I concluded last week’s post on the Hines Paper Mate project with a reference to Freud’s phrase, “the narcissism of small differences.” It’s a good phrase.
It seems more and more true that a notable difference between national and local politics is that on the national level, where the parties used to battle for the center so much that critics said that there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between them, differences have become wider and wider, while with local politics people find ever more narrow grounds over which to argue.
Is there any better local example of this than the controversy over the Michigan Avenue Neighborhood Greenway project, known by its nickname of “MANGo”, which City Council will consider tomorrow night?” When this project began, about a year ago, there were fundamental disagreements among residents, some of whom were encouraging the project and others of whom feared it. However, a plan evolved through a productive public process, and it seems that nearly everyone likes 99% of it. But that doesn’t stop folks from furiously disagreeing over the last 1%. (And I’m not sure they disagree even that much.)
I’ve attended most of the community workshops on the project, including the first, which took place in March of last year. The March workshop began with a discussion of the project’s goals. Participants then toured the project area, either on foot or on bikes, to gather impressions of the area and consider what investments in the public realm could make it better.
Drivers use Michigan Avenue and connecting streets, which run through the middle of much of the Pico Neighborhood, to avoid east-west boulevards. The goal of the project is to slow down and reduce this cut-through traffic and turn the streets into linear public spaces that encourage walking, cycling and neighborliness.
At the March workshop some locals were suspicious that MANGo was a gentrification scheme that would disrupt their way of living in their neighborhood. This attitude in the Pico Neighborhood is understandable; as in many working class neighborhoods that arose around industrial corridors (Michigan Avenue was literally “across the tracks” when Santa Monica developed), in Pico, skepticism about governmental action is warranted. It’s not every neighborhood that had the privilege of being ripped apart by a freeway. You can understand why some residents just want to be let alone.
At the same time, neighborhoods like Pico don’t typically get a fair share of public investment, and people who live there know it. The calming and greening of streets has taken place all over Santa Monica in other “advantaged” neighborhoods that have demanded it. I live in Ocean Park, and it was two decades ago that Fourth Street and Ocean Park Boulevards, which were both four-lane roads (they had been widened in the ’50s as part of the Ocean Park Redevelopment Project), were reduced to one lane in each direction. Ocean Park Boulevard recently was “greened.” There has been extensive traffic calming in Sunset Park and also on Santa Monica’s north side.
Santa Monicans have complained for years about traffic flowing through their neighborhoods, and the City has responded to those complaints.
As the MANGo process continued through the year ideas were floated and evaluated. Some proved popular and some were tossed out, and along the way a remarkable consensus emerged. One workshop in particular needs to be mentioned – the “Pop-Up MANGo” that took place September 21. This extended block party featured temporary installations of the kind of features that could be used in the plan. Four hundred people walked or biked through the installations.
I say the consensus was remarkable because it’s not easy to get agreement on traffic circles and bulb-outs, etc. It’s not any easier when people are suspicious from the start. Nonetheless, here we are — I’ve listened to people on both sides of the current argument (namely, bike people on one side and representatives of the Pico Neighborhood Association on the other), and I’ve read their materials, and they all say they agree on all of the plan . . . all of it except one facet that isn’t even part of the plan that the City Council is being asked to approve.
The element that is not part of the plan, but is controversial, is the idea of placing a traffic diverter at the corner of 11th and Michigan that would prevent cars from turning onto Michigan to get to Lincoln. This diverter emerged from the process as a potential tool that could be used if the other MANGo measures did not reduce traffic levels on Michigan to levels that are consistent with a neighborhood street.
I can’t understand why there is such a disagreement. (And I have to say, I know and admire people on both sides of the dispute.) The bicycle folks are not advocating the installation of a diverter. According to a letter to the City Council from the bike group Santa Monica Spoke, the cyclists do not support the “aggressive” implementation of a diverter and the group acknowledges that diverters might never be needed. I’ve talked to the Spoke people, and they know that diverters, which disrupt the flow of the street grid, should only be used as a last resort.
I’ve also heard representatives from the Pico Neighborhood, who support the MANGo plan overall, say that in the future they could conceivably agree that a diverter would be a good idea – but they first want to see what happens with implementation of less drastic measures, and they want to see if changes to the pattern for dropping off students at Samohi make a difference. Sounds reasonable and doesn’t sound much different from what Spoke is saying.
Santa Monica Spoke does have technical disagreement with staff, however, about how many car trips are consistent with a neighborhood street. Staff says that the diverter should be looked into if the currently proposed measures don’t bring daily traffic counts down to 2,000, while Spoke says the number should be 1,500. Staff and Spoke each have their technical sources.
I support the Spoke number, not because any number should be an automatic trigger for implementing a diverter, but because 1,500 car trips is a better goal. Staff and City Council should make it clear that a diverter cannot be added without a public process (i.e., not automatically by staff); assuming they do that, I don’t see how a more stringent standard would hurt anyone.
Thanks for reading.