1681 26th St Papermate RenderingThere is little doubt that the Expo station adjacent Hines mixed use project proposal (at the site of the long shuttered Papermate factory), which has undergone a number of revisions through out it’s years of public process, will receive a hefty share of verbal condemnation from the anti-development advocates in Santa Monica. A lot of organizing has been going on try and block this proposal, or downscale it much further than it already has been.

I have  reservations of my own about the project.  Some of the things I would do differently, like scale back the number of car spaces in the shared use subterranean parking garage, would likely make the project even less palatable to it’s harshest critics. The project, currently about evenly split between office space and housing, is one that I wish had more housing to it. Despite the few reservations of my own, I cannot place myself in the camp of outright opposition, I do in fact want to see the site developed, and I don’t want to see scale of the buildings shrunk down to some pancake.

My own stance on urbanism and environmentalism that has evolved in recent years . Conserving nature requires a certain amount of letting cities be cities, keeping what development we do inward, and kept away from pushing out edges expanding the total footprint of industrial civilization upon the landscape. Lowering our dependency upon voracious rates of oil consumption and high transportation CO2 emissions requires planning new housing and workplaces around our most energy efficient transportation investments, such as the developing light rail system.

As the data emerging from the truncated Expo Line Phase I has shown, rates of driving do in fact drop off quite significantly for many with car access, but the effect is strongest in that immediate walking radius of the stations.

Also informing my view is an expectation that the completed Expo Line to Santa Monica will exceed expectations. Phase 1 has already hit its 2020 ridership projection. Traffic studies, such as the ones on the impact of the Hines development, are often loaded with assumptions that are already eroding, and that I believe will erode further as we progress through the 21st century.

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Overall, driving in the U.S. has broken from the trend of perpetual year over year growth established in the later decades of the 20th century through 2007, and yet many traffic projections continued to project growth, deviating further and further from the reality. This issue recently popped up in a Washington Post story, “The U.S. government keeps predicting we’ll drive more than we actually do“.

There are a lot of variables underlying this trend shift, oil price growth, demographics, culture change, the job market, competition for resources from rising car cultures in other nations, responses to environmental vulnerabilities like climate change . These are multifaceted structural shifts that have already and will continue to frustrate driving growth, strong enough that even if our society continues efforts to encourage and prioritize driving, I firmly believe we will not see the old growth pattern return.

None of this means I think we should just build whatever, or in some unlimited fashion in Santa Monica, but I don’t want to see building halted as some advocate for. In addition to proximity to the new rail, sites that currently have no use at all, such as the shuttered Paper Mate site, are most of all where I want to see most new development. Such development where no existing use is today, can occur without displacement of existing residents or businesses.

While I would prefer a higher proportion of housing given the existing uses in the district, and some planning commissioners did push for that, I’m not convinced any configuration of uses would satisfy the anti-development advocates.

One of my frustrations in reading, following the news, talking directly with some the hardline anti-development locals, is being at a loss for what the real motivation is amongst all the scatter of disjointed and sometimes contradictory talking points. Many say it’s all about the traffic impacts, but many of the so called “slow-growth” or “no-growth” stance, when pressed on matters of pro-automobile growth policies like parking minimum ratios, are staunch defenders, and advocates for more parking structures to attract car trips.

If the project does move forward, I suspect that much like the development at Lincoln Blvd. and Broadway, one of the largest completed in recent years, now populated and with ground floor retail filled, it will make for a vastly improved pedestrian environment than the present condition, and the traffic in the area will be hardly distinguishable from before. Learning from past mistakes, this project is designed to facilitate breaking up the “super block” nature of the site, giving more circulation choices for all modes of travel, including car, with less reliance on the existing street grid. With the Expo Line completed, utilization of the train by those living or working at the Hines development, and existing sites in the area, will be booming, and the Bergamot area generally will be vastly more accessible without a car than it’s currently isolated and automobile centric condition.

If the project does not get built, or held back significantly further, we’ll have a massive shuttered building with pencil thin sidewalks on one side and dirt on the other, directly across from the operating train, and which must be passed to access many of the existing job centers in the district. That would not only be a missed opportunity to utilize the site, but will be to the detriment of safe and inviting access on foot to everything behind it.

I suspect those who’s complaints exist within a narrowly defined windshield perspective have not spent much time walking in the Bergamot area, but I certainly have during a span of about 6 1/2 years working near the Paper Mate site, and living without a car. The existing condition and provisions for walking throughout the Bergamot district is embarrassingly deficient compared to the rest of the city, and redevelopment of neglected sites brings sidewalks up to code or better and can help finance further area improvement.

I just see little basis in reality for the rhetoric that paints this proposal as some shattering end of the world like event for life in Santa Monica. We’ll be fine, and the Bergamot area will be enhanced by new life in place of a long decaying building.