Easy Reader Staff

Year in Review: Managing change in downtown Manhattan Beach

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Downtown Manhattan Beach. Photo by Caroline Anderson

Downtown Manhattan Beach. Photo by Caroline Anderson

In 2015, Manhattan Beach continued to grapple with its downtown.

Concerned about the turnover of boutiques to real estate offices and national chains prompted by rent increases, the City Council imposed a one-year freeze on business use changes in 2014. The freeze meant that a space designated for a restaurant, for example, could not become an office without permission from the council.

There were only two requests to change business use during the year, both of which concerned the same building at 1140 Highland Avenue. The council rejected the first, a proposal to open a temporary jewelry shop in a space vacated by a restaurant, and approved the second, a proposal by the surf shop Nikau Kai to open a retail-café combination store in the same space plus another adjoining space which had been designated for an auto repair shop.

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As the freeze’s expiration loomed in July, the council debated what to do. Ultimately, it voted unanimously to extend it for one more year, the legal maximum.

“There seemed to be a frantic pace of change — this calmed it,” said Mayor Mark Burton.

In 2014, the council also planted two additional seeds designed to help with managing downtown’s evolution which began to come to fruition this past year. It asked a national city planning organization, the Urban Land Institute, to give recommendations, and hired Pacific Municipal Consultants to craft a blueprint which would serve as a guide for downtown’s development in the years to come.

On its website, the city outlined its goals for the Urban Land Institute process: “maintain a strong sense of community identity and sense of place for the downtown; enhance the vibrancy and economic vitality of the district through an emphasis on unique and independent retailers and businesses; set the stage for and contribute to business success; reinforce retail, entertainment, dining and active street fronts in the downtown to provide an attractive pedestrian-oriented environment; provide for the best mix of retail, commercial, and service businesses; and boost the attractiveness of the downtown for local residents and visitors alike.”

In January, the experts from the Urban Land Institute spent a week in Manhattan Beach. After interviewing roughly 100 people about their vision for downtown, the experts gave a preliminary report on their findings.

Visitors support 60 percent of the overall retail space and make up almost 75 percent of restaurant patrons, they said.

In order to keep retail stores on the ground floor, as is widely agreed is more desirable than realtors, the city would need to continue to attract visitors. This would include reducing traffic and expanding the parking inventory, whether by building more parking garages; expanding public valet parking; or using the Manhattan Village Mall as a remote lot, shuttling people downtown.

A smaller recommendation was to update the deteriorating crosswalks and sidewalks, which the city did in November.

In June, the Urban Land Institute gave its final report. Some of the more dramatic proposed changes were growing the city vertically to three to four stories and redoing the area where the pier intersects with downtown with a “grand staircase” flanked by parking structures. Less dramatic were making downtown more pedestrian-friendly, such as by removing some street parking and expanding sidewalks to accommodate outdoor dining and closing off part of Manhattan Beach Boulevard to cars.

“Downtown has too much retail space to be supported by residents alone if the objective is to preserve downtown for locals only,” the final report said. “If the objective is to preserve downtown for locals only, one strategy would be to reduce the downtown footprint. If that is not the preferred strategy, then the city must recognize the tremendous importance of visitors to the health of the downtown commercial market.”

This was the report’s only reference to the alternative to increasing customers.

Members of a downtown residents group formed with the city’s help reacted negatively to many of the suggestions, objecting to the institute’s assumption that more visitors were desirable.

Meanwhile, Pacific Municipal Consultants, which shadowed the Urban Land Institute process, held a series of workshops in October and November to get feedback from the public on possibilities for downtown’s future. Ideas for things such as parking and public art, some of which came from the Urban Land Institute, were presented and attendees gave their thoughts.

At the November meeting, one resident questioned the need for such planning, saying he liked the downtown as it is.

Community Development Manager Marisa Lundstedt said that was why they needed a plan.  

“It’s not so much about a problem, but about managing change that we know is inevitable,” she said. “You may love the way it is, but everything changes, so we want to know what you want to retain.”

Attendees at the November meeting were split on whether to build new parking structures. At the workshop’s parking station, that idea got both the most votes of approval as well as the most votes of disapproval.

“There seems to be the thought: ‘Yes, we need more parking, but we’re afraid bringing in more people and more cars is going to exacerbate the problem,’” observed one of the workshop’s facilitators.

Those mixed feelings contrasted with the first workshop in October, at which the idea was dismissed entirely.

After each workshop, a representative from Pacific Municipal Consultants asked the council for its feedback. The council affirmed the opinions which came out of the workshops, such as maintaining building height at one to two stories and keeping the beachhead as it is.

In 2016, PMC plans to present a rough draft of the Specific Plan for community input, and then a final draft for the council’s approval. ER

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