Sprawl Repair

Santa Monica is a post-sprawl city, but vestigial remains of its origins are still around. The most obvious are its major commercial boulevards, which offer miles of low-slung, mostly nondescript but often ramshackle commercial buildings, strip and mini-malls, and surface parking lots. This land use pattern is a characteristic of sprawl, in great part because of onsite parking requirements.

The ugliness of sprawl is so commonplace that people take it for granted. It’s another aspect of what John Kenneth Galbraith described as “private affluence and public squalor.”

However, there is one boulevard in Santa Monica that is so degraded that even people who rarely accept the idea that Santa Monica might stand to change for the better in any respect acknowledge its ugliness. I’m speaking, of course, of Lincoln Boulevard from the freeway to the Venice border. (Lincoln is even uglier in Venice, because of the utility poles and because there are even fewer trees than in Santa Monica, but that’s for someone else to write about.)

The urbanist writer James Howard Kunstler, in his great screed, The Geography of Nowhere, coined the word “crudscape” to describe what the roads and highways that lead into cities and towns all across America look like, and crudscape is what Lincoln Boulevard is.

Lincoln Boulevard is so ugly (this is sounding like a Rodney Dangerfield routine) that a few years ago neighbors decided to do something about it. Some of them made a video about what they called “Stinkin’ Lincoln,” the Ocean Park Association set up a committee to look into how Lincoln could be improved, and most eye-opening of all, a young neighbor, Evan Meyer, started persuading businesses to allow artists to paint murals on their walls, in a project first called Beautify Lincoln, but now expanded to Beautify Earth.

The City’s Planning Department got involved, not only in response to all the agitation from the community, but also because of the zoning ordinance update, and now there’s a process, called “The LiNC” (from “Lincoln Neighborhood Corridor”), to remake the boulevard into something you might actually want to take a stroll on. Last Thursday evening the department hosted a workshop to get feedback on the work the department and consultants have done so far. (Materials presented at the workshop can be accessed through the LiNC website, by scrolling down to the section on “Workshops & Milestones.)

There are many reasons that Lincoln is particularly difficult to improve. To begin with, since there are so few north-south routes west of Centinela, it carries a heavy transportation load. At the workshop planners said that vehicle traffic is 50,000 a day and 8,000 riders take the bus. This is not realistically a situation for a “road diet” like Santa Monica has used on other streets, including Ocean Park Boulevard.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the developing plans for Lincoln is the return of the idea to run bus-only lanes during peak hours. The bus lanes would not require the removal of any traffic lanes because they would replace curbside parking; studies show that very few of those spaces are used during peak travel hours. At the workshop last week, and previously in surveys, residents showed strong support for the bus lanes, which would, according to planning staff, drastically improve travel times for buses and thus attract more riders.

While a road diet wouldn’t work at the present time, the City is planning on using landscaped medians to at least make the roadway greener (and in some cases provide “way stations” for pedestrians trying to cross the street). One of the questions staff had for the public last week was whether residents favored more or fewer medians. Nearly everyone at the workshop, including myself, voted for more medians, yet the planners need to be careful not to turn the boulevard into a divided highway. In certain cases, it might be better, where the center turn lane can be eliminated, to use the regained space to widen sidewalks rather than build a median.

Another problem with Lincoln is the narrowness of many of the lots that line it; the effect of narrow lots is that even if the economics of a site would justify the cost of underground parking, it’s often impossible physically to build it. Given the parking requirements, and the lack of any shared parking other than street parking, this means that in many locations it’s practically impossible to build anything new that might improve the boulevard.

Rather than wait for new development that might never happen, the LiNC planners are focusing on developing programs to encourage property owners and businesses to upgrade their current buildings. For the City’s part, planners have identified 48 locations where the City could plant more trees.

Another issue is that because the Ocean Park and Sunset Park neighborhoods, which are on opposite sides of Lincoln, were subdivided separately, few side streets on one side of the boulevard match up with streets on the other side, which means that there are few places where pedestrians can cross. At the workshop last week planners said that the average distance now between crosswalks is 1500 feet—five football fields! They have plans to add crosswalks so that the average distance is half that.

All in all, the ideas the Planning Department presented at the workshop were well received. We in Santa Monica like to celebrate our history. The Lincoln Boulevard crudscape should become it.

Thanks for reading.

4 thoughts on “Sprawl Repair

  1. Pingback: Sprawl Repair | Santa Monica Next

  2. It may very well be that boulevards are only as good as what they’re lined with. Trees are nice, true, but buildings are nicer — eight story buildings; the kind that house people and offices from which neighborhoods arise, from which walking to the corner market or a store is both easy and expedient, from which shade protects us from the searing sun, from which colorful banners and signs are hung, and from which its citizens derive a sense of a thing called “neighborhood.” One of the reasons we seem to love New York is that its many boulevards are lined with buildings of substance. One story buildings won’t do it, nor will two; four story structures such as those springing up in all their architectural splendor along Broadway (not), don’t cut it, either. Even a quick trip to Wilshire and LaBrea will reveal several new 8 story buildings which speak to the rebirth of that neighborhood; they act as a kind of frame for the roadways, defining them with borders and offering a sense of, well, place. Hopefully, these so-called Lincoln planners will take a page out of our neighbor LA’s latest playbook, or for that matter, out of any forward-thinking metropolis’ playbook. Believe it or not, higher density works — the traffic jams, though harrowing, will ultimately result in better public transportation in the form of trolleys and subways; the increased population will improve our tax base and allow for first floor retail operations to actually thrive; and this much-traveled thoroughfare will begin to have an identity as something worth visiting rather than what it is now — a strip of traffic-congested asphalt where you can park easily while waiting for a Slurpee.

    • Doug — I foresee that you’re headed to a career as a would-be urbanist, like me: turn back before it’s too late!

    • Yes, New York City works with high rise buildings, AND an efficient public transit system. LA once had mass transit with Pacific Electric Railroad, starting in 1901. But, the Southern Pacific no longer wanted to deal with passenger service and the “conspiracy” of Chevron (gasoline), Firestone (tires) and GM (buses) led to dismantling the system. CALTrans only understands auto traffic, so don’t expect the “transportation” in its name to address efficient, mass transit. Self guided cars may improve that.

      Until then, gridlock and lousy transit dictates low rise. Build the transit, and they may use it, but the car culture will take generations to change. Good luck on that.

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