Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Happenings: OVOV's Traffic Fairy Tale & The "Unredeemable"

Imagine a Santa Clarita where the population has doubled, but traffic congestion is about the same as it is today. You don't have to imagine! That's the Santa Clarita that One Valley One Vision will deliver, an SCV where a little street widening, some more bridges, and a new-found tendency to limit car trips and shop close to home means the roadways keep moving smoothly. This promise was part of the Planning Commission's OVOV discussion that occurred from late November 16th into the wee hours of November 17th. Before this most important matter could be discussed, some lesser matters were considered[1]. Briefly:


Bubbles is a bar and restaurant that will be opening in the Vista Valencia Shopping Center. Despite its effervescent name, the establishment will serve a full menu in addition to beer and wine. Associate Planner Patrick LeClair offered far more details about these plans than anyone would consider decent, including a map on which someone had used green dots to indicate every residence from which planners had received one of the 140+ letters regarding Bubbles. Really, there's a person at City Hall who does that--gets comments, locates the address of origin, plots it on a map, and makes that map available for the Planning Commission. They glanced at this map for about three seconds. Anyhow, many local residents were against giving the applicant a permit to serve alcohol because (1)The live entertainment that would accompany the serving of alcohol would be noisy and bother neighbors, (2)There are enough places serving booze in the area already, and (3)Nearby schools mean the under-aged could be run over by drunk drivers. One man said, only half-jokingly, that this would be a step towards having strip clubs and medical marijuana dispensaries in the shopping center.

Despite these protestations, the Planning Commission gave the applicant the OK to serve beer and wine at the restaurant named in honor of the carbon dioxide found in these beverages.


Pity the Verizon guy who stood before the Planning Commission (he actually looked like the Verizon guy (when did those commercials stop?) aged by perhaps two decades). On behalf of his company, he was trying to get a conditional use permit for a wireless telecommunications facility--a cell tower with associated infrastructure. Unfortunately, this tower would go up in association with the ominous black Southern California Edison towers that mar the views of Belcaro residents. Though the tower would be somewhat obscured by the other, bigger towers, it was clear that Belcaro's retired population had had quite enough. Try as he might, the Verizon guy couldn't keep people from conflating his proposed project with the vastly unpopular SoCal Edison project. Commissioner Dee Dee Jacobson said that her heart went out to Belcaro residents: "You are a retirement community that's been hoodwinked by Edison." No one on the Planning Commission could stomach giving the community another eyesore, so staff was directed to continue working with Verizon and Belcaro's residents to look for a better place to locate the tower or a better way to obscure it.


The Seventh Day Adventist Church on Valley Street would like to host a school on their premises. A school operated in the past (1960-1983) as did a temporary religious school until very recently. They proposed accommodating just over 200 students in grades K-8 and pre-school. The pastor, who was pretty snappy for a man of God, said that neighbors were mostly concerned about the noise that would come from having a school in what is essentially their backyard. He said that people who objected to hearing the sounds of children were "unredeemable." (A sign reading, "For thou shalt love the sounds of children, else thou is for the Pit," is rumored to hang in his office.)

Many members of the church voiced their support for the school during the comment period. A smaller number of neighbors came forward to explain their problems with a school. Many were retired or worked from home, and they said that they didn't want to have their peace disturbed. For while the sounds and laughter of children sounds lovely in the abstract, in practice, it means hearing little boys tell fart jokes and little girls gossip about how fat Madison looks and children shrieking and giggling and yelling as children are wont to do. Apart from noise, neighbors objected to having cars dented and windows broken by wayward soccer balls.

Commissioners Ostrom and Jacobson saw this as a "good neighbor problem." Chair Tim Burkhart was disappointed at the "animosity" that existed between the church and its neighbors, an animosity that went both ways. Since noise was the main issue and there was no real solution, the Planning Commission ultimately decided to approve the school on the condition that it submit a yearly plan. This plan will cover things like the timing of recess, lunch, and other regular outdoor activities. It will be discussed with planners and neighbors to see if everyone can agree on whether staggering outdoor time or having it all at once will lead to the least amount of disturbance for the neighborhood.

A ten-minute break followed.

OVOV Continued

At 10:49, Senior Planner Jason Smisko opened the second official discussion of the draft One Valley One Vision general plan. He began by responding to questions raised in October. Smisko had what might be described as a selective memory, addressing three softball questions (e.g., Was there a typo about library square-footage? and How often are general plans made/revised?) in place of the major questions brought up at the prior meeting. Among these bigger, more important questions were: What use are general plans when so many exemptions and exceptions are granted, and can these be capped?; What happens when the SCV runs out of water or landfill space, both of which may occur before build-out?; and Can we be certain that the County of Los Angeles will honor its agreement to maintain open space and low-density developments in exchange for Santa Clarita accepting most of the high-density development? Responses to these topics were vague at best, such as pointing out that technological advances may re-shape the waste disposal question in the future.

Next, Smisko explained the "Significant and Unavoidable Impacts" associated with OVOV. He made the ridiculous point that there would be significant unavoidable impacts regardless of whether the valley saw complete OVOV buildout or whether all development stopped today--as if all significant impacts are of the same sort and magnitude (they're not). Again, these significant unavoidable impacts include loss of agricultural land, noise problems, loss of wildlife habitat, running out of landfill space, contributing to global warming, and air quality issues.

The draft land use element was discussed next. Smisko said that overarching goals included creating a "valley of villages", concentrating denser developments in existing urban areas, and preserving open space around the periphery of the valley. He pointed out that 50% of the planning area was designated as open space. However, the rest of the planning area would see a potential build-out of 155,000 residential units with perhaps 462,000 individuals, about double the 80,500 residential units that exist today.

Senior Traffic Engineer Ian Pari discussed the circulation element of OVOV. He said that it was about more than just cars and had involved looking at how best to develop a multi-modal transportation system. The plan emphasized walkability, a network of bikeways, increased transit availability and use, and reducing the vehicle miles of travel per person. He then described a sophisticated model that projected vehicle traffic under the OVOV scenario. It allowed for a before-and-after comparison of "Level of Service" at major intersections and roadways, which can range from A (free flow of traffic) to F (total gridlock). The model showed that even though there may be twice as many people at full OVOV build-out, they will be driving fewer miles per day, staying closer to home, and using alternative transportation. Thus, the level of service at major intersections and roads stays about the same. Five arterial roads are projected to have an "F" grade because of gridlock at peak hours, but that's the same number of arterial roads that have a Level of Service grade of "F" today.

[Comments: This was, of course, a fairy tale. Roads are going to be widened and there will be five new bridges over the Santa Clara River, but to keep the present level of traffic with twice as many people mostly relies on a change in how often and how far Claritans drive. Expecting this change seems absurd. People drive across town because they prefer Trader Joe's to Whole Foods or because they like the Target in Canyon Country better than the one in Valencia. We all know (or are) people who go miles out of their way to save five-cents on gas or because the coffee is slightly better at a different cafe. The model can assume people will visit the closest shopping centers and behave rationally, but it's just a model built of frail human assumptions. To quote the statistician George Box, "All models are wrong, but some are useful," and this model's main utility is allowing the City to promise traffic won't get worse with twice as many people using the roads.]

With the conclusion of the staff presentation on the land use and circulation elements, it was time for the public to comment.

Former commissioner Diane Trautman said that she had submitted eight pages of comments for the Planning Commission to review. Her main concern was that the circulation element was "a house of cards" that would come crashing down if any of the proposed bridges or road widenings weren't built. Since some of these will be very difficult and expensive, she hoped a more realistic assessment of future traffic scenarios might be made. Lynne Plambeck questioned whether having public comments at midnight on a work night was an effective means of community outreach. (She’s so deadpan that one can miss the hilarity of her rhetorical understatement.) Plambeck brought up the same concerns she had last time about adhering to the general plan instead of granting so many exemptions, whether the County will honor low-density development, etc. Her questions again went unanswered.

Cam Noltemeyer echoed Plambeck more forcefully, saying that putting discussion of OVOV after three other lengthy planning items revealed "arrogance and contempt" for the general public.

Most of the commissioners had relatively limited comments about the elements. Commissioner Ostrom was the exception. His main concern was that property-owners ought to be notified if major changes are coming to their property or the areas surrounding their property. He then lamented the tendency to react rather than plan and voiced concerns about the County of Los Angeles using metaphors based on large animals--"the elephant in the closet" or rather "the dinosaur in the closet [...] feeding on us." "Is the reluctant dragon going to be cooperative?" he asked, thoughtfully.

In response to the fact that the public had to wait until midnight to discuss OVOV, the commission agreed to allow more comments about land use and circulation on December 7th. Commissioner Jacobson made a motion for a 60-day extension during which the public could spend more time reading and assessing the draft OVOV and EIR--it carried.



Linda said...

The city keeps emphasizing that OVOV will cut down on traffic because their "villages" will have all the things people need(including jobs) within walking or biking distance. Aside from the obvious fact that people can't always find what they want or need in their own little village of shops, they never address the issue of parents getting their children to extra-curricular activities or sporting events. Even if a park is only a mile or so away, it's hard to walk or bicycle carrying baseballs, bats, soccer balls, banners, etc. And what about all those grocery bags -- are people expected to make lots of little walking trips to the grocery store so they can fit what they need in one bag? We are a car-oriented culture, and for the majority of residents, everything they need cannot be conveniently located across the street from their homes. And concerning their argument of jobs being located close to home -- what job in a strip mall will support most families' monthly mortgages?

Anonymous said...

The City wants you to believe that traffic will be better under OVOV but it will only be better than an existing combined City and County general plan that has fatal flaws.

Traffic quality will significantly decrease and the City has gone from wanting a "C" level of service under the 1997 General Plan to a "E" level of service under OVOV. While the City will need to build many new roads (something they have a difficult time doing with any sort of timeliness), traffic quality in general will decline between 25 and 33%. SR 14 will be gridlocked at peak periods. The only way around this is to insist on less development and density. This does not appear to be on the City's list of considerations.

Anonymous said...

A couple of things to consider:

While the city staff can propose new or widened roadways, the likelyhood the citizens will back them is debatable. There have been many times over the last twenty years when roads were proposed (for instance, the Cross-Valley Connector) and the public outcry against it was great. The council and planning commission were having meetings about that route in the early 90's. Part of the 20 year delay was due to opposition from people who didn't want the new road close to their homes.

The fact is, few people like change, especially if it will impact their world directly. An example of this is speed humps in residential neighborhoods. People are all for them to slow down traffic on their streets as long as the hump goes in front of their neighbor's house and not their own. The hospital is another example. A larger, more modern facility is greatly needed unless the helicopter pad blocks the view from your back window. Then it seems the best option would be to put another smaller, podunk hospital in Canyon Country (in the interest of looking out for the other guy, of course).

Our city would be better off if we would stop criticizing staff and consider how we might sacrifice our own convenience for our neighbor. What kind of place would this be if any of us loved our neighbors even half as much as we loved ourselves.

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