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Record Crowds Jam Downtown Santa Monica this Summer
Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark
Roque & Mark Real Estate
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Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica


By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

August 23, 2016 -- Between Santa Monica's jammed Twilight Concert Series and the opening of Expo and the Esplanade, downtown this summer has been the most packed in recent history, with gridlock so extensive it has overwhelmed the City's traffic-calming efforts at times, City Manager Rick Cole said.

So, how bad is it out there?

City Hall fielded a call recently from a visitor trapped for an hour in a gridlocked parking garage – only to find more of the same in the streets outside, Cole said, posting August 18 on his City blog, The Long View.

“Our streets are jammed," Cole wrote. "Our traffic professionals say they've never seen this number of people and volume of traffic congestion."

Cole did not include totals for visitors this summer in his blog, and his office said those statistics are not yet available. The blog was inspired both by a new report of significant growth downtown and complaints City Hall is receiving about crowds.

"This has been a summer for the record books," he said.

Cole’s blog said the “strength of Santa Monica’s brand” seemed to attract so many people that “Go with the Flow,” the City’s traffic management program, couldn’t avert the “meltdown” escaped last summer when construction of the Esplanade and reconstruction of the California Incline tore into downtown. To alleviate conngestion Go with the Flow posts traffic officers and other city staff at key intersections every weekend and holidays between Memorial Day and Labor Day from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

This summer, downtown “finally hit the tipping point,” he said.

In reaction, the City is making a long list of changes, mostly expanding “Go with the Flow” with more hours and more trained staff -- including at 5th Street and Colorado Avenue to “deal with gridlock issues across the train tracks,” he said.

The City is also increasing ad buys and other marketing for “GoSaMo,” a $500,000-plus campaign to convince those in downtown to walk, bike, take a bus or an Expo train instead of driving.

“None of these immediate steps will solve traffic in Downtown this summer,” Cole wrote. “But it is vital to reassure both our local residents and our visitors that Santa Monica welcomes them. Already too many local residents are saying, “Nobody goes Downtown anymore, it’s too crowded.”

Still, the record-breaking congestion comes at a particularly sensitive time in Santa Monica. Overcrowding and future building downtown are major issues in the races for four seats on the City Council in the fall.

“It’s the greed factor,” said Armen Melkonians, the head of the slow-growth group Residocracy and one of six challengers to the four council incumbents vying for re-election. “They want more, more, more. But they don’t understand what they’re doing.”

Melkonians also co-authored Measure LV (newly designated) on the ballot, which requires a public vote on most new development of two floors or more, which is nearly all development in the City pipeline. And most of that is downtown.

The measure is being fought as too restrictive by the City Council and the four members up for re-election -- Mayor Tony Vazquez, Ted Winterer, Gleam Davis and Terry O’Day.

At the same time, the City is working to win over critics of its Downtown Community Plan, a long-debated blueprint for Santa Monica development for coming decades. Becoming “multimodal” is key to the City’s efforts to encourage building downtown – particularly apartments – without creating significantly more vehicular traffic, noise and pollution.

Davis denied Melkonians’ claim that financial greed is behind efforts to build more in downtown.

She said “the crowds in downtown Santa Monica are not the result of greed or overdevelopment. People come to our downtown because it is a vibrant, diverse, and beautiful place.”

“As every councilmember is a Santa Monica resident, we each fully understand the negative impact that traffic can have on people living in, working in, and visiting our City,” Davis said. “We are very engaged on the issue and trying hard to address the problem with a range of innovative programs such as GoSaMo that make it easier for residents, workers, and visitors to forego driving cars to and in Santa Monica. “

Winterer said he also understands frustrations over congestion, and personally deals with them by biking or riding the bus – although, he said, “those are not options that work for everyone.”

“We'll look at enhancing mobility in our Downtown Community Plan, but the challenge is formidable,” Winterer said. “Since one contributor to downtown traffic is the ongoing economic recovery -- traffic was much better during the Great Recession -- I believe we should rethink efforts to attract visitors and take a hard look at marketing efforts and events like the Pier concerts. And since we're joined at the hip with Los Angeles we need to continue to pursue regional solutions to congestion."

Santa Monica’s downtown is one of the nation’s a top tourist spots. The 3rd Street Promenade attracts an estimated 16 million annually alone. Cole said the Santa Monica Pier is the world’s 8th-most “Instagrammed” location.

In his blog, Cole said the City had planned ahead for the crowds predicted this summer. It launched "Breeze" in November, of 2015, a $10 million bike-share program and the first of its kind in the region.

The City also installed a dozen new pedestrian scramble intersections downtown, revamped all Big Blue Bus routes to mesh with Expo and “capitalized on the regional buzz around the Expo opening” with “GoSaMo.”

“All these innovations have ushered in a new era of shared mobility in Downtown Santa Monic,” Cole said. “But all this innovation still wasn’t enough.”

The City’s stepped-up efforts are expanding “Go with the Flow” to Thursday evenings from 5:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., when as many as 35,000 concert-goers pile into downtown for the Twilight series at the Santa Monica Pier.

The concerts started July 7 and end September 8. They are so popular now that most of the crowd spills across the beach. The Pier’s deck capacity is only 4,500.

Cole said the “Go with the Flow” hours are also being expanded during the weekend.

He said the City is also talking with developers of hotels under construction near Expo to re-open Colorado from Thursday through Sunday evenings. Completion isn’t scheduled until the fall.

In addition, the City is blocking left turns out of the parking structures on 2nd and 4th Streets and painting new right hand turn pockets on northbound 2nd Street, he said.

Meanwhile, Expo is “adding cars every week and later this fall will be offering trains every six minutes during peak times,” he wrote.

Expo trains now run every 12 minutes.

The City has started offering $3 parking at Lot 4 on the beach to divert traffic away from the Pier, Cole said. Westbound Colorado will be closed from Main Street to relieve congestion at Ocean and Colorado.

“Ultimately the answer is not to make it easier to drive and park in Downtown – it is to make it easier to use all the other options we are promoting with our GoSaMo efforts,” he said. “But right now, the one thing we can't do is do nothing.”

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