401 Broadway Proposal In Santa Monica Goes From Car-Free To Robo-Garage

Last week I started a multiple part series on traffic, and the myths that surround it in Santa Monica, promising a part 2. That is still coming, but I am holding it for next week’s column to focus on recent developments concerning what had been proposed as a car-free mixed use apartment building at 401 Broadway.

Google Maps view of existing use at site.

At the northeast corner of the prominent Santa Monica intersection of Fourth Street and Broadway,  sits a small surface parking lot and auto shop on 401 Broadway. It’s certainly not the kind of land use suited for an increasingly pedestrian oriented and urbanizing downtown. The site also features two prominent billboards, a rarity in Santa Monica because it has been illegal to put up any new ones for years. A development proposal from the applicant Steve Henry, Fourth and Broadway, LLC has sought to completely transform this space with 56 apartments and ground floor retail spaces.

What made this proposal truly noteworthy however was what was absent from the plan. Zero car parking spaces were proposed. Yes zero. The unique dimensions of the site, which is prohibitively small for a conventional underground parking garage and ramps, helped drive the decision to go with no car parking. It was a bold move by Southern California standards, but one I feel is entirely viable given the location and ample on site bike parking proposed.

The site is in walking proximity to numerous shops, jobs, and services. Nearby transportation opportunities include the core intersections of numerous Big Blue Bus lines, the future Expo Line Station, and the Santa Monica Bike Center is across the street. If car parking was really needed for temporarily or for guests there are many garages in the area, some of which are underutilized much of the time.

Rendering of project proposal for 401 Broadway

This project first came to my attention reading Curbed LA last December. I was ecstatic to read that not only had a developer proposed something so forward thinking, but that it made it’s way through public approvals, and eventually given the thumbs up by the city council in a developer agreement (or DA for short). The approval of a project without on-site car parking was a testament to how much the public debate and political winds had changed with the passage of the LUCE general plan. There are very few examples of new projects proposed like this anywhere in the United States. This wasn’t just an evolutionary step, but a leap forward. A leap that had given me some hope our society was ready to at least try making buildings again without the cars.

Our Santa Monica weekly column is supported by Bike Center in Santa Monica.

But alas, like many things that sound too good to be true, the original plans were recently shot down in flames, but not by zoning codes, not by the political process, but banks unwilling to take a chance financing it.

The bank rejection first became apparent when the developer came back seeking approval for new plans that include a subterranean robotic car dispenser for parking as reported this week in the Santa Monica Daily Press. An automated system has been proposed because the site is too small for a conventional garage, which is a significant part of why they sought to do without car parking in the first place. Even with an automated system that does not require ramps, the parking system may require digging under the public sidewalk and possibly into the street to make it all fit.

So we went from an inspiring, forward thinking car free project to one with a Frankenstein parking robot. I have to say that despite their space saving over conventional garages, I am skeptical of the long term viability of new automated garage technology, although I’ll hear out anyone disagrees. I wonder what are the ongoing maintenance costs going to be like decades from now? The problem of circulating air humans can survive in is avoided with such a model, but a whole new series of contraptions and moving parts are introduced that will break down and need to be replaced eventually. Of course no matter how you provide space for cars, it raises the cost of maintaining the building over time, and will command rents higher than they otherwise would have been the case.

From what I’ve gathered so far it’s not entirely clear just how over the edge the project was from something the banks would feel comfortable financing. I would hope that the city would still make an effort to try and work out a plan without the parking as originally proposed.

Perhaps a way to make it pencil out would be to drop some of the community benefits that were negotiated during the development agreement process. As far as I am concerned, providing housing and new retail space where there was an ugly surface lot lined with billboards, is itself a community benefit. There are projects and places where I feel costly community benefits are appropriate to ask for, such as mega developments on old industrial superblock sites. Where new public through ways and open space are desperately needed.

But for smaller developments, on smaller sites, with few negative impacts and many positive ones, trying to extract a bunch of goodies risks breaking the financial viability. I think the city needs to more tactfully consider it’s approach to these developer agreements or we risk killing off some of the kinds of developments we want and fit within the framework of new land use goals. The developer went on a limb to go car-free, and asking for a bunch of other stuff ensured rejection would be more likely. Units with car spaces command higher rents, banks know this, but many of the other benefits asked for do not, and count against their interest in financing.

Some of the community benefits asked for in the DA are not insignificant costs to provide, and some could easily be dropped without much of a loss, especially where redundant to nearby facilities. In light of this new automated parking scenario, some of the original asks would also no longer provide a net sustainability benefit. If the end result of all these “community benefits” is to kill off good projects that would benefit the community by simply existing, clearly our process is broken and needs reexamining.

I’m not ready to give up on this project being built as originally proposed. It was quite honestly one of the few things giving me hope that we had started to turn the corner away from a model of urban development based exclusively around mass automobile ownership. Which I frankly consider to be an ecological dead end road, regardless of what the motors run on.

I hope the Santa Monica city staff, planning commission, and city council are prepared to try and work with the developer to hash out a viable plan closer to what had been proposed. Perhaps without all the benefits baggage the banks may be more willing to sign on and take a chance on something new. If it is in fact the case that even without all the additional DA costs, that the banks would still blacklist the project, there isn’t much we could do at that point. But I want to know we at least tried every effort to make it work.

If some space for cars ultimately must be provided to move forward, partnering with a car share service may be one way to provide the convenience of driving for some tenants without their own car, while reducing the total number of car spaces needed to have spaces for every unit. If we move forward with the new proposal, and assuredly higher rents as a result, without a concerted effort to make the original proposal work, it will be another missed opportunity to finally start serving the emerging market of those looking for car free urban living. And we will have missed an opportunity to actually craft a sustainable outcome, and not just pay lip service to the idea.

For the policy wonk inclined, I’ve included some specific items below that are in the developer agreement and my own thoughts on them. If the gritty details are your cup of tea, carry on further.


  • Transportation Coordinator: In addition to a fully comprehensive transportation management plan on par with something a major office tower might provide, the DA calls for an on-site transportation coordinator. Do we really need a full time staff position for a 56 unit building that is predominantly housing just to coordinate transportation management at a site where every effort would be made to attract tenants who do not own cars? There are zero onsite car parking spaces to manage and it’s one of the most obviously transit accessible places in the city. Maybe we could leave google transit and bike maps open in the lobby and call it a day.
  • Employee Shower and Locker Facility: Now I can understand the rationale for this, and it’s becoming a more common feature asked for to accommodate bike commuters coming from further distances. However asking for this here seems to ignore the context of being directly across the intersection corner from the Santa Monica Bike Center. A huge facility which has both lockers, showers and ample long term bike parking. Maybe offering a discount on Bike Center memberships could meet this need without requiring duplicative facilities.
  • Photovoltaic Solar Panels: Adding renewable energy projects in urban areas is a worthy cause, however they don’t come cheap. And the benefits go primarily to the energy users of the building, the tenants in this case, and not the building owner like in a private home. It’s the return for the owner who the banks care about. To make rooftop solar viable, we need to look at ways to make it attractive for with some kind incentive that pays back for the owner, and the bank. Additionally, the PV is being asked as a sustainability benefit, but now we are getting back a robo-garage proposal so that units can charge higher rents with parking attached. If all the power generated by the PV is sucked into pushing cars underground, we have not created any kind of sustainability benefit other than a greenwashing show piece.
  • LEED® Silver Certification: The LEED process adds a number of costs onto the building, just to get the proper verifications, let alone some of the actual building measures necessary to get the required points. In many cases LEED buildings are anything but what might be described as sustainable because the context of how the building is used are not fully accounted for. In his book Green Metropolis, David Owen describes the problem of what he calls “LEED brain”, where the pursuit of LEED points is entirely removed from the tangible results that matter. A project without car parking and ideally positioned to maximize walkbility and transportation alternatives, is inherently miles ahead of many of the things built around Santa Monica with LEED awards attached. We can build green and lean without consultants being brought into to hit a bunch of checkboxes. Nature has no concern for awards, it is only concerned with results.
  • Downtown Transit and Circulation Infrastructure Contribution: This portion is asking for a lump sum of cash to support transportation projects in the area. While many of the ideas floated for what to do with the money are things I support, I feel this is the wrong project to be squeezing for money. By building where it is without car parking, but having bike parking, the site is essentially guaranteeing new transit riders and bicyclists in the area. Higher ridership brings in more revenue return and is a prerequisite in some cases for many kinds of additional grant funding.
  • The full list of contributions asked for in the developer agreement goes on longer quite a bit longer. If you want the full details check out the document here.
  • An automated subterranean garage? Are you sure this isn’t one of Mitt Romney’s new houses? 

  • sbarley

    I don’t understand the dislike of the automated garage.  So what if it has maintenance requirements in the future?  Also, the great thing about a garage is that you don’t have to use it.  But its good to have it around given the reality that almost everyone living in Santa Monica still owns a car, and that if you don’t provide a place to put them, they clog our public parking spaces.

  • sbarley,

    Not everyone in Santa Monica owns a car (I count myself and my wife among them), and certainly 56 people out of the 90,000 already living here, and tens of thousands more who work here but don’t live here but might want, could be found without a car. The applicant specifically indicated it would make every effort to actually attract car free people in the originally proposal.

    Yes a tenant does not have to use a car garage if they don’t need it, but the problem is in most apartment complexes, you still have to have to pay for the cost of providing parking even if you don’t need it, and this is not an insignificant amount.

    I currently live in an older Santa Monica building before parking minimum zoning made 1 and 2 parking spaces per unit ubiquitous, and it rents for a full $100-200 cheaper per month than equivalent units in the area with parking bundled. Parking garages bundled with apartments are essentially a burdensome tax on people without cars from which car free tenants receive no or little benifit.

    I’d have less issue with providing parking if it were the standard that tenants with cars have to pay for their parking separately, and those without cars don’t have to. If you want your parking privilege, don’t make someone else help pay for it for you.

    The issue of people taking up too much street parking could be solved easily if residential parking passes more closely resembled their true value and were not easily handed out. A graduating rate so having mutliple cars costs more to get passes for than a single car, could also discourage using the street as a personal car lot while not overly burdening those just looking for a place for one car. I remember where I use to live there was a man who had 4 vehicules on the street, some of which were not really being used other than to rotate them to avoid street cleaning tickets.

    “So what if it has maintenance requirements in the future?” This is exactly the mentality that has led to decades of mismanagement and short sighted infrastructure investments that are now bankrupting America.

  • Juan Matute

    The goal is for marginal residents to have a far lower propensity for auto ownership than the average resident.  People can still move to new construction in Downtown Santa Monica, but they should bring a bike, a good pair of walking shoes, and a healthy attitude toward transit.  Want to take your car everywhere?  There are plenty of other communities for you.

  • Juan Matute

    I lived in an older building with limited on-site parking in Downtown Santa Monica.  I rented a space in the public lot next door for $83/month.  It was easy.

  • Reducing community benefits probably wouldn’t sway banks- they seem concerned about the risk/nature of the model, not the amount. They are comfortable lending to buildings with parking, just like they used to be comfortable lending to with racially restrictive covenants and comfortable lending to cookie-cutter suburban and exurban subdivisions. The question is how to encourage or require lenders to invest outside the box. Maybe that requires regulation like anti-redlining laws, maybe dialogue between developers and lenders, maybe finding new lenders used to working in higher density/ lower parking cities.

  • Anonymous

    This is an underappreciated problem with our real estate development structure. For example, say you want to build a commercial development. Let’s say you want to build a mall like you would find in many Asian cities, and occasionally in the US in Chinatowns – a multi-floor structure dominated by small shops and vendor booths. And let’s say you’re near transit and want to provide minimal parking, or in a place like downtown SM or downtown LA where there is ample public and garage parking already. And finally let’s say that the city gives you the go ahead. Great, right?

    But the banks will tell you no. Why? You don’t have any “anchor tenants” (read: big box stores) signed up that make the bank feel safe about the loan. And in their minds you don’t have enough parking. There is an entire private apparatus geared towards suburban development that complements poor zoning and tax policies on the public side. There are many good projects that can’t get funding because they don’t fit the banks’ mold of “shopping mall” or “office park” or “tract housing”.

  • This is also preciously why the people afraid that if we removed parking minimums in zoning the sky would fall out and all parking would vanish from projects over night are way off base. There are two forces pushing motoring oriented development, the government and the financiers. And while the banks got burned hard on exurban sprawl forever, they haven’t yet seemed to get behind the remedies of that failure. Without parking minimums enforced I think we might see little shoots here and there of lower parking, but no parking would remain rare for quite some time. Legalizing car-free development doesn’t mean car-free outcomes spring up overnight.

  • zstern

    A couple of questions:  Did this project receive a variance from the city of SM for no parking or were they going to pay the city the opt-out fees?

    Also – is the typical flow to get approval from the public and city council before securing financing?  I thought it was usually the other way around.

    I think it is a good sign that both a) a developer was willing to pitch this and b) the city approved.  The banks will hopefully come around.  Would be nice to see some sort of subsidy or incentive from the government (local, state, or federal) for progressive TODs like this. 

  • Ubrayj02

    If the builders of this project want to go ahead with it, they need to find a private party investor.

    Rents are higher when there is car parking because you need the higher rents to subsidize the extra costs of parking!

    If the idea is to build a building and then sell it as an investment, yeah, parking is going to be important. If the idea is to build a building and then reap rents from it for a long, long time then get away from the losers in big finance and find a local millionaire or billionaire to support your vision, show him or her how it pencils out, and make it happen.

  • True Freedom

    The vast majority of new residents will own and use cars, even if the development does not provide parking. Without sufficient transit density, more residents simply equates to more local miles driven, more pollution, more congestion.
    Look at Tokyo to see sufficient transit density. LA is far way off. Speaking of Japan, they’ve been using robo garages for decades now with great success.

  • Ubrayj02

    “The vast majority of new residents will own and use cars, even if the development does not provide parking.”

    So, let me see if I can get this straight: if we build parking (which will increase the cost of the project and the per unit costs for residents) people will drive cars; if we don’t build parking, people will drive cars.

    Wow, I am amazed. Humans began collecting themselves into cities over 10,000 years ago, traveling mainly on foot and in some cases on animals. Now that the year is 2012, we are incapable of living together without a 3,000 lbs. vehicle?

    Let’s suppose, at some future date, that “the vast majority” of residents don’t, or can’t, own cars and that this project has been built with parking. What will happen to the underground parking lot? It is unproductive space. in fact, it is a huge maintenance liability. Typical parking lot construction using cement and steel rebar is notorious for rotting/rusting away after a few decades. This space will probably be located below the water table and will require lighting and regular cleaning.

    In a contracting economy, which is what I believe we’re in, why build for booms of the past? Your hypothesis is not backed up by human history. This parking lot obsession (similar to Freudian logic of the subconscious desire for incest: if you have incest, this is a sign of the desire and if you don’t you are only suppressing it) is a recent thing, and once it blows over we will still need buildings of quality. We will still need building that add value, without requiring pointless amounts of capital infusion for parking lot maintenance.

    “True Freedom” – I think that doesn’t mean what you think it means.

  • Just because many, or even most new residents might want to bring cars in, doesn’t mean every single thing we build must cater to those people. More people are opting of driving by choice or by economics, and they should have places to live where they aren’t forced into higher rents to heavily subsidize the drivers in their building.

    As for density, many places in the Netherlands and Denmark have less population density than Los Angeles but dramatically lower mode share of driving. Sydney Austrialia is 3/4 as dense as Los Angeles (Santa Monica is above average density for LA County) and yet transit commuting is far higher in Sydney than Los Angeles.

    http://theconversation.edu.au/the-carbon-devil-in-the-detail-on-urban-density-4226

    Density of population is not everything, though it is one component of making alternatives to driving more viable. Extreme examples like Tokyo are hardly required to make more balanced mixes of mode use work.

    As for driving miles, across the US they are already in decline. Miles driven in the US today are less than in 2008 despite population growth since that time. When looked at from a per person basis, the drop is far more dramatic, and when parsed out by age demographics, for millennials the drop is more dramatic still, unprecedented low driving rates not seen in the post-world war II period.

    Given these trends and others, and the outlook for future energy reserves over the next century, I can’t think of anything more foolish than investing our limited money and resources on storing more automobiles.

  • If I understand correctly, the variance that triggered requiring a DA in this case was building height. The proposed height is higher than current zoning allows, but within the framework of the new general plan, however the zoning itself is undergoing it’s rewrite.

    Developments within the downtown Santa Monica parking district can be built without their own onsite parking so long as they contribute to the parking district fee. However this would have been the first instance of an apartment building doing this rather than a purely commercial site.

  • True Freedom

     @GaryKavanagh:disqus Actually, though I didn’t make my point clear, I agree with you in most respects.  Many of the current planners are pushing density as the main method for reducing auto usage.  I argue that given LA’s transit infrastructure, increased density will actually do more harm than good.  We can reduce our reliance on the auto without population density… your examples of the Netherlands and Denmark are examples.  We need to focus on transit infrastructure FIRST… then, and only then, should we look at increasing the population density.  We are doing it bass-ackwards.

  • @ True (or not all that true) Freedom – your recommendation sounds like a prescription for doing nothing and continuing down unsafe car-choked dead end that we’re already on. We don’t have to wait for transit infrastructure to know that the unsafe streets and the excesses of parking are a problem. I suggest stepping away from your car now… and working toward transit, parking reform, safe streets, right now.

  • True Freedom

     @twitter-568304634:disqus : you’re talking with a guy who bike commutes nearly every day, owns ten bikes from beaters to the boutique, has been known to take the train.. even when it took longer and cost more.  However, I’m also a realist.  I realize that the car free life really only works for a small number of people given our current mass transit infrastructure.  My point is that increasing population density IS NOT the cure, that in LA, it’s the disease.  We need to make mass transit an attractive option in it’s own right.. not attractive by making travel by auto worse.  This needs to happen FIRST.. prior to increasing population density.  Those who believe population density is the answer have been greenwashed by the developers.
    (note: in many cases, I do support road reconfiguration… ie road diets, stop to circle conversion, street parking removal for bike lanes, etc.. where appropriate)

  • True,

    I get where you are coming from, but I think your approach is too little too late. Additionally the rising rents in Santa Monica are reflective of a demand to live in more walkable places within SoCal, and if we freeze housing development here, the community will become more and more a privileged class.

    We need concurrent efforts away from auto dependance, and I feel that you underestimate the transit system as it exists. Not to mention the imminent expansion of it’s capacity by the time many proposed developments in Santa Monica would be completed and occupied.

    As it stands just the Big Blue Bus service carries almost as many riders daily as Santa Monica has residents because of it’s broad Westside reach, and Metro serves several routes into Santa Monica as well. If the project were completed tomorrow, which it of course won’t, well before the adjacent Expo stop would be running, it would already be a transit oriented development, because it is smack at the core junctions of the BBB system as well as the LA Metro rapid lines that connect to Santa Monica. BBB has also just rerouted a few lines for better transfers to the existing Culver City Expo stop. My own apartment, well outside the DTSM core, but half a block from Santa Monica Blvd., allows me to walk a few seconds over and catch a BBB #10 to DTLA via the freeway.

    The bike network is also being approved in Santa Monica, and unlike many plans that sit on a shelf, the city has thus far seemed to be quite serious in implementation.

    Given what exists, and what is pending, I am fully confident that a small project without it’s own parking is viable. I don’t think our culture is ready for this everywhere, but this is an exceptional case, and the scale of the site makes loading up underground parking expensive and complicated.

    Given this project has no parking of it’s own, the vast majority of tenets will likely not have cars unless they are willing to pay an additional fee and take time to park at an area garage. This is a strong disincentive toward creating new car trips despite adding housing. If you are so concerned with not making driving worse, how is tacking a parking garage going to help traffic in the downtown?

  • True Freedom

     Hi Gary, Thanks for the thoughtful response. 
    To answer your last question:  I don’t think adding a garage will help traffic.  Adding residents, with or without a garage, will make traffic worse .. is my point.
    I agree there is a transit system that goes places; however, I argue that for most people… it is not an efficient mode of travel for many of the places an Angelino may want to go.  Some trips require many bus/train changes.. and take a prohibitively long time.  I have several friends who live in SM.  They put far more miles on their car than I do living in a low density area of Pasadena.  You are one data point, they are another.  For every new resident that drives a single mile in a car.. that’s one more local mile traveled, one more car causing congestion, one more parking space needed somewhere.  Many of these new residents will drive, which only increases the net amount of local miles driven.
    I hear your point about needing additional housing.  This certainly is a complex problem, and can’t be fully addressed here.  One (of many issues) are the multitude of new jobs being created in the area.  On one hand, that’s good.  On the other, you increase housing demand.  Especially in certain price segements.  Many of these new jobs are being created in high tech (silicon beach), resulting in young reasonably affluent clientele.  This puts pressure on low income and family dwellings. 

  • zstern

     True –

    “Adding residents with or without a garage, will make traffic worse”.  This is a true statement – no doubt about it.  Even if all of these residents never drove, and only walked (extreme example) they would still make traffic worse by using crosswalks more.  If we are simply looking at the marginal effect on traffic of adding residents, it will always be a negative.

    The question then becomes how much worse?  If we build a garage we are promoting car use and the adding of residents will most likely make traffic much worse than if it was built without the garage (less people would drive as much). 

    So I think your point, in completion, should read “adding residents with our without a garage, will make traffic worse, but adding residents without a garage will make traffic less worse”. 

    I say build it without the garage and let the residents decide if the transportation infrastructure is good enough or they will need to rent a private garage.

  • True Freedom

     @ab4a984d948e2877f7d8df5c6fb90ef2:disqus
    :  to take the completion one step further… “adding residents with our without a garage, will make traffic worse,
    but adding residents without a garage will make traffic less worse…. only if a reasonable fraction of the new residents don’t own cars.  Otherwise, there’s a potential they’ll increase traffic by vulturing for street parking, consuming spaces, causing others to vulture as well” :)

    Instead of adding residents without a garage for a “less worse ” result.. why can’t we have the “add no more residents for a strictly no-worse result?”  That’s the option I want to bubble in.

  • zstern

     True –

    I still think that if you build the garage you are guaranteeing traffic will be worse by X percent.  If you don’t build the garage, the negative effect on traffic should be less than X percent.  Some people are not going to buy cars and take street parking.  Also – is there even non-metered street parking near this development?  I am not sure there is much free street parking to vulture.

    Your option of add no residents for zero effect on traffic is definitely an option and would “maintain the status quo” but with job growth in SM and the desirability of this place, I think adding residents is inevitable.  I take adding residents as a given and hope that the residents choose or are given options that encourage use of alternative modes of transport. 

    I do however respect your opinion of adding no residents and it should be an option to be considered and debated.

  • Barbara Filet

    Adding residents impacts traffic less than adding jobs. Commercial developments cause many more trips than housing. Perhaps the city could help finance the deal, although with redevelopment money dried up, there is less money. There must be some creative financing possible. Thanks for bringing this story to our attention.