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USC Expert: Rethink Local Economy:

On October 5, Santa Monica’s Planning Commission heard a presentation from Jennifer Wolch, the Director of the USC Center for Sustainable Cities.

Wolch’s presentation highlighted ways in which Santa Monica can incorporate concepts of sustainability into the revision of its land use and circulation elements of its General Plan.

The land use element delineates the distribution of different types of buildings (housing, business, industry, open space, etc.) while the circulation element sets out the location of existing and proposed roads, highways, and other modes of transportation. The zoning ordinance translates the land use element’s goals and objectives into standards and procedures. They were last updated in 1984.

Wolch opened her presentation by saying that the City’s “General Plan can promote the goals of sustainability” not only in terms of the environment but also in terms of the economy and society, and suggested that the City “rethink the local economy and what it means for land use.”

She went on to say, “Standard local economic approaches emphasize job development and associated tax revenue implications and often when a plan is done it is integrated into that kind of thinking.”

That approach, she said, can lead to “big box retail, auto malls, regional destinations, shopping malls and low-wage tourist related jobs. In Santa Monica, this could lead to the transformation of the City’s industrial district into housing and commercial development.”

In Wolch’s view, a sustainable local economy would be “one that produces locally many of the goods we need and want, minimizes water and energy use, provides living wage jobs with career ladders for local residents, utilizes waste product stocks for future goods, allows people to bike or walk to shop and work and produces minimal pollution.”

Such a local economy would include an “industrial district as a major resource for the development of cutting-edge green industries powered by alternate energy sources such as solar energy. It would also create jobs to stem the tide of driving out people of modest means with minimal chances of upward mobility.”

The ongoing General Plan revision should also force the City “to think about how much and what kind of retail space is allowed downtown.” To Wolch, the City will face risks “if we make the wrong decisions, the City will risk killing neighborhood retail to which residents can walk or bike.”

Wolch also discussed the spaces between buildings such as alleys, parking lots and sidewalks that are usually paved or contain grass. Changes “could lead to more sustainability and have public health benefits.”

She suggested that the City “green” beach dumes that are currently paved for parking to reduce ocean pollution and create more open space.

She also recommended that the city adopt “a native plant palette” for use in City public spaces, non-residential projects, and for distribution to households and nurseries by way of enhancing the City’s habitat value.

She also suggested that the City discourage “super blocks that can’t be permeated by pedestrians, converting alleys to bike paths and permeable greenways, and creating shared streets to create more open space.”

Another area touched upon by Wolch was “getting off the grid.” To do this, she said, developments should be designed to generate their own electricity, recycled water should be used to water all types of landscaping, waterless urinals should be installed in non-residential buildings, more composting should be done locally, and more City solar zones should be established.

In terms of circulation, Wolch said the emphasis should be on “access for people rather than cars.” To accomplish this the City should have more small-scale retail facilities, more parks, more walking and bike paths, additional mass transit and paratransit options, use less land for parking and more for recreation and culture. In addition, the City should place “transit-oriented, affordable residential development along commercial corridors and near the planned Expo light rail line with minimal parking requirements but with plenty of required open space, courtyards and green rooftops.”Finally, Wolch suggested that the General Plan’s performance be monitored “with respect to its initial goals.” To accomplish this, the City should have the research capacity to collect data and track outputs.

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