By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. July 28, 2020

Tonight the City Council will take next steps in the redevelopment of a 2.57-acre site at the corner of 5th/Arizona in downtown Santa Monica. Purchased with public funds, the site combines nine contiguous parcels, including several surface parking lots and two one-story banks – low-scale commercial uses no longer appropriate for a modern urban core.

Envisioning what should occur there goes back a long time. How have such visions evolved? What do they tell us about our choices today?

Movi(e)ng targets

Discussion of purchasing and redeveloping the 5th/Arizona site was already underway in the late 1990s/early 2000 when I was on the City Council. One objective was to expand downtown movie theater uses, but with more modern multi-screen theaters, and anchored by a well-known movie theater company.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the Third Street Promenade theaters were a big draw. People who came for movies stayed and spent money at our shops and restaurants, generating enormous economic benefit for the City. ‘If we expanded theatre uses to 5th/Arizona’, the thinking went, ‘this would expand that successful formula and our commercial district’ to a sleepy part of our downtown.

But since then, cable television and digital technologies have substantially altered movie-viewing and disrupted the theater industry; and Arc Light Cinemas developed a theater on top of Santa Monica Place instead. Today no one is proposing new movie theaters for 5th/Arizona.

Park once

A second objective related to parking. Since 1986, Santa Monica’s approach to downtown parking has been to generally waive on-site parking requirements for new development. In exchange, a fee is paid into an assessment district to secure bond financing to build multiple public parking structures, mostly along 2nd and 4th street. Then came the 1994 Northridge Earthquake – the 2nd/Colorado parking structure suffered damage, and new seismic safety standards were enacted statewide. This meant the City would need to retrofit and/or rebuild its existing parking structures downtown.

Enter the Downtown Uses Task Force in 2001/2002, which I chaired as Mayor. We adopted a “Park Once” approach, which included re-distributing some parking to other parts of downtown, both to lessen traffic congestion on 4th St. (from people getting off the I-10 freeway to get to the existing structures), and to increase pedestrian flow in more of the downtown. The underground parking at the new downtown Main Public Library, which opened in 2006, is part of that approach. So would be new underground parking at 5th/Arizona.

Urban fabric

Between 2007 and 2010, the City (and its former Redevelopment Agency) purchased the parcels to assemble the 5th/Arizona site. Then in 2010, public meetings began for its potential use, which I attended. Most comments centered around creating a different kind of urban fabric than the super-blocks that make up the rest of downtown, including different kinds of open space than we had elsewhere in the city.

Based upon this, what I anticipated was something along the lines of an old European city center, with pedestrian-only walkways and plazas interspersed within the site. For the buildings, I imagined something like the famous St. Lawrence Market in Toronto, that contains over 120 specialty food vendors, along with cultural, retail and office uses. Because this is Santa Monica, there would also be a strong housing component.

But instead of granular ‘old Europe’, the proposed design unveiled in 2013 was ‘The Plaza at Santa Monica’ – a 148 foot high, super-modern stack of rectangular modules containing mostly office space, housing and a hotel — with ground floor and second level open space dedicated to the public.

In 2015 the City Council voted to reduce the project’s proposed floor area and office space; while the major public benefit objectives were prioritized as (1) open space, (2) affordable housing, (3) cultural space, (4) parking, and (5) ground rent. Then in 2017, the Council adopted the Downtown Community Plan (DCP), which established maximum heights of 130 feet for the DCP’s newly created Established Large Site Overlay zone, in which the project lay, and at least 50% open space of the total parcel area, with a minimum of 25% at ground floor and 25% ‘without a regulated location.’

Open Space

Today’s Plaza proposal surpasses that 50% minimum, with a Main Plaza open space on the ground and second levels of the project. There would be green space in both levels; but also programmed lunchtime concerts, kiosks, a free lending library, classes, events, and large-scale gatherings like the annual downtown winter ice-skating rink.

But as is, it’s not enough. For this to really work as a great urban open space, the City also needs to commit to expand it by making Arizona Ave. pedestrian-only between 4th and 5th. The City Council should give direction to City Staff tonight to begin that planning process, so that it is ready to go when the Plaza is finally built (if ultimately approved) – and perhaps as importantly – to encourage compatible development nearby.

In that vein, the Council should direct Staff to work with the new property owner who purchased the rights to the former US Post Office building across Arizona at 5th. The previous owner had acquired the rights to build a divisive fence around that historic site. The new owners appear more community-minded, and should be encouraged to plan for an open use that is synergistic with a pedestrian-only Arizona Ave. and Main Plaza. Similar discussions should occur with the owners of the unremarkable adjacent big box at 4th/Arizona, for when it is time to redevelop that site.

The Council also needs to focus on making the top level hotel bar/restaurant space accessible to the public. Views from there will be spectacular. To help justify the still extraordinary 129 feet height now proposed for the project, these views must not be restricted to only the most well-healed. This is a critical public access and economic class issue, especially because this hotel would be built upon public land.

Similarly, will public access to the ground and second-floor open spaces differ from the use of a public park, or from the Promenade? These spaces appears to be ‘private space operated for the public’, similar to the park at Broadway/26th in Colorado Place – but different because this is public land. If there were a free speech demonstration downtown, for example, would there be a difference between peoples’ right to march on a pedestrian-only Arizona Ave. and to enter the ground level public space in the Plaza?

Housing and Parking

One approach that hasn’t changed is concentrating new housing in the downtown and along commercial corridors. This is to minimize automobile dependency, by locating new housing near public transit lines; and to preserve existing residential neighborhood character and residents, by minimizing the pressure to tear down and redevelop our existing neighborhoods.

The City is already planning on taking down parking structure #3 (across street from the Plaza on 4th St. next to Wells Fargo) and putting housing there. Public parking from structure #3 would then be moved underground parking at the Plaza, and could be accessed via 5th St.

Above ground at the Plaza, the debate is whether to build new housing on-site, or take fees from the project and build off-site. Because California state building code mandates expensive metal construction for buildings of the Plaza’s height, any new housing there would be more expensive than if built off-site. The developers are proposing this off-site approach, and offering the savings of $7.5 million back to the City. Together with standard off-site in-lieu housing fees, that would add up to $24 million to build more housing elsewhere downtown.

If the Council goes this route, they should formally dedicate these funds for this purpose, rather than just putting them into the City’s General Fund — especially since redevelopment funds were used to purchase two of the site’s parcels, and according to state law, a minimum of 20% of any redevelopment funds are supposed to go towards building low-income housing.

Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004) and voted for Santa Monica’s first Living Wage ordinance in 2001.  He can be reached via Twitter @mikefeinstein

Inside/Outside‘ is a periodic column about civic affairs Feinstein writes for the Daily Press, that takes advantage of his experience inside and outside of government.