Common ground: City Council vote looms on Manhattan Beach’s Downtown Specific Plan
by Ryan McDonald
The Hungry Mind opened its doors in 1991. Owner Kim Siehl began with a dream to bring a small independent bookstore to Manhattan Beach, but quickly realized that the margins would be difficult. So she decided to add a coffeehouse to the concept. She hired locals to man the shelves and espresso machines. She kept the place running almost all the time: it opened at 6 a.m. and would stay open as late as 1 a.m. for caffeine-fueled poetry readings and conversation.
And for a while, coffeehouse howls competed with cantina hollers in the city’s downtown. Siehl said she deliberately chose to locate there in order to take advantage of the area’s ability to draw a wide swath of people, not all of whom were necessarily tethered to an automobile.
“The whole reason I had it downtown was so people could walk there,” Siehl said in an interview. “People could walk, and their kids could come and run around. Or you could stay late and walk home. It wouldn’t have worked on Sepulveda.”
But the Hungry Mind is long since gone, and no one has stepped in to fill the void in late-night lyricism. Several tenants came and went at 916 Manhattan Ave, including a gourmet cupcake outfit. Today, it is a Shorewood Real Estate office.
Next Tuesday, Manhattan’s City Council is set to consider the Downtown Specific Plan, a planning document intended to guide land use decisions in the area for years to come. The plan began in October 2013 “in response to concerns that offices and banks were encroaching up on the downtown’s ground-floor tenant spaces traditionally occupied by retailers, restaurants, and services,” according to the final draft. The document lays out a variety of amendments to the city’s zoning code and map, including ones that could make the transition from coffee house to house seller a little less likely in future years.
Siehl attributed her exit to “a perfect storm” of causes. Some of them, like the arrival of coffee mega-chain Starbucks at the corner of Manhattan Beach Boulevard and Highland Avenue, correspond with loudly voiced resident concerns that helped shape the Specific Plan. But others, including the strain of running a business with such long hours and the arrival of children in her life, could not be helped by even the most thoughtfully crafted of planning efforts.
And despite the changes in the area, downtown remains resilient. In 2010, years after the Hungry Mind departed, Pages bookstore opened just down the block. Siehl is friends with Linda McLoughlin Figel, one of the founders of Pages, and is heartened to see an independent bookstore in town again.
Figel is a member of the Downtown Manhattan Beach Business and Professional Association, and has been offering input to the city as the plan was cobbled together. She said that while some aspects of the plan have divided the city’s residents, property owners and businesses, all have contributed in the process, and that the desire to preserve the area’s small town charm is common ground.
“I think the concept is a good one. I’m not sure that it’s perfect, but I do think it’s good,” Figel said.
Maintaining this small town character is one of four overarching goals for the area that the plan establishes. The remaining three are enhancing bicycle and pedestrian access, improving parking and alternative transportation options, and to “encourage, maintain and enhance economic vitality.” Achieving these will require reckoning with broader trends that have long been buffeting the city, and doing so in a densely built area with highly desirable property represents a uniquely difficult urban planning challenge.
Feet on the pavement
The “downtown” that the plan will govern stretches is bounded by Valley Drive on the east, 15th Street to the north and the Strand to the west, while Eighth, Ninth and 10th streets make for a kind of stair-stepping southern border. In this area, urban planning experts say, restaurants and retailers tend to draw more foot traffic and serendipitous users, and clustering them together creates a synergy that benefits the whole downtown. Uses like real estate offices and banks can generate higher revenues and may help bolster the city’s tax base, but they provide fewer reasons for people to go downtown for the kind of aimless wandering that businesses depend on to produce customers. Without it, the charm of downtown that residents have indicated they enjoy would struggle to survive.
“With the specific issue of activity at street level, things like the number of real estate offices can have a deadening effect on the street,” said Tom Eitler, senior vice president of the Urban Land Institute’s advisory services program. Last year the city hired ULI, a Washington D.C. nonprofit, to evaluate conditions in the city and provide recommendations in advance of preparing the Specific Plan.
Within the economic vitality goal, the plan seeks to provide “numerous creative and unique small-shop choices and dining options at every price point.” The reforms the plan suggests in this regard are among the most highly watched aspects of the plan.
For parcels with the zoning designation of Downtown Commercial, opening an office or bank on the ground floor of a street front would require a use permit. (These businesses would, however, be able to open on alley frontage without a permit.) Thus, while the plan does not make it impossible for a new bank or office to open, obtaining a use permit requires a findings by the city’s Planning Commission that the new use would meet the goals of the document. These include, among other requirements, that approving it would “maintain a balanced mix of uses which serves the needs of both local and nonlocal populations.”
Eric Zucker has seen the drawbacks of a changing downtown from both a business owner’s and resident’s perspective. Zucker opened the first downtown location of Ocean Gear, a surf shop, in 1992. At one point, he was able to expand to three locations: one for men’s, one for women’s, and one for hard goods like surfboards. But changes in the composition of downtown gradually made it harder to survive. The arrival of chain stores, and a growing concentration of upscale women’s clothiers, he said, meant there were fewer male walk-in customers, and the economics of stocking surfboards became especially challenging.
The last of the Ocean Gear stores closed in 2006. Zucker and his family still venture downtown from their Tree Section home, but find less and less there for them. The rising rents he began to see have continued to spiral upward, influencing the kind of stores that can survive.
“It has become more of a restaurant place. That’s great, but as far as shopping we do very little,” he said. “Everybody has to sell everything for so much per unit. I understand it, but they have kind of priced themselves out a bit.”
Surf options still exist in the downtown. Nikau Kai sells upscale surf brands and stand-up paddle boards. And earlier this year, Zucker’s friend Dennis Jarvis opened his third Spyder location in the former home of Fun Buns, a bike rental shop that rented beach cruisers for $7 per hour. At the time of opening, Jarvis said that to differentiate the Manhattan location from the other two Spyder stores, it would focus on the “top of the top” brands that Spyder offers.
On such a full sea
The Specific Plan spends a great deal of time on aesthetics. It makes a variety of recommendations about architectural styles, features and materials. Some are quite detailed, and almost all of them are advisory. It imposes hard limits in several areas, including maximum heights, which were trimmed to 26 feet for the bulk of downtown commercial properties after public outcry over a ULI recommendation to allow for three- and four-story buildings. But it is the prospect of second-floor outdoor dining, and the system that the Specific Plan would establish to govern it, that has become one of the most hotly debated aspects of the city’s efforts.
Current city code is silent on the subject of second-floor outdoor dining: while a restaurant would need to apply for a use permit in order to have it, there are no restrictions on where in the downtown it could be. (The tables at the Strand House technically sit on an encroachment, which is classified differently.) The Specific Plan would limit the location of parcels eligible to apply for such permits to those at least one block away from residences, mandate that dining areas face main streets like Highland, and require a decibel-level study for establishments wishing to serve alcohol after 10 p.m.
But even though the new regulations are more strict than what is currently in place, the size of the area potentially eligible for outdoor dining has drawn concern. At a Planning Commission hearing on the final draft of the plan, Commissioner Steve Ortman said that he had heard from many residents who feel a sense of looming change — that the map of eligible locations was less of a limitation than an invitation.
“It’s hard, once it’s memorialized, to unring that bell,” Ortman said.
The primary worry about the expansion of outdoor dining is noise. Carol Perrin, head of the Downtown Residents Group, has consistently urged the city to improve code enforcement in downtown, including sound violations. Noise issues from restaurants are nothing new in the area: residents east of Ardmore Avenue have appeared before the city several times with complaints about noise from Shade Hotel. But the problem appears to have accelerated with the arrival of more highly regarded restaurants. Adding another story to the problem, they say, threatens to fundamentally change the area’s character.
“There is already a serious problem from noise at ground level. And noise at a second-story harder to contain,” Perrin told planning commissioners. “Downtown is simply too small.”
For now, a deluge of upper-level al fresco seems unlikely; Planning Manager Laurie Jester has yet to receive a permit application for second-floor outdoor dining in her 15 years working for the city. But underlying the debate over outdoor dining, and the increasingly cosmopolitan clientele the area’s eateries serve, is a broader concern: the extent to which downtown and the businesses it contains should serve visitors, rather than residents.
“Downtown is not the ‘commercial center’ of Manhattan Beach. It’s the community center of Manhattan Beach, and it has a commercial component,” resident Neil Leventhal told the Planning Commission last month.
Take the current where it serves
Included in the final draft of the plan is a analysis of the town’s market opportunities from Esri, a geographic information system company. The analysis breaks down which retail categories have sales “leakages,” where based on demand there are opportunities to expand businesses or add new ones, and which have “surpluses,” where local demand is “saturated” and customers are “already being drawn from outside the trade area.” According to the analysis, sales in city restaurants and taverns exceed local demand by more than $30 million. (Clothiers exceed it by $33 million; the analysts must have taken into account how little clothing is required for the area’s mild weather.) Meanwhile there is an unmet local demand of almost $90 million for goods from “general merchandise stores.”
This unmet demand is almost certainly being filled by online retail. Commercial property owners point to the deficits in these and other categories as reason to provide flexibility for businesses. Tony Choueke, a commercial property owner in the city who once worked in commercial trend forecasting, has said that attempting to legislatively encourage brick-and-mortar retail, at a time rapid increase in online shopping, is unwise and would lead to stagnation.
Resident groups interpret the deficits differently. They argue that that locals do not shop in downtown as often as they might because of logistical difficulties like lack of parking, an issue the plan also attempts to address. Added bike lanes, increased space for dropoffs from ride-sharing services, and the possibility of shuttle service to remote parking facilities are among the solutions the draft plan proposes. Both realism and progressivism course through this section of the document: though the circulation improvements would not remove a single parking space without adding one to take its place, it acknowledges that “The best customer for the business district is one that does not have to have their vehicle parked on the street.”
Surprising bits of frankness like this are peppered throughout the document, including the very first page, which roots downtown’s challenges in broader economic changes, but also in Manhattan’s “desirability and affluence.” It would seem that the town’s charming laid-back lifestyle is in need of protecting precisely because of how aggressively sought-after it has become.
Siehl, of the Hungry Mind, takes frequent walks along the Strand. Some of her old customers still recognize her, even as the buildings around town have altered. Though she missed what her cafe offered the town and is encouraged by some of the Specific Plan, she accepts much of the change as inevitable.
“I think everything has just gotten more upscale. Restaurants are more upscale, the clothing stores coming in are higher end. It’s not as homey or low key, but that’s the way the free market works. I guess I’m just happy that Pages is there,” she said.