Density is a divisive issue in Santa Monica — so much so that 45% of local voters supported a 2016 measure to put any new buildings more than two stories tall to a citywide vote.
Measure LV was ultimately rejected by 56% of voters, but it exposed a deep lack of consensus around density. While many residents feel that large new developments damage the character of their neighborhoods and contribute to higher rents, other residents, as well as policymakers and academics, say the city needs to densify to become more affordable and livable.
The 18th Street Arts Center is attempting to bring those perspectives into dialogue with one another through its exhibition DENSE-CITY: Housing for Quality of Life and Social Capital, which opens Saturday with a reception from 5 to 8 p.m. and will run through Dec. 14. A public panel on the future of affordable cities will take place Nov. 12 from 6 to 8 p.m.
DENSE-CITY will consist of models of 12 buildings designed by the architecture collective Brooks + Scarpa, which has designed multiple affordable apartment buildings in Santa Monica.
The models will be accompanied by graphics explaining how Brooks + Scarpa approached density in each building and a panel that outlines how density has changed over time in communities across America, said 18th Street artistic director Anuradha Vikram.
The exhibition will also showcase Brooks + Scarpa’s Nest toolkit, which provides a set of customizable parts that affordable housing providers can use to construct housing quickly and cheaply.
“Density is a bit of a dirty word, and that largely comes out of fear of the unknown,” said Lawrence Scarpa. “When the supply of housing is low, the cost is high — and that means unaffordable cities need to densify. What we’re trying to do is show how buildings can fit into the fabric of a city or neighborhood, not impose on it.”
DENSE-CITY is part of 18th Street’s Commons Lab, a series of five artist commissions and live events that consider how architecture and policy affect American communities, using the rapidly gentrifying Pico neighborhood as a case study.
Vikram said 18th Street has become increasingly concerned about affordability and gentrification in the neighborhood and across the Westside in recent years.
Artists struggle to find affordable housing in the area after they complete their live-work residencies at the center, she said. The same real estate forces have displaced many of the Latino, black and low-income families that lived in Pico when the 18th Street first opened in 1988.
Vikram said the center has worked to record fading memories of the neighborhood, provide grant funding for the longtime residents that remain and introduce the newer residents of Pico to its cultural history. But density has to be a part of the conversation around gentrification and affordability, she said.
“As an institution, we’re able to draw an audience that’s representative of the “old” and “new” Pico and we’re trying to foster a conversation between those communities through art,” she said. “With this exhibition, the goal is to get a lot of different people talking about equity issues in housing and design.”