Life in our little bubble of Santa Monica is a wonderful mix of artistic and old time. It’s a comforting way of life. Saturday night I was at dinner with an architect friend so we were discussing the various buildings around town. Sitting in Bruno’s, a classic, old-style Italian restaurant run by Bruno and Mrs. Bruno (as I affably refer to her), we chatted about the Fairmont Miramar development, the state of the Civic Auditorium and the newly proposed Frank Gehry-designed hotel.
I love chatting with people in different professions because I am exposed to another world view. As a divorce and child custody lawyer I get to hear other people’s horror stories about love, romance and parenting all the time so it’s a pleasant change of pace to discuss something less controversial.
Dinner with my architect friend is always enlightening to me. Architects tend to believe in development and building the same way that surgeons believe in cutting someone open is a good thing. Oftentimes they are correct, but the way in which it is done is what matters.
For example, the Miramar development is by all accounts a big project. Bigger is better. It is the quintessential American belief. From 2-pound cheeseburgers to the Mall of America, we like things oversized. That works for many areas of our life, such as bigger savings by buying in bulk at Costco, but in other areas it comes with a heavy price. The residents around the Miramar believe that the bigger building will increase traffic, lead to parking problems and obstruct views, and with a behemoth building in the neighborhood they feel that it will change the overall quality of life and experience. They may be right in some areas and wrong in others.
The increased traffic may be an issue, but if you’ve stepped outside of your home in the last three months at all, you know that traffic all over town is up dramatically due to an economy on the rebound, huge construction projects all over the city and the entire Los Angeles basin having a population explosion.
Parking is oftentimes a big concern when any new development is being discussed and usually the residents are scared that it will become impossible to find cheap on-street parking. This is a valid concern because so many of the older buildings in Santa Monica were designed and built in an era when fewer people had cars. It used to be that a family would own one car and share it. Today everyone in a family has a car, and I know of some people who have multiple cars and park them on the street.
Today though, as new construction projects are sent through the rigorous design and approval process, the topic of underground parking is a part of any project. With commercial projects like the Miramar, parking structures are always considered by the architect and the Planning Commission. Underground and specially built structures for parking deal with the potential problem and can actually help it if they are replacing a building that had no or limited parking previously.
A building’s impact on the skyline and the surrounding light levels will also be determined by its size. For example, the initial sketches by Frank Gehry of a new hotel show a very tall structure that would dominate the surrounding area. Just like with the Miramar, the height of a project is a concern to the locals because it can act as a shadow casting, view obstructing screen. In a city that lives outdoors thanks to our wonderful weather and views, anything that interferes with that experience needs to be carefully vetted.
The truth is that sometimes large buildings become landmarks that help draw people to a city and become so well known that they are also synonymous with they city they inhabit. Think of the Chrysler Building, Sears Tower, or the Burj Khalifa and you’ll instantly identify New York, Chicago, and Dubai.
I liked the design that was proposed by Gehry. I wasn’t sure about the location and its impact on the city. It seemed to me to be out of place in a city that is leaning toward building big boxes with colored panels on them. I’d like to see that design in a more open space so that it can be truly appreciated. The one thing my architect friend did say was that if it gets built, it will almost definitely be shorter.
As I walked back to the Loews Hotel where my car was parked I stopped and looked down Ocean Avenue in both directions. Looking south, with the new big box developments of the Village on one side, and the hotels on the other, it looked like any other big city street. I could easily have been in New York, Chicago or Dubai. I felt small and inconsequential. Looking the other way, with the ocean side of the street being open to the moon on the water and the ocean waves, it was a more spiritual experience. I felt happier seeing open space.
Development can be good if it’s done well and with an eye toward the big picture of its affect on life and living.
David Pisarra is a divorce and child custody lawyer specializing in father’s and men’s rights with the Santa Monica firm of Pisarra & Grist. He welcomes your questions and comments. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (310) 664-9969. You can follow him on Twitter @davidpisarra.