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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.

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