Some refreshing new views have emerged in the continuing debate on what to do about the increasing traffic congestion on the Westside.
It appears that no longer are communities there accepting the usual knee-jerk reaction to the traffic by Caltrans and other agencies of street widenings and more street widenings.
Out of obvious frustration with parochial bureaucracies, the communities are beginning to question the widenings in terms of whether they are consistent with proper land-use planning, if not common sense, and the effect they might have on the local quality of life.
Reaction to Study
In short, they are asking whether there is more to living in Los Angeles than just being able to drive with relative ease to and from work, shopping and the beaches; whether such communities as Westwood, Brentwood, Pacific Palisades and the cities of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills are more than backlot facades mounted along boulevards to serve as decorated sound walls?
These concerns emerged in recent weeks as communities reacted to the release of a two-year Caltrans study of what could be done to improve the traffic flow along an impacted Santa Monica Boulevard, particularly between the San Diego Freeway and Fairfax Avenue.
The study leans very much toward widenings, declaring that they "would not significantly affect neighborhoods or community cohesion." If a tunnel Beverly Hills has urged within its boundaries is included, the project's estimated price tag would be an immodest $254 million.
Better Use of Funds
While Beverly Hills has disputed the estimates--it says the cost with the tunnel would be about $100 million less--the thought of spending that amount of funds so cars might traverse the Westside a few miles faster than at present makes one gasp. The way it throws around tax revenues, you would think Caltrans was the defense department.
As Alex Man commented at a public hearing on the study last week, those funds, or just a portion of them, could be much better spent on mass transit projects. Representing the local chapter of the Sierra Club, Man called for improved bus service and better traffic management, including establishing bus lanes and enforcing no-parking regulations.
A member also of the Pacific Palisades Residents Assn. and the Sunset Scenic Safety Committee, the indefatigable Man also has been protesting proposed road widenings in the Brentwood and Pacific Palisades areas. He has argued with proper passion that widenings do not relieve traffic, but rather attract more cars, while irreparably damaging the environment and further disrupting communities.
Others at the hearing expressed concern that the widening along Santa Monica Boulevard also would encourage more heedless office development. And they pointed out that if the boulevard is just widened to Fairfax Avenue, it would most likely create a bottleneck there, with traffic spilling over onto local streets and prompting proposals for more widenings.
"When does the widening stop?" asked West Hollywood Mayor John Heilman.
It was a question that even if they tried, the representatives of Caltrans, and similarly focused agencies as the city's Transportation Department, could not really answer, for such projects are their bread and butter. Perhaps if there was an equally weighted and powerful pedestrian, or neighborhood preservation department, our communities would have a better chance in the bureaucratic battles.
Role as Main Street
Heilman also raised the issue of the effect of the widening on his community's quality of life, adding that it was time to worry less about the boulevard's role as a thoroughfare and the convenience of drivers and more about its role as West Hollywood's main street and the people, like himself, who "work, live, shop and play" there.
Continuing the theme that the street should be a community resource, Laura Lake of the Friends of Westwood suggested that the unsightly section of abandoned railroad tracks bordering Santa Monica Boulevard between Sepulveda Boulevard and Century Park West be developed as a strip park, replete with a bikeway, a jogging path, sitting areas, "tot lots" and landscaping.
The park plan, drafted for the volunteer group by the architectural firm of Appleton & Associates, was a refreshing demonstration that communities need not always be defensive, and could with imagination put things in their proper perspective and propose something positive.
Strip Park Idea
Considering the controversy any widening on the Westside provokes and that Caltrans has other "needy" projects elsewhere, it is apparent that the proposed widening of Santa Monica Boulevard will be filed deep in some cabinet downtown. So much for all the sound and fury of the recent public hearings, as well as the work that went into the study.
However, the study did prompt communities to think about how they might protect and actually improve their local landscapes. The strip park is an idea that deserves to be seeded and cultivated, to serve the immediate community and as a demonstration for other communities.
Perhaps the "traffic mitigation" funds sought from developers in the Westwood area would be better spent on such a park than on yet more street widenings. Certainly, it would ease the visual pollution that employees working in all the new office buildings there must endure when stuck in traffic on Santa Monica Boulevard.
Given the mood of communities these days, drivers may just have to begin to change their commuting habits, consider car pooling, staggered hours and mass transit. Maybe some might even use the bike or jogging paths proposed by the Friends of Westwood.