Santa Monica plans for downtown’s future by making less room for cars

By Beige Luciano-Adams

The Downtown Community Plan. It was bound to get a little ugly.

With a final vote at City Council next Tuesday, both sides have had their say — community and slow growth groups on one side, the increasingly ubiquitous alliance of business, labor and transit activists on the other.

Weighing breakthrough affordable housing gains against what he sees as too-slippery a grip on density and height, public transportation advocate Denny Zane gives the city’s efforts “a solid B.”

“Ocean Avenue and some other densities around downtown were higher than I would want, but I’m not freaking out,” said Zane, director of the countywide transit working group Move LA. Shifting parking from Fourth Street to Fifth Street will liberate current “dead zones” on Fourth that are hampering pedestrian use, he said, while streamlining larger projects with affordable housing components will help deter traffic-causing commercial office space.

As for parking, the really big news is that the city will eliminate minimum parking requirements for new developments and halve parking maximums. And not everyone’s happy about that.

In a letter to the council, former and soon-to-be-again resident Cosmo Bua alleges that affordable housing is being used as a “sacred cow” to fast-track “projects which provide very little of it” at the expense of residents who have repeatedly called for more green, open space.

Shifting parking — instead of a park — to Fourth and Arizona, Bua says, is a “slap in the face.”

And as to forcing a shift in the traffic paradigm: “wishful thinking.”

Parking isn’t Bua’s big issue, but he ponders there isn’t enough parking downtown as it is. Santa Monica, he says, “is important to the entire region … You have especially low-income people coming to survive the awful basin weather we have much of the year — and the smog.”

Ah, but this is where it gets interesting: when both sides take up the mantle of “The People.” Funny how the marginalized “other” becomes so rhetorically popular in a war over the most expensive patch of dirt.

“What is really striking to me is that we take for granted free parking … instead of this highly classed subsidy of people who own cars, at the expense of people who don’t. Take a look at the status quo and realize how unjust and environmentally unsustainable it is,” said Santa Monica City Manager Rick Cole while breaking down the city’s plan to “let the market decide” parking availability downtown.

“Yes, it will be an adjustment — but, by the way, in order to make cities successful for the automobile … millions of black and brown people were thrown out of their homes without just compensation in hundreds of cities in America, herded into miserable public housing skyscrapers that were rat- and crime- and gang- and drug-infested,” Cole said.

“We’re talking about making it a little harder for people to find convenient and free parking spaces and putting more into public transit. Let’s take a look into what sacrifices cities were willing to make to impose the car … against modest proposals to rebalance our societies.”

Where Santa Monica was once a leader in herding drivers into central parking structures so they can park once to visit multiple destinations, Cole says it’s now time to shift away from automobile-centric planning.

The loudest critics, Cole surmises, are those well-served by the status quo.

“The people we’re hearing from have every right to stand up for their own interests. But part of the job of government is not just to listen to those most likely to be heard but also think about folks least likely to be. And the biggest group we don’t hear from aren’t here yet: the next generation,” he said.