New requirements and more fees aimed at reducing traffic in downtown Santa Monica might be on the way, as the city considers a new direction.
A 300-page plan, released as a draft last year, calls for new fees on developers such as subsidized public transit for residents of new housing complexes and requirements such as retail on the ground floor of new buildings.
Developers aren’t the only ones to be tagged with the proposed mandates. A recent zoning code update means employers in the downtown area will have to ensure that half of their workforce is traveling to and from work by carpool, on foot, by bicycle or via public transportation as part of the plan’s goal to not add car traffic to the already congested environment.
While the changes might or might not reduce the burden on city streets and improve air quality in the seaside city, they do come at a cost.
“In general, it’s safe to say, any type of development or repositioning in Santa Monica is only going to get tougher,” said Jim Jacobsen, founder and partner of Industry Partners, a commercial real estate firm with offices in Santa Monica. “As a brokerage firm, we’ve seen a tremendous amount of tenants willing to leave Santa Monica and go to Playa Vista and Culver City because they’ve done a nice job recruiting them and a nice job of making new amenities Santa Monica has been first with.”
Architects, whose client base is often made up of developers, say they are already seeing signs that some builders are reacting to these latest obligations, especially when adding them to rising construction costs, lack of available land and increasing rental rates.
David Hibbert, principle of DHS Architects in Santa Monica, said his firm gets calls from clients interested in downtown parcels that are up for sale but then the mood changes when the costs of complying with all the regulations are added up.
“Now, they see sites for sale and they call me and we run the numbers and all of a sudden it doesn’t look so good anymore,” he said. “People that we work for are not looking for new sites. We figure at some point the game’s over here, because it’s just gotten to be so expensive.”
The area that would be affected by the proposed rules is bounded by Ocean Avenue, Lincoln and Wilshire boulevards and the 10 freeway, a bustling area that generated $1 billion in taxable sales, according to a 2014 study by business advocacy group Downtown Santa Monica Inc.
But the businesses are also large contributors to the traffic congestion, according to studies done by the city and the advocacy group. They report that 88 percent of the roughly 20,000 people who work in downtown Santa Monica don’t live in the city. Nearly 70 percent commute by car each day.
Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s light-rail service connecting Culver City to Santa Monica is scheduled to start next year. The transit agency is projecting it will have about 43,000 daily riders on the line by 2020.
Santa Monica hangs much of its hope in reducing car traffic on the new station. Some employers say workers are already planning to use it once it goes on line.
Those workers will include a portion of the roughly 146 employees at the Water Grill restaurant at 1401 Ocean, said Brian Buonarti, the eatery’s general manager.
He said many of his employees already either pay to park for $5 a day at nearby lots or take buses or use bikes to get to work.
“It’s not too much of a strain and a lot of people try to find alternative modes,” Buonarti said. “But with the Red Line opening up, employees are looking forward to it.”
But workers at Toyota of Santa Monica at 801 Santa Monica Blvd. are unlikely to use the train, said Mike Sullivan, the owner, although the company would pay for them if they did. The dealership has 350 employees at the site.
His business encourages employees to carpool or bike to and from work, he said, though he finds it only somewhat effective.
“No one is coming asking for that,” Sullivan said. “No one has done a very good job converting anyone to public transit. I wish I was spending more money on it.”
In addition to the proposed parking changes, the plan prioritizes pedestrian-friendly changes, such as wider sidewalks, and requires developers to include ground-level uses that would attract foot traffic.
A similar effort was tried in L.A.’s Silver Lake neighborhood with mixed results.
The so-called “Rowena Road Diet” reduced Rowena Avenue by two lanes to control car volume and add bike lanes in the wake of a 2012 pedestrian traffic fatality. Traffic has slowed and reduced in the area, but neighbors have complained that the effect of the change was to squeeze cars onto nearby residential side streets.
In Santa Monica, the plan asks for more from its employers and residents.
Developers approved for new construction have to pay annually toward funding a not-yet-formed transportation management entity that would help businesses and other entities manage their employees’ alternative transportation routes.
That might come in handy for the numerous hotels in downtown, as they will now be asked to push public transportation and noncar travel to their guests and provide incentives to employees to do the same.
Should the new circulation plan be approved, developers of new projects and employers that move into the city would have to subsidize half of the cost of public transit passes for employees and residents. Large companies or residential complexes must subsidize 100 percent of the cost.
That’s OK, said developer Kevin Farrell, an executive with L.A.-based mixed-use and apartment developer Century West Partners, which has projects under construction in downtown Santa Monica. The company started doing that already, and surveys its residents on how they are traveling.
“We’re on board with all of that,” Farrell said. “Those don’t move the needle for us. We applaud Santa Monica for trying to creatively promote transportation; it’s the way it should be.”