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The $4 Million Facelift:

We were astonished to learn at last week’s City Council meeting that the City was preparing to spend $4 million to “improve the pedestrian experience” on Second and Fourth Streets in downtown Santa Monica.

In the last two decades or so, we have come to know those streets well, and, on our last foray, several days before the meeting, we did not notice any untoward decline in the “pedestrian experience.”

Had some disaster occurred in the interim? Had a very selective earthquake rippled the sidewalks? Had the roots of the Ficus trees that line the streets suddenly burst through the cement and made the sidewalks impassable? Had the streets been seized by aliens?

The day after the Council meeting, we checked the streets out and found them to be intact, orderly and as pleasant as ever. There were no discernible ripples, no roots snapping at shoppers’ ankles, no aliens – just a pair of classic Santa Monica streets.

We turned to the staff report for an explanation.

As it happens, the “Schematic Design Elements for the 2nd and 4th Street Pedestrian and Streescape Improvement Project” aka “The Pedestrian Extension to the Downtown Transit Mall,” is just one more step in City Hall’s endless campaign to reduce this singular beach town to a trendy cliché.

According to the report, “The Project consists of eight blocks of pedestrian and streetscape improvements along 2nd and 4th Streets between Wilshire Boulevard and Colorado Avenue.

“These improvements were identified as a third phase in the Downtown Urban Design Plan adopted in 1997…The project scope included new closely-spaced pedestrian lighting to illuminate the sidewalks, replacement of every other street tree, and other possible streetscape amenities. Subsequently, mid-block crosswalks were added to the scope of the project.

“The project is intended to further enhance the pedestrian environment within the downtown area, encourage pedestrian circulation beyond the 3rd Street Promenade and improve the pedestrian experience for the patrons of the many transit lines that run through downtown.”

The Report goes on to say that the new streetlights will “provide a warmer quality of light,” and that replacing every other Ficus tree with a pair of Ginko biloba trees, which, unlike the Ficus trees, are deciduous, will “provide dappled light most of the year and direct light in the winter, as well as increased visibility to and from the many interesting building frontages.”

The project will also add the ever-popular “landscaped curb extensions at the six midblock crosswalks on 2nd and 4th Streets…[to] provide greater visibility and shorten the exposure at pedestrians to traffic while crossing the streets…Curb extensions on both sides of 2nd Street in the existing red curb area would be no wider than the parking lane On 4th Street curb extensions would be limited to the east side of the street since there is no parking on the west side….they would not impede traffic flow or bicyclists…sculptural lighting elements near the pedestrian entrances to parking structures and at the mid-block crosswalks [would] provide strong identity for these focal points…Uplighting the branching area of the Ficus trees has been explored as a way to feature the sculptural nature of the trees and add atmosphere to the Streets.”

And it’ll only cost $4 million to install, and $61,300 a year to maintain. When the project cost was questioned at the Council, a City staff member said happily that half of the $4 million would be paid by MTA.

There are any number of things that Santa Monica needs – including an “enhanced” motorist environment in downtown Santa Monica. Among the things it doesn’t need is a $4 million “enhanced pedestrian environment” on those blocks, or any other blocks, and, we’ll wager, there are literally thousands of other blocks on the MTA line that are in dire need of “improvements.”

But the cost isn’t the only dumb thing about the project with the very long name and very large flaws.

For starts, the $15 million Transit Mall, which was meant to “calm” traffic in the downtown area has actually exacerbated it, and should be undone, not “extended.”

In addition, the notion of removing dozens of large, healthy Ficus trees, and replacing them with deciduous Ghinko trees, which will shed their leaves every fall, at a cost of over $750,000, is not merely foolish, it’s an obscene waste of money and trees.

City Hall prattles endlessly about our “urban forest,” even as it decimates it. Indeed, if accuracy counted for anything in City Hall, the City “arborist” would be called the City Logger.

Does anyone in City Hall remember how happy Pico Boulevard residents and neighbors were when dozens of evergreen trees were ripped out and replaced by dozens of deciduous trees, and a number of extended curbs were installed, snarling traffic and making biking a contact sport?

The folly of spending $4 million on a minor sidewalk facelift and the barbaric destruction of dozens of healthy trees is compounded by City Hall’s bizarre belief that our streets are mere stage sets, backdrops that can be changed at will to reflect its imperatives, however questionable.

As ever, its primary imperative is revenue, not pedestrians’ well-being. The City, along with some Second and Fourth Street merchants and property owners, wants to expand the Third Street money mill by “encourag[ing] pedestrian circulation beyond the…Promenade.”

After the City transformed the serene, “pedestrian friendly” Third Street mall into a frenzied marketplace rents soared, City revenue rose and locally owned, idiosyncratic shops were squeezed out and replaced by the haut schlock big box chain stores that are everywhere now. In that way, a real street was reduced to a ride. Unsatisfied, the City now wants to extend the ride.

But Second and Fourth Streets each has its own distinctive character, and will be harder to reduce. They are the “before” to the Promenade’s “after,” what downtown Santa Monica was before the City Hall set designers began tricking things up – a place where residents went to do business, shop and eat. They are real streets, with real histories, and are less susceptible to change than Third Street was.

Santa Monica Place occupies two of the eight blocks. City parking structures are located on four of the eight blocks. Both of the streets are dominated by large buildings – banks, office and apartment buildings, hotels, a church, and big-box stores, but they also have a sizable complement of vital and irreplaceable enterprises – Harvelle’s blues parlor, Laemmle’s movie theater, Ye Old King’s Head pub, the oldest building in the city, SMC’s Emeritus College Art Gallery, the NRDC building that is arguably the greenest building in America, Santa Monica Playhouse, and coveys of unusual shops and good restaurants.

Contrary to the City’s Report, the Ficus trees do not make the sidewalks “dark,” they simply soften the prospect, and we see no practical or aesthetic advantage in “uplighting the branching area of the Ficus trees…to feature the sculptural nature of the trees and add atmosphere to the street.”

The trees are trees, not sculptures, and these streets have plenty of “atmosphere.”

Perhaps the most perilous effect of this mindless $4 million facelift is that it would send a signal that the City was putting the streets in play, which would be the beginning of the end of these streets, and what’s left of downtown Santa Monica.

The sequence is familiar. We’ve been watching it for two decades, and it’s wreaked havoc in this old beach town.

And what’s the rush? The redevelopment of Santa Monica Place is on hold, owing to the entrance of the Federated into the mix. City Hall has yet to define the “community vision” for downtown Santa Monica it promised over a year ago. The revision of the General Plan is in the works.When this project returns to the Council, we hope someone has the sense to slap it down.

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