The City Council Tuesday night unanimously voted to send a plan for a City-owned Expo-adjacent site in Downtown Santa Monica back to the drawing board.
The Council called for staff to return in February with a revised plan after expressing concerns that the $8 million interim plan would have turned the parcel between 4th and 5th streets south of the Expo Light Rail terminus at Colorado Avenue into a “bus parking lot” at the expense of pedestrian and bike circulation. The council also said that the plan would have put at risk a more long-term, multi-modal strategy for the area.
“I think creating this, what feels like a very permanent bus parking lot, really troubles me,” said Councilmember Gleam Davis, pointing out that, according to the staff report, the proposed interim plan could occupy the site for up to 10 years.
“I’m not sure 10 years feels all that short term,” she said, a sentiment reiterated by several of her colleagues on the dais Tuesday.
As proposed, the plan would have turned the 86,250 square foot property — formerly the Sears Tire Center — into a bus transfer zone with six bus bays and a shuttle turn-around.
In the plan, there was room for a public restroom and a bike share station in the proposal, but the City Council was concerned with the fact that the plan had all the buses, which will arrive about every five-to-seven minutes during peak hours, shuttles, and “kiss-and-ride” concentrated on 5th Street, which also serves as one of two freeway exits to Downtown Santa Monica.
Santa Monica Mayor Pam O’Connor said the plan reads like the LAX bus transfer station in the Westchester neighborhood of Los Angeles.
“We need to start thinking about the longer term plan is going to be now,” she said, adding that while a bus transfer point may be a good temporary use of the site, $8 million was too high a price tag.
She added, however, that the bus-heavy proposal was in part in response to the Big Blue Bus being pressured to move bus stops out of the Downtown core.
“Big Blue Bus has had pressure from businesses who say, ‘Oh, we don’t want a bus stop in front of our business,’” she said, adding that it would be better for the site and circulation Downtown if the business community was more receptive to bus stops.
Mayor Pro Tempore Terry O’Day said that the plan “looks extremely single-use oriented,” adding, “Sending [the bus traffic] all through that single choke point seems like a real problem to me.”
He pointed out that the location brings buses south of the Expo Light Rail tracks, which, for some routes, is unnecessary.
O’Day suggested opening up the bus yards, across 5th Street from the proposed project, for use as a possible transfer point, but City staff said that would be problematic. City Manager Rod Gould said that the mixing of pedestrians and the high volume of buses going through the yards at peak times was not desirable.
Davis said she was “distressed” by an apparent lack of community outreach done by staff for this plan. “I don’t think it was sunshined with stakeholders enough, with residents and nearby businesses and Downtown Santa Monica,” she said.
Several major stakeholders opposed the plan as proposed, including Kathleen Rawson, CEO of Downtown Santa Monica, Inc., the nonprofit that manages the Downtown district, and Scott Schonfeld, who owns the building directly south of the City-owned parcel.
“Given that the community, stakeholders, design professionals, Planning Commission and City Council have not yet had the opportunity to study the site, its desired uses and potential benefits (including game-changing circulation improvements and world-class public space), it seems premature to spend $8 million (at least $5.4 of which is temporary) on a quasi-permanent solution that prioritizes the needs of BBB over all other modes of transportation,” Schonfeld wrote in a letter to the City Council.
Schonfeld has proposed realigning the freeway exit at 5th Street as part of a future redevelopment of his property. The realignment of the freeway offramp would take most of the vehicle traffic off of 5th Street, allowing for more multi-modal uses along that stretch.
Cynthia Rose, who heads Santa Monica Spoke, the local chapter of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, also voiced concerns with the proposal in a letter to the Council.
“While I will never argue that transit connectivity between Expo and Big Blue Bus is not essential and must be a priority, I also believe it is important that we not lose sight of the long term vision and be inclusive of not only bus circulation but also the pedestrian and bicycle circulation and experience,” she wrote.
“The Expo Station at the 4th Street terminus is our true gateway to the Santa Monica Beach experience and to our downtown for virtually every mode of transportation. I would like council to refocus and expedite on the long term vision and community benefits this site can provide,” Rose wrote.