In 1972 I moved to Ocean Park in Santa Monica to attend college and have lived here ever since. What struck me then were the numerous abandoned derelict storefronts on Main Street and the Third Street Promenade. There were very few restaurants, theaters, shops, or any cultural activities. The Pacific Ocean Park Pier was fenced of and had suffered a number of fires and lay in rubble. This was not the ‘Sleepy Little Beach Town’ I imagined or experienced.
Finally in the 1970’s and early 1980’s Santa Monica began to make urban design decisions that started the positive transformation of the city; the successful makeover of Main Street, the Third Street Promenade and Santa Monica Place. Ocean Park’s Enterprise Fish Company and Santa Monica Place was opened and helped to launch positive changes to our urban landscape.
By contrast our city has come a very long way by thoughtful urban planning, a knowledgeable city planning director, an experienced planning staff and a council who have made development decisions that are practical, well-informed, and good for our city, the downtown residents and the city as a whole.
Housing is a critical part of the equation in a city’s development and we need to be active participants in building work-force, affordable and market-rate housing. People like to live where they work and near one another. European cities have evolved like this over centuries. Most modern American cities were not conceived this way but many are now making urban design decisions to embrace this basic planning principle; Downtown Los Angeles is a prime example and it is thriving.
In the last ten years Santa Monica’s downtown had virtually no housing. According to the Santa Monica Planning Department from 2010 to 2016 a total of four housing projects had been built; a total 271 units, including a project located at 1318 2nd Street, which has yet to be completed. That’s an average of 45 units per year. We are told
that our downtown core, which is much less than 4% of the entire city area, is being overdeveloped but this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
There is no doubt that there is traffic in downtown Santa Monica which is unmanageable. We have also been told that overdevelopment in downtown is to blamed, but this is another falsehood. With only 271 apartment units built in the last six years, where is all the traffic coming from?
Our City Manager, Rick Cole recently said the city estimates approximately 200,000 people come and go on a daily basis in and out of Santa Monica. Therein lies the answer to the traffic congestion, it is not overdevelopment. In fact if there were more housing in downtown it would actually help alleviate some of the congestion, but not completely solve the traffic problem.
In a recent national survey of all major metropolitan U.S. cities, Los Angeles has the distinction of having the nations worst traffic congestion on the 10 freeway between 20th Street in Santa Monica and Alameda Street in Los Angeles. This survey helps us understand the complexity; it will take original and creative urban design solutions to help relieve the problem.
Developers in San Francisco’s downtown are not required to build parking for their apartment units. They can negotiate with the city to build limited parking. It stands to reason congestion is created because we build large parking garages, which brings more cars into the city. A single parking space in a subterranean garage takes approximately 450 square feet inclusive of the space, driveway, ramp isles, mechanical space, bicycle parking, fire exit stairs, elevators, the list goes on. 450 square feet of space which is mostly occupied between the hours of 6 p.m. and 7 a.m., otherwise it empty. 450 square feet is the size of a small apartment unit. Similarly, the parking stall we use at work is an empty space overnight.
We can make better urban design decisions regarding density and traffic solutions in our downtown core.
Housing is not the enemy, it is the solution. It is the solution as proximity of uses that negates the need to use a car. It’s how we create balance and social equity, it’s a core community value of Santa Monica.
By Michael Folonis
Michael Folonis, FAIA is a resident of Santa Monica since 1972 and an architect with a practice in Santa Monica since 1983.