Our city’s character is rapidly changing. Who are we? And where are we heading?
The current system is broken — it’s not working for developers, the city, or the community. Over 40 development agreements (DAs) have created a tsunami of activity — in stark contrast to the handful of DAs the prior 25 years. The 20 year growth anticipated in the general plan is taking place in only three years since the plan was approved! And it should not have taken the Hines Bergamot Transit Village application seven years to be processed and then be challenged in a community-wide referendum. The city needs to protect itself from this feeding frenzy or the warmth and charm of our city will soon be gone. Resident concerns have taken a backseat to developer and business interests. As design professionals and long-time residents, we feel it is critically important to inform the community by discussing ways in which the process can change direction.
Next week we will discuss traffic where we’ve already lost the goal of being a driveable city — a city you could cross in 15 minutes. We are told that abandoning cars will make it easier to get around, but the city’s proposed “transportation demand management” policies will be ineffective unless reliable and accessible transit alternatives come first. We will explore more realistic remedies to recapture mobility and avoid total gridlock.
The following week, height will be the topic, where City Hall promises that bigger and taller will make the city better. Staff is recommending Downtown, eastern Santa Monica, and maybe boulevards have height increases from 100 percent to over 300 percent! We will discuss ways to avoid our streets becoming canyons lined with walls of buildings that replace sunlight with shade. Santa Monica is a beautiful community — not a metropolitan city. Both Santa Barbara, twice the size of Santa Monica, and Manhattan Beach, half our size, have maximum 30 foot height limits, more open space, and are economically sound! A “prescriptive code” with a simple height, density, and open space ratio allowing for reasonable growth and creative design will benefit both the developer and the community.
Then we’ll address Downtown, which is not about height and density — it’s about wider sidewalks, better building design, open space and sunlight. But plans for Downtown are being shaped by stakeholders, not the community, and overdevelopment is slowly covering our Downtown like a cataract. Like other successful and economically healthy beach cities, we need a simple, creative, transparent “prescriptive” code where developers and the community know what is allowed and community benefits simply become part of the permit fees and expended infrastructure costs. No amount of community benefits can make a poor project a good project. The DA process requires not just re-evaluation but complete elimination. Quality is far more important than quantity, and it’s our quality of life that’s iconic.
We’ll discuss the infrastructure that needs to be in place before development! We live in a democracy of consumerism and gratification with its offspring of waste. How do we balance this with a healthy environment? With the onslaught of development, we need to realistically address a broad spectrum from water conservation to classroom education, while also considering emergency response in a gridlocked environment. City Hall never addressed whether existing infrastructure can accommodate extensive development. Instead, the city is being driven by revenue from developers needed to cover current costs and pensions without accounting for the huge expense of increased infrastructure. The damage left in the wake of this feeding frenzy is not only reducing our quality of life, but we will also be left to pay the bills.
Regarding the city’s obsession with opportunity sites along with greater community benefits, this is simply more opportunity for developers than for the community. Height doesn’t equate with iconic architecture, but sunlight and open skies do equate with an iconic environment. And more traffic and shade with less sunlight and local business are not exactly community benefits.
In considering parking, we’re caught in a shell game where community benefits are paid for by decreased parking requirements. And the reduction of on-site parking will inevitably spill into adjacent residential neighborhoods. Enough unbundled parking, shared parking, etc. — let’s begin to look at this realistically. Santa Monica may be an urban planner’s dream, but for the rest of us, it has become a nightmare.
We’ll then focus on development along our boulevards. The Land Use and Circulation Element general plan calls for only 4 percent of our city to be further developed with the remaining 96 percent preserved. But with the dissolution of redevelopment funds, the city is anxiously looking at the major corridors to provide funding in the way of development fees and further benefits. Density and overall environment are oxymorons. For adjacent residential neighborhoods, quality on our boulevards is more important than quantity.
And our heritage of historical buildings and adaptive reuse of smaller scale buildings with their built-in character, along with our courtyard housing, and human scale makes Santa Monica different and special. Inflated property values and community benefits have become reasons to tear down small and rebuild large. With appropriate incentives, updating and reusing buildings which have built-in character will blend old and new, retain local business, and maintain a beachfront village of variable character. The greenest buildings are the ones we don’t tear down.
We strongly feel Santa Monica can remain iconic while still providing for growth and economic health. With more than 40 pending DAs, it is a clear indication of Santa Monica’s desirable position. Yet City Hall continues to follow the money and it’s sad to see the city ruined by outside business interests who won’t even be here to experience the consequences of their greed. We need to stop this runaway train and answer some basic questions:
Will downtown be affordable?
Will the city be driveable?
Will water bills increase?
Who will pay for the expansion of infrastructure?
If we focus on our friendly beachtown charm as well as the new, we can connect past and future and enjoy the best of both. Balancing between residents, business, and tourists will allow Santa Monica to flourish while preserving its quality of life. The fate of our city will be decided in our town hall! We hope you will become further informed over the next eight weeks and better understand the immediacy and gravity our town finds itself in.
Ron Goldman FAIA for SMa.r.t.
SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)
Thane Roberts AIA
Robert H. Taylor AIA
Daniel Jansenson, Architect
Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA
Samuel Tolkin AIA