Thanks to a smart planning process and foresight, Downtown Santa Monica has evolved over the decades into a thriving urban neighborhood.
As the city moves forward with the Downtown Specific Plan, which will guide how the area is shaped over the next couple of decades, we have a once-in-a-lifetime chance over the next few months to make sure that Downtown Santa Monica continues to evolve to realize its potential as a complete neighborhood.
Issues like an over-dependence on automobiles and our dramatic housing shortage – along with the skyrocketing rents and traffic congestion these forces conspire to produce – are problems that require innovative solutions and a thoughtful planning process that looks not only at individual projects but also at the downtown as a cohesive urban environment.
We need a downtown that allows for better access to transit, more and varied housing options near transit, reduced parking requirements for residents who want to live car-free or car-light, active and inviting street-level plazas that draw us out of our vehicles, parklets, and better sidewalks and state-of-the-art bike infrastructure that make the roads comfortable and safe for everyone to use.
But as we move forward, we cannot ignore the elephant in the room: growth is necessary and the Downtown Specific Plan can guide it in a smart, sustainable way. Let’s not allow peripheral concerns like how tall a new building might be to divert our focus from whether and how a particular building and the uses it will contain can enrich the urban fabric, beautify and activate the street, and improve the lives of those living and working in the downtown neighborhood and throughout the city.
And, let’s keep in mind that, as we plan the future of our downtown, the hospitality and tourism industry is an essential provider of well-paying jobs and an important source of tax revenue that allows our city to provide high-quality services for all residents. We have to allow for this industry to evolve along with the rest of the downtown.
Our downtown is unique in our city in that it is one of the only neighborhoods where we will see new buildings for homes and jobs built, and as such, the future of Downtown Santa Monica will play an integral role in addressing our city’s dramatic housing shortage.
The Downtown Specific Plan is a chance to give people who make this city run – the nurses and doctors, the hotel workers and bus drivers, the cooks and wait staff, the tech entrepreneurs and customer service workers – the opportunity to live closer to work rather than commute here daily from other parts of the region.
New homes in our downtown must encourage diversity and as such need to be affordable to a range of incomes; that means new market-rate housing is essential and can help fund housing for lower-income people, including those who work in the restaurants, hotels, schools, and hospitals that help our city thrive.
Downtown is also one of the most transit-rich areas on the Westside, with regional bus – and soon Expo Light rail – lines starting in Downtown Santa Monica and connecting to LAX, Downtown Los Angeles, UCLA, Culver City, and other destinations.
When the Expo Light rail begins operating to Downtown Santa Monica in the first half of next year, it will be the single biggest change to our city’s transportation system since the I-10 opened in 1965.
As a vibrant urban center, downtown is many things. It is a tech hub, the gateway to the beach and the historic Santa Monica Pier, a place where people come to play and to work in a variety of industries, and a place thousands call home. It has some of the city’s best restaurants, bars, and fun hot spots. It’s home to the nation’s premier Farmers Market, which has spurred regional innovation in restaurants and cuisine. It’s a place where people come together to innovate and to recreate, to meet new friends and hang out with old ones.
But it wasn’t always that way. Third Street, the historic center of Santa Monica’s downtown, has been reimagined several times throughout its history. In 1965, with business declining as suburban malls sprang up around Los Angeles, the street closed to cars and became known as the Santa Monica Mall. Municipal parking structures replaced buildings on 2nd and 4th streets. However, businesses and pedestrian counts in Downtown Santa Monica continued to decline.
In the 1980s the Third Street Promenade was reimagined, through a thoughtful and forward-thinking public planning process, around movie theaters, outdoor dining, and dinosaur topiaries. In conjunction with a reinvestment in the Pier – a testament to the interconnectedness of downtown and other parts of the city – Santa Monica’s urban core rose again. It has now grown into a hub of restaurants, shopping, and start-up companies that that planners in the 1980s never imagined.
Downtown Santa Monica, like all urban environments, is never truly finished. Downtown Santa Monica is a process as much as it is a place. Its streets and buildings evolve as the needs and habits of the people who live, work, and play there change.
The Downtown Specific Plan will shape what the district becomes over the next 20 years, giving us the opportunity to reimagine Downtown Santa Monica as the complete neighborhood we all deserve.
As a progressive community, we should actively work together with our local representatives and city staff to achieve these goals.
Elena Christopoulos, Brian Derro, Frederick Zimmerman, Claire J. Bowin, Dwight Flowers, Stephen Rubin, Juan Matute, Judy Abdo, Barry Cassilly, Michael Folonis, Cynthia Rose, Grace Phillips, Jerry Rubin, Sharon and John Hart, Carl Hansen, and Daniel Shenise for Santa Monica Forward. Read previous columns at santamonicaforward.org.