begin to address this problem directly, we put together an RFP and interviewed a number of different teams to find the best people in the world to help us address this. We wanted to have new solutions. We didn't want to have the same old solutions that we find around Southern California. We also wanted to really understand what was here and some of the other issues in Culver City with the way that growth happened here and the way these grids that overlay each other are interrupted. It's a really challenging problem here in Culver City because it's different from so many places in how they approach it.

With all the streets empty during COVID, it enabled us to put a lot of stuff in, and there's been a huge development in this process of what we call 'quick-build.' What's often been talked about over the last decade is tactical urbanism. Tactical urbanism has not been used so much at this scale before. Usually, you think of tactical urbanism as a small group putting together some pocket parks or changing something temporarily on a road intersection. We changed the entire downtown and all the way through the Arts District. We have created a complete street now with this tactical urbanist approach in the Quick Build fashion. We broke no concrete. Nothing is permanent. It's all a temporary pilot. It can be adjusted and changed.

The urban policy term ‘complete streets’ has been around for almost a decade. What does a ‘complete street’ mean in Culver City?

What it means, in this case, is that we've taken away one lane of regular traffic in each direction. Using that limited space that we have, we now have a traffic lane in each direction and then we have a transit and emergency lane in each direction. This is key because the Culver City Green Bus, the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus, and the Metro buses all have their own lane that never stops in traffic now. Before, you would ride the bus and you would sit in the traffic. Now, the buses zoom by. At the same time, we've installed a new circulator bus, which is an electric, 12 passenger bus that circulates back and forth on the main boulevard of Culver City

The definition of complete streets includes the transit lane for the high occupancy public transit and also for emergency vehicles. It's a huge safety issue because the fire trucks don't get caught in the traffic anymore, which will secure our position in having the shortest response time of just about any community in terms of police and fire. We've also added a largely protected bike lane so that bikes and other types of micro-mobility, including scooters, can travel freely. In our definition in Culver City, a complete street is a street that's optimized for pedestrians, bikes, other micro-mobility, public transit, and emergency vehicles. The concept of calming the regular traffic is of course controversial, but it's a street that works for all modes of transportation.

The theory of it is this branch of urbanism that in part comes out of Vancouver. If the traffic on Washington Boulevard is slower, what that does is discourages the cut-through traffic. You can't zoom through downtown Culver City at 50 miles an hour anymore. It used to be that you could do that during some hours of the day, and it would be actually quite dangerous. Now you can't quite get up to that speed. It's more of a main street and less of a thoroughfare.

Elaborate on the burden on adjacent localities of that traffic you refer to being pushed out of Culver City?

Certainly, Jefferson Boulevard to the south and the 10 Freeway on the north will feel the impact of this. Hopefully, it'll be easier to get around within Culver City than it was before. This is something we learned way back during the TOD visioning. It needs to be accompanied by better alternative modes of transit. Unlike 10 years ago, we have the Metro now with basically three stops in and adjacent to Culver City going east and west. The Metro is already quite popular, but folks have that to be able to use as well. There definitely will be a readjustment of how those things work, and this program is designed to make things work better in Culver City. 

Let’s pivot to housing. Culver City’s economic good fortune is like feeding candy to the housing market by creating all these well-paid jobs in Culver City, an already prospering, dense urban metropolis on the west side of LA. What’s the impact on housing prices in Culver City? On your demographics? On the City’s infrastructure and social services obligations it has to its present and future residents?  

That is one key focal point of the challenge: it's driving the housing prices up in Culver City even more. It's creating a market that's difficult for everyone, so we have a need to find ways to create more housing locally to absorb that population. Creating housing locally will have a huge effect on the quality of life for those folks who don't have to get stuck in long commutes and for the environment because transportation is one of the greatest contributors to climate change.

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The population hasn't really increased that much yet, but we're expecting it to, and there has to be the housing to accommodate that population growth. There's huge pressure for us to build more housing, and we're trying to find ways to do it. The phrase that you may have heard me use before, which comes from 19th century Sicily, is “if you want things to stay the same, everything must change.” That's the crux of where we're at in Culver City. We desperately want to maintain this wonderful small town atmosphere that we have, yet at the same time, we have to make changes to be able to accommodate all this growth. I’m realizing that the only way that you can change everything but have everything stay the same is to use a wonky term for what in urban planning we call rapid urban prototyping. We've got to be able to try things, particularly in housing, and see if they work, and then be able to adapt them quickly if they don't.

Cities live with post-Prop 13 fiscalization of land use where new housing doesn't pay in local taxes for the service demands generated by growth. How have your fire & police departments, your library, and your social services adapted to the aggressive housing policies the city and the state of California have adopted?

We started talking about this with the previous fire team and the one we have now. We are very lucky to have a superb fire department here in Culver City. We have tremendous staff and have had excellent chiefs. I remember him coming to me when I was first elected to council and saying that we were going to need to expand and that this was going to be a big hit to our budget over the coming years. We have these tremendous response times, and we were going to lose them in this growth. That's another spot where, through intelligent design, the Move Culver project helps because the response times for trucks that have to go along Washington Boulevard are really helped by that.

This is in part, the genesis of Culver City Forward because as the government, in the system that we have now, we were able to make some headway with a new real estate transfer tax. We may be able to make some headway to chip away at our structural deficit, which is also affected by the pension crisis, to grow that infrastructure. Certainly the genesis of Culver City Forward was that we've got to collaborate with these big companies that need that protection from fire as much as the rest of us to help support these services. So, those are conversations that we need to start. If those services are not adequate, in our current structure, we need to change that structure and we need to have participation from the folks who are using and benefiting from that at the corporate level.

Tom, you've been aggressive on pressing policies that allow for more housing in Culver City and on the Westside, despite being aware that new housing doesn't pay for the public services it generates. You've also been very positive about a supply-side housing policy solution by the state that facilitates greater housing density. Why then don't you assert leadership to change current fiscal state/local algorithms, which make it difficult for Culver City to be the city it wants to be? Does the state truly have all the answers for Culver City’s policy challenges?

Culver City is clearly having to look at our business tax that has been unchanged for many years. It divides the business licensing fees between blacksmiths and other folks who aren't operating so much anymore. There will certainly be an update to that. What I get excited about is in reading headlines like Apple spending $2 billion on housing in the Bay Area where their folks need it. I would go so far as to say if we're going to really make headway on continuing to nurture a community and a culture that has a high quality of life, those big corporate players need to participate, particularly in housing. We are developing the plans in our general plan update process and in the work that Culver City Forward is doing to look at where the opportunities are to create housing that will work with the community and not change it in a detrimental way.

The California legislature of late is often called on to provide ‘one size fits all’ housing production solutions that usurp local authority because, it is asserted, local governments aren't meeting their housing production goals. Where do you stand on localism versus the need to address things at the state level because localities aren't able to deliver on the responsibilities?

I am very much in favor of local control, but we need to solve the problems. I would like to see Culver City be able to provide that housing without having to be pushed by the state. I think we all need to be responsible for the crises that are local and global, and we all need to be doing our parts. The state I do feel is forced to take those actions when the local leadership is not able to do it. Culver City has historically, frankly, has not done well in the past with our redevelopment money. When there was redevelopment, we did great on encouraging commercial development, but we didn't use it for housing. We've got to think about how that works, and how it can work well. We've got to look at other models around the world that can help us create the kind of housing and development and community that is going to make the people that have been here for a long time happy.

Pivoting back to Culver City Forward and how the city is addressing the COVID pandemic, how is Culver City, with so many unknowns, approaching the planning of its future?

I’ll talk for a second about my project with RAND which is called Culver City Bounce Forward. It is a research and policy project in partnership with a team of researchers at the RAND Corporation to study how the city and the community can take advantage of the aspects of our lives within the community that are more plastic now because of the COVID crisis. The city did quite well along that theory itself, first with the Al Fresco dining project that we initiated when I was still on council and then with the Move Culver project. Culver City has acted in this way of not letting a good crisis go to waste. The city has done pretty well on that.

With the Culver City Forward study, we've done a tremendous amount of public outreach and met with numerous different groups of civic actors in Culver City to find out what their issues are and how we might solve them going forward. We've come to the end of one part of that study now, and we're ready to publish.

What I'm so excited about is that we're publishing this in a completely new way. We're also going to publish this in a way that is going to be extremely visual. We're building a standalone website for Culver City Bounce Forward that is going to tell this story and examine these issues in a way that's going to use relatively few words. As you scroll down, it's very active, and you can choose different routes.

A big part of the problem I've learned as we've had this very intense period of envisioning, talking, and arguing about the future of Culver City is that the average guy just can't envision it, and so they're afraid of it. To make it more visual will make a big difference. I would like the Culver City Bounce Forward website to be a resource for everybody in the city. When a resident has a problem with the way that they see the Move Culver project happening or they're worried about what it is really going to mean to have four units on single-family lot, we want to have some illustrations of that and how it might be done. We want to show what some of the pathways and scenarios for the future will be visually. It's this new concept of creating a digital model of a city that you can manipulate and change and see how things will work.

What explains Culver City’s political culture that allows for this sophisticated scenario planning?

I think that part of it is that we’re small. People really care about Culver City. They care about this little community that they feel belongs to them, and it does. Now in this national controversy of the right fighting against the left, it's become challenging. Nevertheless, we're all here, close to each other, caring about how the town works and the future of the town. I think that's a big part of why you have a leadership here in Culver City that is so engaged. I can say that across the board, with everyone I've been involved in politics here in Culver City, they have very different ideas about how the problems should be solved and who should solve them, but everyone really wants to solve these problems. It brings a kind of dynamism and a kind of energy to it.

A few other cities in the basin have engaged in similar planning—Pasadena, Santa Monica and West Hollywood—what has Culver City learned from what they've done and not been able to do?

Each of those places is an inspiration to me in many ways. From geographical and other tricks of fate, Culver City happens to be in a really interesting place right now. Santa Monica kind of had a bit of an implosion in its political system over the last few years. It's good to see Rick Cole in such a prominent position where we get to see and hear and understand his ideas and vision even more now with him running the Congress for New Urbanism. We certainly learn a lot from both Santa Monica and West Hollywood, who are in our general region and ahead of us a lot of things. Hopefully, there are things where we can lead them as well. I feel a brotherhood and a sisterhood with those other cities

There have not been very many people n the Culver City political environment who have moved on to higher positions regionally or statewide. I think there's a certain gratitude on the part of many Culver citizens that people have not really been using Culver City as a stepping stone in their own political careers. You can't get away with that here.

Lastly, elaborate on some of Culver City Forward's accomplishments?

I'm really excited about the work that we've done on Ballona Creek. I've been working on trying to improve the vision that I've had for Ballona Creek since before I was in office. What an opportunity there is with this channeled waterway going through the entire city. It could be a gigantic linear park that joins the whole city together that draws people into it instead of separating the city in the way that it does.

There are some issues that we've learned from with the success of the Highline in New York, and we can take advantage of what they've learned there to try to not create problems that have been created by the success of the Highline. At the same time, the creek could be the kind of amenity that the Highline is to New York and also a huge benefit for mobility.

In the past several months, we found new partners on Ballona Creek particularly in the organization, Streets For All with Michael Schneider. That group has adopted the project of extending the bike path to where it was originally intended to go because the bike path stops in Culver City now at national Boulevard at Syd Kronenthal Park, but the creek itself extends all the way up to Cochran in Mid City Los Angeles. That really needs to be connected to the Metro and really needs to have this connection where you can ride your bike all the way to the beach without passing a stoplight or crossing the street. That neighborhood needs a greater access to green space and parks even more than Culver City does. We've been working closely with LA Metro, where I chair the Sustainability Council, the City of LA, Public Works, DOT, Council District 10, and also with Caltrans. When that project can actually be funded and start to extend the bike path, that's going to really kickstart the vision of seeing the creek as what it really can be. Getting the large companies that are that adjacent to it will also be a huge help.

Another project that I'm excited about is with a grassroots advocacy group called Culver City For More Homes. This particular approach is a great way to start. We're talking about changing the rules a little bit for development along the boulevards. Along our major boulevards, particularly along Washington Boulevard and in the Arts District, we have a number of buildings that are single-story buildings that are mostly offices or retail now. The concept is to work with the owners to convert those buildings to three or four-story buildings, which is exactly that missing middle housing that you hear people talking about. We could have three or four stories of relatively inexpensive construction on top of retail and office and be able to fill in the boulevards to what they naturally should look like.

The conclusion I wanted to make is that all of these things lead toward what an opportunity there is for Amazon, Apple, Warner Brothers, AT&T, Tik Tok, Sony, and more to come together in this laboratory and show how we can work together to make a city that works for everybody. A city where the business interests turn out to not be a detriment to the residential population. These companies can be here, and we can love them the way we love the rest of our neighbors.

 

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© 2022 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.