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401 Broadway Proposal In Santa Monica Goes From Car-Free To Robo-Garage
Posted By Gary Kavanagh On June 29, 2012 @ 10:39 am In Parking,Santa Monica,Transit Oriented Development | 23 Comments
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.
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.
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.
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.
Article printed from Streetsblog Los Angeles: http://la.streetsblog.org
URL to article: http://la.streetsblog.org/2012/06/29/401-broadway-proposal-in-santa-monica-goes-from-car-free-to-robo-garage/
URLs in this post:
 started a multiple part series on traffic: http://la.streetsblog.org/2012/06/22/santa-monica-traffic-is-it-really-so-bad-part-1/
 Image: http://la.streetsblog.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/401Broadway.jpg
 Image: http://la.streetsblog.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/401Rendering.jpg
 Curbed LA last December: http://la.curbed.com/archives/2011/12/56_units_and_absolutely_no_parking_at_new_samo_development.php
 Image: http://smbikecenter.com
 new plans that include a subterranean robotic car dispenser: http://www.smdp.com/Articles-local-news-c-2012-06-26-74285.113116-No-parking-model-doesnt-sell.html
 regardless of what the motors run on: http://santamonica.patch.com/articles/alt-car-alternatives
 developer agreement: http://www01.smgov.net/cityclerk/council/agendas/2011/20111213/s2011121307-G.htm
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