Saturday, July 18, 2015

Driven to Distraction

A summer beach day on Pacific Coast Highway in the 1930s. The caption of this 
Security Pacific National Bank Collection photo states: "As the cars sit on the road, a few people are seen enjoying the sun and partaking in beach recreation." Some things never change. Photo: Los Angeles Public Library

Did you hear the one about the traffic consultant for the Park LLC shopping center development in the Malibu Civic Center area who thinks traffic on Pacific Coast Highway has decreased? The punchline of his report wasn’t met so much with laugher as with hoots of derision from the audience when the report was presented to the City of Malibu Planning Commission last month, which earned a reprimand from the commission chair.

That traffic report, and its stand-up-comedian-worthy statistics that claim there has been a decrease instead on an increase in traffic on PCH in recent years and that the proposed new mall will not have a significant impact on PCH traffic, will be part of the debate on Monday at Malibu City Hall, when the City Council hears the controversial Park LLC shopping center development proposal.

A typical summer beach day in 2014. While the population of Malibu has grown only by about a 1000 in the past 25 years, Los Angeles County has expanded from 8.8 million in 1990, to 10 million in 2014, and the number of summer beach visitors in Malibu has increased from 5 million in 1986 to 10 million in 2014. It's hard to reconcile those numbers with the Park LLC shopping center EIR, which found that traffic has decreased in Malibu. 
Photo © 2015 S. Guldimann 

Here's the developers rebuttal in the Environmental Impact Report to numerous criticisms of the traffic study: 

Several comment letters expressed concerns that the traffic counts utilized for the TIA were inadequate in so far as they underestimated baseline traffic counts by 25 percent or more when compared to traffic conditions described in previously prepared TIAs and compared to Caltrans traffic count data. In addition, several comment letters suggested that the traffic counts collected for the Project were inadequate because they show an overall trend of decreasing traffic in the City of Malibu. As a result, a number of comment letters requested the collection of new traffic counts in order to “achieve a more realistic assessment of impacts on Malibu roads.”

A postcard shows PCH in the 1950s, opposite the Malibu Pier, looking east.

Several, eh? There were 167 comment letters from individuals, and traffic was the main concern raised. One begins to understand the discrepancy in the traffic count numbers when the authors of the EIR describe all those comment letters as "several."

Here's another excerpt from the response to the comments:
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The traffic counts used for the Project’s TIA were collected by the City of Malibu in July of 2012 in accordance with the City’s Traffic impact Analysis Guidelines. Two separate traffic counts were collected during the summer period (July 2012), one count on a Thursday and another count on a Saturday. The City decided to collect summer traffic counts after reviewing comments received during the Draft EIR Scoping Meeting (refer to Draft EIR Appendix 1.0) and after reviewing traffic count data previously collected in the City of Malibu traffic over a period of 16 years (1996 to 2012). These counts indicated that summer period traffic volumes and PM peak hour traffic volumes were generally higher than non-summer traffic volumes and AM traffic volumes.

The report provides a table summarizing traffic counts from 1996 to 2011:

Table 1(a) - Cross Creek Road/PCH - Weekday AM Peak Hour Counts

Project Name
AM Peak Hour Volume
City Traffic Counts (Whole Foods)
Thurs., 7/12/2012
La Paz Traffic Counts
Wed., 7/11/2012
City CMP Traffic Counts
Thurs., 3/15/2012
Pepperdine Traffic Counts
Tues., 3/25/2008
Papa Jack's Commercial Traffic Counts
Tues., 5/8/2007
La Paz Traffic Counts
Malibu Bay Company Traffic Counts
Malibu Bay Company Traffic Counts
Non-Summer 1997*
Rancho Malibu Traffic Counts
Wed., 8/21/1996

*Note: The exact traffic count dates were unavailable.

And concludes:

"This relatively small amount of variation in overall intersection traffic count volumes is common. These traffic count volumes were reviewed by City Staff and were considered to be within a reasonable range of tolerance and thus they provide a reasonably accurate representation of baseline traffic conditions."

Beach traffic in the late 160s or early 1970s. This image is one of several historic photos used as  murals on the walls at the Malibu Public Library.

It's disconcerting to think that major development decisions can hinge on a couple of casual traffic studies conducted for a couple of hours on two days, three years ago. Was it sunny or overcast on those two days? Warm or cold? Was there big surf or no surf? If this was a scientific or medical study the results would never pass peer review.

Another vintage image of PCH in the 1930s.  This one is a reminder of just how fragile PCH really  is and how precariously close it is to the ocean.

Much of the debate, including the traffic discussion, has been centered on a certain oversized pachyderm in the room—the presence of a Whole Foods market in the new shopping center.

Although the planning commission heard impassioned testimony from a speaker who said they must have a Malibu Whole Foods because chia seeds are too expensive at Malibu’s existing, family-owned health food store, PC Greens, and although this project has been called “Whole Foods in the Park” and “Whole Foods and the Park” the developer has yet to produce concrete evidence that a Whole Foods store will ever occupy this space.

It sounds nice, but so far there is concrete proof that this shopping center is ever even going to be a Whole Foods...

...And even if it is, in 20 or 50 years it could just as easily become something else. Photo: Disney/Pixar

The Planning Commission pointed out that even if a Whole Foods opens on the site, the decision is about a shopping center and not about a name brand business, because things come and go. 

We’ve had plenty of grocery stores, most of them long gone and forgotten. The first was at Las Flores and only open during the summer months, the second was the Colony Market. Remember the Malibu Market Basket? Mayfair at Point Dume? The Rainbow Grocery? Alexander’s? HOWS?

Remember the Colony and old Trancas markets? How about the Market Basket, Mayfair Market, Alexander's, Howes and the much loved and long lamented Rainbow Grocery, which was housed in the old Ridge Railroad engine shed? Grocery stores come and go. Right now we have four full service markets: Vintage, Pavillions, Ralphs, and PC Greens. Trader Joes in just 9 miles away for Point Dume residents, while Albertsons and Erewhon are 10 miles from central Malibu residents at the top of Malibu Canyon. Many Malibuite are returning to the old Malibu tradition of delivery. That Amazon Fresh truck that delivers anything and everything right to the customer's door is showing up all over Malibu all the time these days. Malibu residents aren't exactly withering away from lack of access to groceries.

The Park LLC is reportedly being funded by Fortress, LLC, one of the largest commercial real estate investment corporations in the world. It’s representative is a powerful man. He was displeased with the Malibu City Council at the July 13 meeting, because the council, in an effort to ensure that there will be sufficient time for everyone to share their thoughts on the project and for making a reasoned decision at a better hour than 3 am, elected to move the hearing to Monday, July 20 at 4 p.m. 

Here’s how the Malibu Times reported the incident

“I’ve seen a lot of your meetings on TV until one o’clock,” [Steve] Soboroff retorted. “People are just trying to stall.”

Soboroff then began to accuse Council of being swayed by an unnamed outside motive.

“What did you learn tonight to make this turn over?” Soboroff asked.

What the council learned was that there were more people at the meeting than could reasonably be accommodated during public comments that night. It wasn’t a conspiracy, it was a reasoned and thoughtful decision to find a time when everyone’s comments can be heard.

It’s a symptom of this kind of “them vs us” mentality that was also exhibited when the developer called for limiting the presentations to one hour each of pro and con. 

Perhaps he’s unaware that some people are neutral and simply wish to ask questions, and that others support elements of the project but may have concerns about aspects like traffic and the request for a variance that would allow the developer to count "green walls," planted presumably with succulents, as open space.

Traffic may be the main concern the the Park shopping center project, but there are other concerns, including the request for a variance that would allow the developer to use "green walls" and trellises" as part of the project's open space requirements. No one is arguing that the property owner has the right to build. The debate is over size, traffic impact, and how well the project fits into the environment and addresses the needs of the community.

Whether Fortress likes it or not, the people of this community have the right and the responsibility to weigh in. Malibu residents are the ones who are going to have to live with the aftermath of this project, long after these investors have moved on. That’s why its so important to take the time to get it right. 

In the 1950s the County had a vision for Malibu that included a freeway, a marina, golf courses, country clubs, and a population of 300,000 people. Projects like the Park LLC seem to be designed for that alternative reality that never happened. 

The reason this part of Malibu is called the Civic Center is part of that alternate reality, too. Here's the architect's rendering for the Malibu Civic Center, which broke ground in 1968. It was intended to house the administration and infrastructure services for that city of 300,000 people that was never built. All that's left today is the library and the name. The former sheriff's station  served briefly as a temporary Malibu City Hall in the early days of cityhood, and is scheduled to become a Santa Monica College Satellite campus, but the courthouse stands empty. This project was built by people who saw what they wanted to see and not what was really there. Photo: 1968 Malibu Business Guide and Directory, published by the Malibu Chamber of Commerce

The reality isn’t a burgeoning resort community of 300,000, it’s a small town with less than 13,000 residents on paper, and only 5000-6000 permanent year round residents. But it's also a town that receives millions of annual visitors, headed to the beach and the mountains that comprise the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

According to the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s Lifeguard Division, beach attendance throughout Los Angeles County has climbed from 27 million in 1967, to nearly 73 million in 2014, with an all-time high of 76 million in 2012. Here are some numbers:

2014: 73,882,107

2013:  71,367,580 

2012: 76.298,601 

2011: 61,542,422

2010: 57,070,425

2009:  70,266,546

2008: 59,636,340

According to statistics presented by the LACFD to the City of Malibu's Safety Commission, in 2013, there was a summer total of 7.4 million visitors at Malibu beaches. In 2014, that number was 10.2 million, and that's just beachgoers, and just during the summer months. It doesn't include Z traffic, or resident road trips, or people headed for the mountain portions of the SMMNRA.

Adding an extra layer of concern to the already complicated traffic equation, sea level rise predictions indicate that this is a community that is ultimately going to shrink, not grow, as sea level rise nibbles away at the edges

This 2009 Pacifica Institute map shows the Civic Center area's current 100-year flood zone (light blue) and the flood zone after the projected sea level rise of coastal base flood + 1.5 meters (dark blue).

That's the Park LLC project site in yellow. If sea level rise predictions are accurate, it may eventual be a Whole Floods.

All the money in the world isn’t going to maintain the Great Wall of Malibu—the beach houses that extend from the Malibu Pier almost all the way to the Santa Monica Pier as the water levels rise, if predictions are accurate. Those predictions are one of the reasons its critically important to make sure the data used to develop traffic plans is accurate. PCH is the lifeline of the community. Anything that impacts this main artery is a serious concern for everyone who uses the highway, not just residents. 

It's hard to understand why anyone would want to built a large shopping center in an historic flood plain, but none of the current batch of developers live in Malibu and perhaps they are unaware that when things go bad they look like this. The image is a clipping from the Malibu Surfside News saved by my mom. Today, that corner location is occupied by MR Chows. In 1979, every shop was three feet deep in mud, despite the fact the Malibu Country Mart isn't in the current 100 year flood plain. My parents' gallery, located in the two-story building next store, fared better, but Cross Creek was transformed into an extension of Malibu Creek, and we had a repeat of this disaster in 1984 and again in 2003.

The Civic Center area is inhabitable now, but sea level projections indicate that in 50-100 years it may require major revetment and drainage measures to remain above water, regardless of whether the Park shopping center houses a Whole Foods or a Buy ‘n’ Large.

The combination of increased traffic and less coastline is a serious issue for Malibu. Any new development needs to adequately address traffic. This project hasn't done that. 

Beach houses were washed into the sea in 1943, and waves reportedly swamped low lying areas of Pacific Coast Highway, washing away sections of concrete, and stranding residents for weeks. With only one major route in and out of many areas, traffic is a serious issue in this community, one that developers seem determined to minimize. Photo: LAPL

Like Madame Pompadour reportedly said as the revolution rose like an angry tide, aprés nous, le deluge—after us, the flood. But while we’re waiting for the waters to rise, it would be nice if the corporate interests could respect and maybe even try to listen to the residents. Who knows, it could be the start of a beautiful friendship, or at least a thoughtful dialogue.

According to the Los Angeles County Fire Department Lifeguard Division, more than 10 million visitors braved PCH traffic last summer for a day at the beach. That doesn't include local traffic, or travelers headed for other destinations. And it doesn't include the other three quarters of the year. Photo © 2015 S. Guldimann 

The reason all those people have been willing to sit in traffic for hours on a summer day is for the opportunity to find peace, tranquility and most importantly, unspoiled beauty at the end of drive. Photo © 2015 S. Guldimann 

Everyone who is concerned about the future of Malibu needs to be at that meeting on Monday and to respectfully and succinctly provide input. But it’s OK to laugh at the project’s traffic consultant, he’s obviously there for comic relief. 

This is Bucket Boy. He stands in Legacy Park with his feet eternally mired in concrete, his back to the ocean, and his eyes fixed on the contents of his bucket instead of on the view of the mountains in front of him. He's the perfect symbol for the kind of single-minded push by outside interests for maximum buildout in Malibu that created the relentlessly ugly office buildings that line PCH from Las Flores to the Malibu Pier and helped fuel the push for cityhood, which we achieved in 1991, so the residents could have a voice in Malibu's future. This city is empower by the community to be the stewards of our natural resources and to ensure that this stretch of coast, the last Spanish land grant, the ancient home of the Chumash people, and the only city located entirely within the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, remains "very near terrestrial paradise." Photo © 2015 S. Guldimann 

1 comment:

  1. You've so eloquently put every bit of critical information in this and managed to marry the various aspects so that it's a wonderful read. Full of facts, history and statistics - so grateful that you have your focus on this and that you are one of my treasured neighbors!