Santa Monica stands at a crossroads, and on Wednesday, March 18, at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall, our Planning Commissioners will recommend which path they believe we should follow. Do we reshape our boulevards to be a vibrant, walkable mix of housing and transportation options, or do we settle for what we have — long, lonely corridors, surface parking lots, bike and pedestrian danger zones?
Santa Monicans already weighed the balance of our options and, in 2010, after a six-year process of community discussion, our City Council adopted the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) of our General Plan. The LUCE directs new growth, mostly housing, to 4 percent of our city and prohibits any increase in the intensity of land use in the remaining 96 percent of our city (thereby protecting our neighborhoods from drastic character changes). The 4-percent area targeted for growth includes our downtown and our major transportation corridors — areas that provide the opportunity for residents to live near public transit and within walking/biking distance of jobs, shopping and entertainment. This is the kind of strategic growth we need to help us address our traffic problem through proven land use strategies. (You can learn more about the LUCE on the city’s website.)
But the question has arisen about whether to revisit this planning document and throw out an essential piece in our community’s strategy — focusing new housing on our city’s boulevards. Down-zoning the city’s transit-rich boulevards would be a step backward for Santa Monica, keeping us mired in traffic and inefficiency that diminishes our families’ quality of life and hinders our businesses’ ability to attract and retain employees and customers.
We need to plan intelligently for our future so that we can reduce traffic, encourage business growth and fix the jobs-housing imbalance while minimizing impacts on our existing neighborhoods. (Did you know that downtown Santa Monica currently has approximately 10 jobs for every one unit of housing?) As a forward-looking city located in a region with a severe housing shortage, we must allow new housing opportunities for people of all stages of life and all income levels in areas close to public transit options. In addition to helping address the region’s housing shortage, this will help minimize traffic by providing more opportunities for the city’s employees to also reside here and take advantage of our region’s growing transportation network. A careful balance between preserving our neighborhoods’ character and smart growth is critical.
Lifetime resident and local business owner Susan Gabriel Potter, owner of ISU Bob Gabriel Co. Insurance, worries: “In my opinion, if the LUCE is amended we will see continued stagnation of the Wilshire Boulevard corridor. Wilshire needs to be a pedestrian-friendly boulevard, which will in turn help activate businesses in the area.”
Unfortunately, the LUCE’s plan for reviving Wilshire Boulevard — by adding housing opportunities and getting more people on sidewalks, resulting in safer and more vibrant streets — is under threat. On March 18 the Planning Commission will meet to discuss changing the LUCE to remove the proposed activity centers — targeted sites identified for dynamic place-making opportunities, including affordable housing, creative uses and open space — along Wilshire, as well as down-zoning our mixed-use boulevards, stunting potential growth to levels so low that it will not make any economic sense to build housing. We will be stuck with the current predominance of single-story commercial-only development. Our traffic problems and housing imbalance will remain, and our streetscape will remain as inefficient as ever.
We highly encourage everyone who supports a more walkable, livable Santa Monica — with a mix of transportation and housing options — to speak on March 18 and tell our Planning Commissioners that the proposed down-zoning LUCE amendments are a major step in the wrong direction, and that you support the LUCE’s vision of encouraging new housing along our major transportation corridors.
We should stand by the many years of hard work and outreach that created a sensible, forward-looking plan to increase housing options in strategic, transit oriented locations, making our streets safer and protecting our neighborhoods. The adoption of the Zoning Ordinance will be the first step toward implementing this plan. Now is not the time to second-guess ourselves.
The Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce strives to support both our 1,000-plus business members and all Santa Monicans who want to be engaged in a positive, fact-based discussion about the future of our city. Planning for smart growth while protecting our existing neighborhoods is the LUCE’s fundamental policy goal. The Chamber will be there at every step of the way to ensure we implement this vision and continue to move forward as a vibrant Santa Monica. We hope you will join us.
Laurel Rosen is president of the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce.