This is not an easy letter to write as I respect the Planning and Community Development Department and their dedication to solving some very difficult planning and economic problems. There is constant pressure to densify cities now that suburban flight has run its course.
However, I’m very familiar with two projects and somewhat less familiar with two others where the planning staff has led developers astray by supporting their bloated designs.
After a 49-year career working with developers as their architect and completing 22 of my own development projects, I have come to the conclusion that, with rare exception, developers are less than creative. They are bottom-line oriented and fueled by density rather than creating an overall environment. With few exceptions do they understand that good design is also good economics.
The planning staff is dedicated and knowledgeable, but planners are generally not trained architecturally and in many cases need to better understand the three-dimensional world of urban design in addition to their largely two-dimensional education. And our planning code in Santa Monica doesn’t help the situation.
Development agreements are far too permissive with equivalent community benefits sorely lacking. In addition, the “float up” process to review initial conceptual designs is for all intents and purposes not working well, invariably taking up substantial and valuable community time and energy tilting at windmills with the developers going back to the drawing boards following a huge waste of city staff expense along with much greater and unnecessary community time and energy. The public should not be doing what the planning staff should be doing! And in cases, the planning department is either being asked to do or is taking upon itself to do what is not in their background.
In the meantime, we’re not getting good design, we’re not getting open space, and we’re definitely not getting very much at all in the way of community benefits to offset substantial additional profits asked for and bestowed upon developers.
And while I’m sticking my neck out and being critical of the planning process, I might as well also take on the architectural design component with its rash of four- and five-story buildings. The ethos of a city is embodied in its architecture. I believe the spirit of our city is embodied in the human scale of its courtyard buildings, but the biblical “LUCE” emphasizes the importance of surface articulation. These pop-outs with an array of different materials and colors don’t do much to disguise the four- and five-story mass of this recent wave of buildings — they just make it all look robotic — or what I choose to call an exercise in “facadomy.”
My assistant, a long-time resident of Santa Monica and a former arts commissioner, feels “they all belong in Chicago,” and is “fearful of having a drink or two and then trying to find which building is yours.” We shouldn’t be competing with Manhattan or San Francisco — we need to protect and maintain our own heritage and environment. Four- and five-story buildings are not necessarily wrong for Downtown, as long as they come with setbacks, open space and meaningful courtyards.
Santa Monica does have truly dedicated and well-intentioned city employees, but unfortunately developers are controlling the process and bringing this city to its knees. At this point, we need to slow down and take stock. Only a truly “creative” zoning code, along with a more conscious City Council can offer Santa Monica any real protection.
Sad, but still hopeful.
Fellow of the American Institute of Architects