What makes downtown Santa Monica unique? What kind of downtown do we want? What is our vision for its future? Every city needs a “raison d’etre” – a spirit that draws people to go there and stay there. Will it remain a relaxed and friendly coastal community, with the warmth of local merchants, or a mix of corporate high-rise buildings and bloated developments, transformed by consumerism and glitz into something we won’t recognize?

When you allow developers to design your city, it’s all about the bottom line.  A “window of opportunity” in the form of “Development Agreements” has opened up for developers to present projects that exceed current allowable heights and density. Do we want a downtown that is an a wall of massive buildings, or will the citizens of Santa Monica become involved with the future vision and essence of their downtown? We all need to take action to make sure that the future Santa Monica reflects the ideals of its citizens, not just the developers.

In other words, how do we Santa Monicans bridge our past and our future?

To answer this, we need to understand how the heart of our city grew. Like other cities, Santa Monica’s basic downtown developed as a grid of linear streets attuned to the introduction of the automobile, with small buildings primarily housing local businesses. Santa Monica’s downtown is awash with warm weather and sunlight, and extraordinary visual landmarks -its pier, palisades and ocean, its weather and sunlight, its promenade and farmers’ markets, all on a very human scale. Small local businesses still exist in our downtown, although they are quickly disappearing, along with the character and texture of unique building designs, being replaced by national chains lacking unique character.

Downtown Santa Monica encompasses approximately 12 million square feet that has grown over a 138-year history. Seventy percent of the buildings in this area are one to two stories high. Currently the atmosphere is a relaxed beach culture, a walk-able environment, a human scale, blue skies and sunlight. With the remarkable success enjoyed by the existing downtown, we need to build on what works rather than overdevelop – we need to add the new without taking away from the old.

However what is currently happening has the potential to change forever the “sense of place” that is Santa Monica. More than 30 new building projects for are in the pipeline to be approved by the city. These projects could add 3 million square feet of new residential, office and retail space to our downtown. That’s a lot of development for any city, let alone a smaller scale city like Santa Monica, and that’s just the beginning. The proposed zoning code will allow another 9 million square feet beyond that – effectively doubling the current size of our downtown.

The current LUCE, which is a written plan envisioned for the city by citizens and city commissioners every 20 years, calls for “the preservation of the vibrant, beach town atmosphere.” So how do we keep our downtown colorful, vibrant, and pedestrian-friendly while allowing for growth and keeping the city economically healthy? How do we enjoy the benefits of the city – the cafes, art galleries and cultural facilities without the traffic, crowding and pollution? We need to act fast to save the face of our city.

Charleston and Savannah are communities that have been able to strike this balance. They have realized substantial growth in the past two decades, but have held onto their history and sense of place. Their downtowns, similar in area to Santa Monica, are flourishing with creative ideas for keeping open, spacious green areas bordered by a mix of historic and modern buildings. Santa Barbara and Pasadena, two California cities, have found the balance as well. In these downtowns you can experience wide, decorative passageways and arcades, filled with people, small shops, and café seating, between low-rise buildings.

In contrast, the type of 6-7 story buildings that have recently been constructed in Santa Monica will turn our city streets into darkened canyons with loss of character, sunlight, and blue sky if we allow them to proliferate. Proposed height allowances and zoning code changes will turn our warm beachfront downtown into an indifferent and solidly urban downtown, if we don’t take action. Remember, dense traffic-filled cities are expensive cities, bringing increased cost of living, higher rents and a terrible strain on the infrastructure that our city taxes support.

But there is hope for Santa Monica. The LUCE “provides for an overall reduction in building height.” In last week’s article, we strongly suggested doing away with the Development Agreement process in favor of an overall 50 foot, 4-story height limit in the downtown.  Thus, potential developers would know up front, before purchasing a property and spending years on a design, what their parameters are. With these new limitations, there would still be ample opportunity for sustainable growth: up to 6 million square feet of space could be developed.

This would be a win/win for both the residential community and the business community. With height and density reduced, traffic and the strain on the city’s infrastructure would also be reduced, resulting in more open space and thus a more positive quality of life for Santa Monica’s residents. Lively, enjoyable public spaces are more important than buildings. Recreation & Parks Commissioner Phil Brock has repeatedly talked about “open space having the power to make you feel better about your city, to stay because you’re having a great time – like being at a successful party.”

We can rework the city’s zoning code to create key open spaces and a truly exciting environment. If the city adopts incentives in property taxes and cuts in city fees, then we might see a substantial increase in the restoration and reuse of the older low-rise buildings, which provide so much character, variety, and texture to our downtown. A recent study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation states, “Neighborhoods and commercial areas with a mix of older, smaller buildings make for more vibrant, walk-able communities with more businesses, nightlife and cultural outlets than massive newer buildings. People want to be where there’s an interesting and exciting mix of the old and new.”

In summary, we see a future Santa Monica with development parameters that encourage meaningful sidewalk setbacks, pocket parks and mid-block arcades. We see a future Santa Monica as a business-friendly low-rise beachfront location with a vibrant, spontaneous and eclectic atmosphere where residents and visitors alike can see the sky, feel the fresh ocean breeze and enjoy walking streets lined with smaller-scale unique buildings with diverse designs and histories. Each of us needs to insure that City Staff and City Council Members know the qualities that we want to preserve in our city’s essence.

Ron Goldman FAIA for SM a.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Bob Taylor AIA, Dan Jansenson Architect, Armen Melkonians P.E., Sam Tolkin Architect, Thane Roberts AIA, Phil Brock Recreation & Parks Commission. This is the fourth article in a SMDP series by SMa.r.t., a group of Santa Monica Architects concerned about the city’s future. For previous articles, please see santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writings.

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