Monday, April 27, 2009

My Earth Day

It had been a carbon-intensive couple of weeks – those two weeks leading up to the Earth Day celebration in Ventura. Between Friday, April 3rd, and Wednesday, April 15th, I drove back and forth to San Diego, then took Metrolink to Los Angeles and back, then drove to downtown Los Angeles and then out by LAX and then back, then driven out to Ontario and Upland and back, then out to Riverside and back. So as Earth Day approached, it was pretty clear that I had to turn down the volume on my “carbon footprint” or else I was in big trouble.

There are a lot of factors that affect your carbon footprint, but the biggest one is traveling in vehicles that burn fossil fuels. Driving increases your carbon footprint significantly (buses and trains less so, but that’s still fossil fuel being burned). Our new state regulations for greenhouse gas emissions are promoting the idea that every household in California should only drive about 14,000 miles a year – that’s less than 300 a week, or a little over 40 a day. Yikes. And the experts will tell you that flying in an airplane balloons your footprint more than anything else. Double yikes.

I got serious about this on Thursday, April 16th. I had to go to Los Angeles and back again. This time, I took Metrolink again to Downtown L.A., where I had an appointment. Then I took the Red Line to connect up with a shuttle bus down to the University of Southern California, where I bummed a ride back to Ventura – in a Prius that had a total of five people in it. So far so good.

On Friday the 17th, I drove to work from my house near Ventura High School, met some friends downtown, and drove back to my house. Grand total: 5 miles. In my Prius.

Then I got serious. On Saturday the 18th, I wanted to go to the beach cleanup and the Ecofestival, both down along the Promenade. I managed to ride my bike. I decided not to go to the market – I ate out of my freezer instead – and I was too lazy to drive over to Mavericks Gym to work out, even though I intended to. I did drive back downtown to meet a friend for a drink. Two more miles, for a total of seven in two days.

Sunday the 19th: Again too lazy to go to the gym. Rode my bike over to the Midtown Earth Day event near my house. Drove to the office to catch up on some work, then home. More freezer food. Four miles – and 11 miles total in three days. Though, admittedly, I was chewing up frozen food assets to avoid driving to the market.

Then came Monday the 20th, and it began to get a little trickier. My typical Monday schedule is: go to work, then have lunch with Mayor Christy Weir and a couple of city folks, return to work for a little while. After that, prep for the City Council meeting by going to Mavericks for an intense workout (only way I can sit still on Monday nights), then back home for a nap before heading over to City Hall for the Council meeting, which starts at 6 (or 5 if we have a closed session to discuss litigation or personnel matters).

So I rode my bike to work, then walked to lunch, then walked back to the office, and rode my bike home. I was determined not to drive out to the gym, so I rode my bike around Midtown doing errands – the dry cleaners (dropoff, not pickup), the bike store, the bank, and the shoe repair store. All surprisingly easy. A touch over a half-hour altogether.

This allowed me to persuade myself that I didn’t need to go to the gym. So I took a nap and reviewed the council material, then took good old Gold Coast Transit Route 6 down Main Street, had a brief dinner in the back room at City Hall, and then sat in my chair on the dais for seven hours while the Council dealt with a variety of lengthy issues, including Wal-Mart.

As of 1 a.m., I had driven zero miles that day, and only 11 for a 4-day period. But I was at City Hall with no ride home. So I bummed a ride with Rick Cole, the City Manager, who lives near me – which reminded me that bumming rides is an essential component of lowering your carbon footprint. (At least he has a hybrid car too, but still, I’m mooching off of his carbon footprint.)

Tuesday the 21st – the day before the official Earth Day – was the day it all began to unravel. I had fretted about this one for a while, because I had a meeting downtown at 7 p.m. Should I take the bus or ride my bike to work and then walk to the meeting and walk home? Should I just drive? I tossed and turned the night before.

I finally decided to ride my bike to work, then walk to a series of two meetings in the late afternoon at City Hall, then walk back to the office – and after that I wasn’t sure, except I didn’t have my car with me. I would get back home somehow.

Everything went fine until I got to City Hall at 4 o’clock, when I realized that the two meetings were not at City Hall, as I had thought, but at the Chamber of Commerce office on Victoria near Telephone. I panicked, but Rick Cole again bailed me out by giving me a ride. I met him down at Ben & Jerry’s, where he was joining his kids on free ice cream cone day. I had a cone, thus regretting my missed trips to the gym, and then we drove out to the Chamber – arriving just in time for me to miss almost all of the first meeting.

Then the second meeting started – a planning meeting for the joint City Council-Chamber of Commerce economic summit scheduled for this upcoming Saturday, May 2nd, at 9 a.m. When it started, we realized that we were planning what was going to happen at an official City Council meeting, and there were four council members in the room (Mayor Weir, Ed Summers ,Jim Monahan, and me) – a majority. This held the potential to violate the Brown Act, the state’s open meetings law, so I stepped out of the meeting.

And had no way to get back downtown until that meeting broke up.

I fiddled around checking email for a few minutes, then went over to the Ventura County Transportation Commission next door, where I informed Darren Kettle, the executive director, that he had little choice but to give me an unscheduled briefing on what was going on. We shot the breeze till around 5:30, when I went back to the Chamber and bummed yet another ride with Rick Cole.

I was still fretting about how to get from my night meeting to home without a car when I realized Rick was getting off the freeway not at California but at Seaward. He was going not to City Hall but home. When he dropped me off at my house, the situation was that although I had driven no miles that day, now my car was at home, my bike was at the office – and I had a meeting elsewhere downtown at 7.

Now I had to make a choice. Do I drive back downtown? Do I leave the bike at the office and ride it home tomorrow? That lead to the second thing I was fretting about – the fact that I had another meeting out on Victoria the next afternoon (a very busy day) and I didn’t think I had the time – or the inclination – to ride my bike out there and back.

In the end, I drove to the office, put the bike in the back of the car (which required taking the front wheel off), drove home, unloaded the bike, drove back downtown for my meeting, and drove home. Seven miles – bringing my four-day total to 18.

The next day – Wednesday, April 22nd, the actual Earth Day – I stopped worrying about things. I drove to work, drove out to my meeting on Victoria, drove back to the office, and drove home. That was 16 miles, almost doubling my total for the week.

Still, 34 miles driven, one bus ride, and three bummed car rides is pretty good for a five-day total. Which was a good things because of what happened the nexy day, Thursday the 23rd. I began by going to the cleaners and the bank (cleaning too bulky to carry on a bike), then driving to a meeting at the Harbor (about seven miles total), then back to the office (about six more miles). Then I drove to USC to teach my urban planning class (about 70 miles, but there was a traffic jam and I outsmarted myself in the traffic jam by trying a workaround which failed, adding five more miles). After that, I drove to LAX (another 12 miles) and flew to Oakland.

At 10:30 that night I was standing outside the Oakland Airport facing the possibility of riding a bus to the BART station, then BART to Berkeley, and then walking a half-mile to my hotel at 11:30 at night in order to keep my carbon footprint down. But I'd already put in a hundred miles of driving and one airplane flight in a single day, so my carbon footprint was already blown.

That was when I decided Earth Day was over and hailed a cab.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Victoria Avenue and Wal-Mart

Last Monday night, the City Council adopted the long-awaited new Victoria Corridor Plan and Code. The intent of this code – which covers property along Victoria between the 126 and 101 Freeways – is to encourage a long-term transition along Victoria toward high-quality office uses.

In laying down the rules for this new generation of development, the code also seeks to move Victoria toward better urban design – so that the people who work in these office jobs can walk from one building to another, or to nearby retail, in a pleasant environment. The idea is to encourage high-end office-based businesses to move to – or stay in – the Victoria setting.

All these goals are in our General Plan, which the City Council adopted in 2005. Part of the impetus is to ensure that the Victoria corridor in the future can compete with the towers in Oxnard for high-end office tenants – an enormously important issue, in my opinion. But this larger concern has, of course, have been overshadowed by the Wal-Mart issue.

Wal-Mart has a lease on the old Kmart site by Trader Joe’s and currently has a propose to occupy the old building that housed Kmart and other businesses – 130,000 square feet in all. In the end, the council held the line by limiting individual stores to 100,000 square feet – but also permitted modernization, including new loading docks, for existing buildings.

This means Wal-Mart will be able to move into the old Kmart store if the giant retailer is willing to reduce its store footprint to 100 000 square feet.

Even though most of the discussion about the modernization issues was about Wal-Mart, there’s a larger issue here: how much is the city willing to push the owners of retail land to get them to redevelop their property over the next 10 to 20 years? The answer, thanks to the modernization rules adopted Monday night, is not much.

I voted for the code and against the modernization rules. My rationale for voting against the modernization rules had largely to do with Wal-Mart. In my opinion, if the largest retailer in the world wants to come into Ventura, we should hold them to a very high standard. The modernization rules lowered the bar for Wal-Mart.

In explaining my reasoning on this issue, let me begin by saying that, although I don’t much like Wal-Mart, I like the idea of using land use regulations to keep Wal-Mart out of town even less.

People don’t like Wal-Mart for many reasons, but most of the criticism that we heard Monday night – as we have heard for the last three years – has to do with their labor practices. Much of the opposition to Wal-Mart comes from people who fear that the company’s presence in Ventura will undercut unionized chain supermarkets such as Vons and Ralphs, which pay more than non-unionized Wal-Mart.

Throughout California, these folks have attempted to use land use regulation to keep Wal-Mart out of town. In some cases (like Los Angeles), this has worked. In other cases (like Atascadero) this hasn’t worked. And looming over this whole issue in Ventura is the fact that the anti-Wal-Mart forces have qualified an initiative for the ballot in November. This initiative would not keep Wal-Mart out of town, but it would prohibit any retail business of more than 90,000 square feet from selling groceries. In general, I think it's very difficult to try to use land-use regulations to deal with concerns about a business's labor practices.

My position on the Wal-Mart proposal has been pretty consistent: I’m concerned that a gigantic Wal-Mart Supercenter (these are typically 150,000 to 180,000 square feet) would undermine the Ralphs/Long shopping center across the street and generate too much traffic on Victoria. That’s why I have consistently supported the 100,000 square feet restriction. (Actually, I proposed 90,000 square feet but went along with 100,000).

Back in February, when we were supposed to adopt the code, my colleagues kicked it back to the staff one more time. The concern was that the code would render virtually all buildings along Victoria as “non-conforming” – meaning they could not be expanded or changed much. The council directed the planners to come up with a way of permitting some modernization of nonconforming buildings. I agree that this is a legitimate concern, but I feared that the direction to the staff (proposed by my colleague Neal Andrews) was too broad.

When the code came back to us the other night, it came back with a proposal to allow nonconforming buildings to modernize in a variety of ways – to expand their footprint slightly, to add “greening” (for example, upgrading the HVAC system), to add a new entrance – and, most importantly for the anti-Wal-Mart folks, to add new loading docks. Wal-Mart has asked for new loading docks.

Most of the 30 speakers on Monday night asked us to take the loading dock section out of the code, specifically to block Wal-Mart. A few of the speakers – including the manager of Victoria Village, where the 99 Cent Store is located – said that without the modernization provisions property owners would not be able to upgrade their properties to stay viable in the next decade or so.

As I said Monday night, the modernization provisions presented the Council with a difficult choice:

-- If we accepted the modernization provisions, we would make it easier for many retail businesses up and down Victoria to update their properties and continue their retail uses without redeveloping the property under the code. But we would also be allowing Wal-Mart to move into the Kmart building with minimal changes, assuming they could stay within 100,000 square feet.

-- If we rejected the modernization provisions and adopted the code as originally proposed, we would make it more difficult for the retail businesses to update – but we would “raise the bar” for Wal-Mart, forcing them to go through the entire planning approval process, follow the urban design principles contained in the code, and probably build an extremely “green” building.

In the end, Brian Brennan and I chose to vote for the latter course – and everybody else went the other way. I understand the concerns about other property owners, but to me we blew the opportunity to use the Wal-Mart project as a way to kick-start the new code. I was quoted, accurately, in the Star as saying, that our decision will “allow one of the richest corporations in the world to move into a crappy building with minimal improvements,”

The larger issue, however, is whether or not we undermined our own code with these modernization provisions. Our stated long-term goal – in the General Plan and in the Victoria Corridor Plan – is to facilitate a transition away from large retail and single-use developments toward a high-end office environment with some mixed use. Now we’ve decided that owners of existing buildings that don’t conform with that vision can modernize anytime in the next 10 years and stay in place for as long as they want after that.

I hope we can go back at some point in the future and tighten up these modernization provisions, so that landowners are not completely hamstrung but are encouraged to redevelop their property in conformance with the code.