The Downtown Santa Monica skyline is in for changes once a new plan to guide development in the area is adopted by the City Council. (Photo by Daniel Archuleta)

“If what is called the development of our cities is allowed to multiply at the present rate, then by the end of the century our world could consist of isolated oases of glassy monuments surrounded by a limbo of shacks and beige constructions, and we will be unable to distinguish any one global city from another. This pandemic of generic buildings will have no connection to each other, let alone to the climate and culture of their location.”

This extremely dire statement depicts Notopia as envisioned by the British architectural publication, “The Architectural Review.” It is one potential scenario at the end of the ongoing and extraordinary urban growth taking place on every continent and is perhaps the compliment to and parallel of business/industrial globalization that is exacerbated by the migrations of mass populations from one continent to another. Further, it has been compounded by the widespread destruction of the less dense often historic cities by disenfranchised groups of peoples as well as radical extremists such as in Syria, Iraq and parts of North Africa. Often it represents a complete disrespect for the indigenous architecture and culture.

Although the global unrest, climate changes and changes in the worldwide economic fabric may appear to be having a greater effect on other larger communities, we are not immune. Smaller coastal communities like ours are and will continue to be altered physically and demographically by these worldwide changes. On the East Coast we have the urban and suburban sprawl, which has been deemed a megalopolis as it stretches from Boston to Washington and beyond.

How do we reinforce the fabric and sense of community for our small coastal town? In a recent article on urban growth, the Financial Times of London indicated that developments in a city such as ours pose a challenge to the social cohesion between existing residents and newcomers, putting pressure on urban planners to better understand how neighborhoods interact.

At the heart of the issue is the question: Does the increased density represented by these developments and those pushed for by some of our own city staff and politicians destroy the existing social fabric of the neighborhoods which make up our community? It is further complicated by the economics because as density increases property values escalate up forcing out those residents who have lived here 40 to 50 years.   

An important part of the wellbeing and cohesiveness of any community is the personnel interaction between neighbors and neighborhoods. Good design, not density, can reinforce it. This is the continuing challenge that urban planners, policy makers and community workers face globally and should, of course, be the challenge right here. Some studies have shown that overly dense urban areas do the opposite and alienate. How is it local residents hesitate to go downtown? It is because most new developments do not facilitate this interaction.

We need to continually focus in on how as residents of this small city we can protect the scale and character which brought us here. Large-scale developments with so-called iconic buildings are not the answer. We cannot continue to sell off public property assets to private hands so they can leverage that value and build as much or more than the code allows. We need for our city a new kind of planning, one where master plans are in place accompanied by a completely visualized urban design component. These must take into account the external forces which, like the rising sea levels, will impact the ultimate form of our city and the need to develop net zero energy efficient building designs, and the need to retrofit existing structures so they are more energy efficient and earthquake resistant.

Further, plans need to create a distinctive image that respects our history and the cultural diversity that created our community.

These are tools we need immediately. They are long overdue. We need an acceptable downtown-specific plan with a detailed urban design component, one which reflects the existing residential and commercial projects that have already been entitled. That plan should allow an enhanced and interconnected system of open space. Perhaps, at 4th Street and Arizona Avenue, add a central urban park to provide the heart and core to our downtown which it currently lacks. This plan should enhance view corridors and arcades, pedestrian and bike access.

New residential developments should be required to have more open space for the use of the tenants and they should be encouraged to share that space at grade to pedestrians and other local residents. Solar access from one lot to the next should be respected in the plans.

That plan should enhance the potential interaction of the neighborhoods and the downtown and should not create barriers to that interaction. It should foster our interconnectedness by reducing traffic and allowing residents to re-engage with their downtown.

The plan contents should be completely vetted before the public so that residents can provide their feedback. So often in the past our awareness of planning decisions comes to us after the fact. In the end we need a system of checks and balances so that no individuals or powerful groups whether appointed or elected can subvert the will of the public and allow breakaway development.

Santa Monica has an opportunity to lead the way with the passage of the LUVE initiative.

The initiative is a step in the direction of controlling our own destiny. Effectively, it is tied to the Land Use and Circulation Element and to our zoning ordinance and does not impede residential development. Further, it puts back into the hands of our residents the final decisions on those larger development projects that may violate the quality of life that we have heretofore enjoyed and the sense of our community that we loved.

I believe we residents have the good judgement to never allow this city to morph into a Notopia.

Samuel Tolkin for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)