Easy Reader Staff

El Segundo aims to spark Smoky Hollow area

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City officials are looking to revitalize the Smoky Hollow area of town by acting on recommendations to improve parking and revamp its industrial zoning to create an “incubator district” that attracts new, creative businesses.

Last month, the Urban Land Institute of Los Angeles surveyed business owners, city leaders and others to formulate a plan intended to attract startup businesses to an area of town long considered outdated and underutilized. City officials hope the proposed strategy comes before the planning commission and city council as early as next month. They believe the recommended changes to Smoky Hollow have the potential to create a thriving neighborhood that supports creative businesses in non-traditional working spaces.

City Manager Greg Carpenter said the roadmap for Smoky Hollow is “to transition from the 1950s industrial model to a creative office, creative industry model.”

The ULI is made up of professionals who volunteer their services and have expertise in land use, planning, financing and economic developments. Their mission is to provide leadership in the responsible use of land and in creating sustaining and thriving communities, and they have worked on other large-scale projects, such as Old Town Pasadena as well as in Santa Monica. They see El Segundo as a place where those communities were 20 years ago in terms of remaking a particular area of town.

“I wish I was 40 years younger so I could buy everything I could find there,” said Jim Goodell, a planning and development consultant who chaired the ULI panel looking into Smoky Hollow.

The Smoky Hollow District is bordered by the Chevron oil refinery to the south, downtown to the west, a residential neighborhood to the north and Sepulveda Boulevard to the east. City officials and ULI panel members believe that Smoky Hollow has a unique charm, with its small business lots to the west and larger ones to the east. Smoky Hollow would benefit from a loosening of the industrial zoning code to allow for more artistic businesses, which include creative software companies and other startups, city officials said.

The city may also assist Smoky Hollow evolve by creating intimate outdoor spaces and by linking pedestrian and bicycle routes. Goodell said funds raised for Smoky Hollow improvements should not burden the general fund. This might mean generating revenue through a Business Improvement District in the future or a parking district more immediately, something the city council would decide at the appropriate time.

“You need a mechanism to finance new parking,” Goodell said, adding that the area could benefit from striping the streets. The area was designed for one parking spot for 1,000 feet of light industrial zoned property; three to four spots are needed today.

The ULI recommendations also call for limiting the expansion of what called “incompatible uses,” including pet hotels, storage facilities and auto repair shops.

In order to create a new business environment, “You have to have the courage to say some things aren’t compatible,” Goodell said.

Smoky Hollow is governed by a specific zoning plan last updated in 1985, said Ted Shove, economic development analyst for El Segundo. Shove said the area needs better parking and the old sewer lines must be updated. To attract new business, Smoky Hollow also needs internet capability that can handle a lot more data, such as fiber optics.

El Segundo has a lot for businesses to like, Shove said, and that includes the city’s three percent user utility tax, which is among the lowest in the area. The city doesn’t have a gross receipts sales tax, which the city of Los Angeles does. And El Segundo rents are lower than in neighboring communities.

Representatives from the ULI were taken on a tour of Smoky Hollow and they were informed of its history, Shove said. They interviewed 14 stakeholders, including developers, city council members and quite a few business owners in Smoky Hollow.

The zoning regulations must be softened to achieve the desired results, Carpenter said. “The existing regulations really do not accommodate the type of reuse of properties and buildings in Smoky Hollow. The regulations are too restrictive in some ways,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter said he is still awaiting a written report from ULI to present to the planning commission and city council. He expects the council to conduct parking studies and to work with the business community to amend the zoning regulations.

Santa Monica and Culver City are models of cities with older industrial areas that have been converted to cleaner industries and creative office space by selectively demolishing buildings and putting up new ones, Carpenter said. Smoky Hollow could evolve with slight industrial businesses, retail, maybe even some arts and dining, he added.

“We’re also hoping it becomes an area that supports the rest of the city as far as supporting the downtown shops and restaurants with increased employment base, as well as an area that’s compatible with the adjacent residential neighborhoods where people could potentially live in El Segundo and walk or bike to work,” Carpenter said.

There have been a couple of previous efforts to address redevelopment in Smoky Hollow, dating back to the ‘80s and ‘90s, Carpenter said.

The recommendations in 1990s proposal were incorporated into the existing plan, which basically encouraged more redevelopment of the area, specifically removing existing buildings and replacing them. About ten years ago, a group of students from the University of California Irvine, along with some community input, suggested strategies that are similar to what the ULI is recommending, Carpenter said.

One of the developers that the ULI interviewed was Matt Crabbs, who has invested several million dollars into the Smoky Hollow District. He approached the city for 15 land use changes for his developments and was granted 13 of them in February, which allowed him to sell his “office condos,” which are 2,250 to 2,500 square feet in size.

“It was a gamble,” Crabbs said. “Luckily, it worked out.”

Crabbs said the business people who moved into the office spaces he built are creative and successful – and they demand a different kind of work environment.

“The future of businesses is people are coming into small spaces,” Crabbs said. “They really need to be tricked out because people are going to spend a lot of time in them. They need to have a flow to them so people don’t feel trapped, or claustrophobic. I created all these outdoor spaces. They have showers. They have outdoor decks. They have a top deck, a middle deck. There’s an outdoor office.”

Those who bought space from Crabbs include a web design company, a filmmaker and photographer, engineers who work with inventors, pension fund managers, an architect, a company that manages medical offices throughout the country, a music studio and a clothing designer, among others.

“Smoky Hollow is one of the only places left in the Los Angeles area that’s by the beach and you can buy a small lot,” Crabbs said. “There’s a huge demand. And El Segundo is an amazing city… I think the city has finally got it. This area was just dilapidated. No one wanted to do anything because the uses weren’t here. It was all industrial.”

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