The City of Santa Monica is currently engaged in finalizing its Downtown Community Plan (DCP). This Specific Plan is generally bounded by Lincoln Boulevard, the Interstate 10 freeway, Ocean Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard and is supposed to govern development in this area till 2030.
SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow) recognizes that different factions will advocate for their own visions for Downtown. That said, and regardless of which vision one may support, certain fundamental questions need to be answered by whatever plan is finally adopted:
1. How many residential units should be added downtown during the next 14 years?
Lets say for sake of argument there was some documented specific “need” for downtown growth. Until that is produced, we only have the drive of “market forces” to benchmark our growth as reflected by the City Council’s approval over the last 3 years of about 100 units a year in the downtown area. The DCP staff envisions adding 2,500 units over the next 14 years, or a rate of growth 178 units per year (a 78-percent increase over the current rate), packing the downtown with about three-quarters of the about 239 units that represent our fair share of regional annual growth. Is this over-concentration wise given that our boulevards, with their current zoning, have at least three times the growth capacity as the downtown?
2. How will this growth affect the character of downtown?
The DCP makes a strong case for preserving its “our town” character, yet the proposed growth, with heights up to 130 feet and the expected 600, 000 to a million square feet of added retail and office area (equivalent to two new Santa Monica Place malls) would fundamentally alter the experience of downtown. Height is a good barometer of the character of a place since it affects shading, views, sunlight for photo-voltaics, street safety, energy self-sufficiency and the relative pressure to demolish historical buildings. Height also relates to the number of floors, which impacts all mobility loads (people, cars, buses, bikes), the tax base, housing, and business opportunities. Since more than 60 percent of the downtown area is either empty lots or one and two story buildings, our current downtown has a very low rise feeling even with a number of tall buildings all built at an earlier, less environmentally sensitive time. The low-rise buildings and open lots provide “breathing space” to the downtown urban fabric, helping to maintain a human pedestrian scale. For example, Third Street Promenade is primarily experienced as a low-rise, 2-story environment in spite of its wide range of building heights. The proposed plan has maximum heights of 84 feet over two-thirds of downtown. The other third averages 66 feet with a few parcels allowed to go to 130 feet. If we ignore those ultra high parcels, our downtown will have an average allowable height of 78 feet, which translates to 96 feet since buildings are allowed to exceed the building heights by 18 feet for penthouses, parapets, elevator shafts, etc. Is an effective 96-foot height limit beneficial to the character we want to preserve for our downtown?
3. How does the Downtown Community Plan help in preserving older buildings?
The effective height limit of 96 feet translates to seven or more stories. No developer tears down a 2-story building to put up a 3-story building. But once the allowed stories increase by two or more above what exists, the pressure to develop that parcel becomes irresistible. Therefore, this plan threatens the vast majority of the older 1- to 2-story buildings that provide most of “our town” character. While the plan does provide minor breaks for historic buildings and advocates increasing the Historic Resources Inventory for possible landmarking, the new height limits crush any preservation effort since they incentivize massive demolition efforts on the majority of parcels. Are the DCP’s preservation incentives strong enough to preserve the 53 potentially viable important historic buildings? While historic buildings are not evenly distributed in the downtown, note that if all these preservation efforts are successful only about three buildings would be preserved every 4 blocks.
4. Does the DCP incentivize reducing the City’s need for water?
Our City has a goal of reducing water use (or creating a new supply) by about 32 percent to reach self-sufficiency by 2020. From 2005 to 2013 residential use declined 6 percent (while the population increased 7 percent) and the commercial water use (about one-third of the City’s demand) increased 12 percent. In other words, the commercial usage increase has canceled out all the strenuous water conservation efforts of residents. This trend is not likely to change. Travis Page, the City’s DCP planner, expects the downtown population to increase by about 3,750 (2,500 new units with an average of 1.5 persons/unit) or about 4 percent, while the City’s overall job growth is projected between 2 percent and 5 percent. Since multi-family residents typically use less water than single-family residents — they have fewer lawns and backyards — we can probably expect a 4-percent residential water growth and a 3.5-percent commercial increase for a blended consumption increase of 3.8 percent over the next 14 years. This doesn’t sound like much until you realize that we are trying to cut consumption (or raise production) about 8 percent a year for the next four years in a row. Not during the depths of the recession nor in the historic drought, when the governor called for a 20-percent water use reduction, have we ever achieved anywhere near these kinds of targets. So the question is: How are the downtown businesses and residents going to cut water use to the point that it makes that kind of difference for the whole City? As the growing “edge” of our City, they will have to do more than their share.
5. Will the DCP’s mobility plan really increase mobility downtown?
Everyone knows that the traffic downtown is abysmal. The residential population is expected to almost double from 4,016 in 2010 to 7,766 while worker population would increase from about 19,416 to as high as 23,884, a potential 23-percent increase). The Expo Line and possible increased bus/bike usage might help mitigate these additional demands, but we really don’t have the lane and sidewalk widths to handle them. Transportation Demand Management (TDM) tools, which are a series of measures such as carpools, free bus passes etc., that can help reduce peak-hour loads, have been implemented for a decade and have yet to show they are up to the task. The downtown Environmental Impact Report predicts that, even under the best of circumstances, of the 48 intersection conditions studied (16 intersections on mornings, evenings and weekends), 38 (79 percent) will be rated at Level of Service D or lower, compared with 65 percent now. While the EIR struggles mightily studying one-way streets, lane closures, bus lanes etc., no clear solution emerges to really solve this problem. We have the 10 freeway, the Expo Line and four major boulevards dumping cars, buses, bikes, and pedestrians into a downtown already gridlocked. Something has to give, yet what we see is a DCP that suggests a solution by increasing and concentrating even more transit demand.
6. Where is downtown’s center?
The Plaza at Santa Monica Plaza at 5th Street and Arizona Avenue is proposed as Santa Monica’s center. This 130-foot mish-mash of housing, hotel, etc., does not include a big enough open space to be the center of our beachfront town. We have already built essentially the identical building on the northeast corner of 4th Street and Wilshire, and it’s incapable of a flagship role. This new Plaza needs to be a real Plaza, a sizable urban open space, like St. Mark’s Square in Venice, not a height-busting monument. The discussion of this center, including the demolition of parking structure No. 3 for an ArcLight movie theater, needs more community buy-in before millions of public dollars are spent.
These are six simple questions that the DCP needs to address.
SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)
Sam Tolkin, Architect; Dan Jansenson, Architect; Mario Fonda-Bonardi, AIA, Planning Commissioner; Ron Goldman, FAIA; Thane Roberts, AIA; Bob Taylor, AIA; Armen Melkonian, Environmental Engineer; Phil Brock, Chair, Recreation & Parks Commission.