City for Sale…Tons of Charm, Needs Planning

Learning from Mistakes

Development is occurring at a feverish pace in our City. The Character of our neighborhoods is under siege from outside interests. Developers are circumventing current zoning requirements using “backroom deals” with the City’s staff to provide minimal community benefits in exchange for larger projects. The result is excessive profit for the developers, and massive headaches for residents in the form of more traffic, higher utility rates and a loss of the ethos and soul of our City. This has to stop!

As an example, two mixed-use projects are currently under review by the Planning Commission for the corner of Colorado and Lincoln. There are 6 more in line for approval on this 3-block stretch along Lincoln. Steve Lopez of the LA Times describes these new projects as: “buildings so banal that developer and architect alike should be arrested for indecency”. Good design can give people dignity and make them feel richer and happier. These buildings at the gateway to our Downtown send a much different message. All of these projects are larger than the current codes allow.

So why is the City Staff complicit in a process that threatens our quality of life by permitting a 60-80% increase in allowable density Downtown? In the rush for short term economic gain, the City has become blind to what the long term effects of their policies will be: a deterioration in residents’ quality of life and a diminished appeal for tourists, as our City loses is “small beach town” allure and becomes a stereotypical urban center, a mere extension of the Wilshire corridor.

Santa Monica needs to plan for ‘sustainable’ growth. The type and location of this growth, however, should be the result of careful thought and forward planning/ not a “knee-jerk response” to developers’ proposals. For example, transient housing adjacent to transit stations makes sense as “high density” development whereas family housing is better suited to “low-rise” buildings closer to residential neighborhoods and parks where children can play safely. There are currently 30 predominantly residential development agreements being processed. Before they are approved, their location, height, density and compatibility with the surrounding areas should be carefully studied. In 2010, the LUCE projected citywide growth by 2030 of just under 5,000 dwelling units. By June 2014 we will surpass that number, if the pending projects are built. Are we, as a City, making the right choices? Is the City Staff looking out for our best interests?

In addition to traffic issues created by increased density, parking also becomes a serious problem. On the downtown periphery, projects that were designated to provide surplus parking, to make up for this shortage, are unable to even provide for their own tenants. Under the TDM program, developers are allowed a 20-30% reduction in the code mandated parking. Making matters worse, spaces normally reserved for tenants can now be sold on the open market, forcing more cars onto our streets. For example, the two projects (190 apartments total) being processed along Lincoln and Colorado will not have sufficient spaces for their tenants. The fact that there is no available curb parking, will exacerbate rather than relieve the current parking shortage. We should be able to learn from urban areas like Century City where developers were allowed to provide parking for only 20,000 tenants. Today there are over twice the number of tenants- 43,000. Are we to suffer the same fate? It is much easier to build parking from the onset than after the fact.

Is our City so “strapped for cash” that we need to cater more to developers’ demands than residents needs? Currently, our City has a budget in excess of a half billion dollars! If more funds are needed, wouldn’t it make more sense to trim spending, than sell off precious City properties for large developments that provide little benefit to the citizens? Development Agreements have provided developers a 60-80% increase in density and building mass while simultaneously allowing a 20-40% reduction in the amount of parking provided. At the two Lincoln projects, for example, the developers will be saving $1m to $3m in garage constructions costs. As these windfall profits go into the developers’ pockets, residents are expected to endure increased traffic, less parking and city streets dwarfed and shaded by towering buildings.

Affordable housing is the one benefit that does strengthen the community rather than just the developer. However, it has become one of the engines that drive these dense, ill- conceived projects. Wouldn’t it be better to require developers to contribute to a fund that would enable the City to build the affordable units in locations where they would provide the most advantage for those who will be living there? If so, it is unlikely that they would be located downtown in the densest part of the City.

Our vision for Santa Monica is a City where families can raise their children in low-density residential neighborhoods and enjoy a more tranquil quality of life. It is a vision of a beach town that serves the greater region with relief from the heat and density of the megalopolis that surrounds it. Why does the Staff and Council seem intent on having us blended into that megalopolis, destroying the very unique qualities that set the city apart as a worldwide destination. Development Agreements should not replace creative, responsible planning with hollow promises of community benefits. In the latter case, it is the developers rather than City Planners that end up as the de-facto designers of our City. Their interests are not ours and the offer of profit over quality of life is a bad bargain.

We should learn from mistakes made, and refuse to repeat them as we move forward. We need to preserve that which we value in our City as we strive to build a sustainable, livable City for the future.

Ron Goldman FAIA for Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow

What do we Need?

Building Heights, Sense of Place, Urban Plaza

It appears that our City Council is in the midst of an identity crisis, our identity. They believe that both we and they live or should live in a different much denser urban place.

They think they are working for those that would develop the City rather than those that live in it. If they were representing the citizens, they would be building on Santa Monica’s seaside allure and prevent developers from turning our City into a dense urban environment.

In approving “The Plaza at Santa Monica” (on Arizona between 4th and 5th), the City Council was seduced yet again by a developer, his world-class architect and even more troubling by our own (well paid) planning staff.

We might attribute the massive nature of the design proposal to the program, a Rubik’s Cube generated by our own staff in an effort to satisfy all the disparate factions that exist in our fair city and that vie for influence.

The Council unanimously acquiesced to this proposal of almost half a million square feet – an area the size of Santa Monica Place and equivalent in height and length to a football field turned on edge. Putting this in perspective, a proposal that would spin off to the city $6.4 million per year that represents only 1 percent of the annual city budget.

A project this size will create significant traffic, cut light and blue sky, cast shadow on many existing lower scale buildings in the area, increase demand on infrastructure and services, and most importantly waste this site’s potential. And contrary to council statements, the 448,000 sq. ft. project would use substantially all the on-site parking provided – not allowing elimination of parking lot 3 for a theatre complex as the council envisions. Not only is this a highly questionable precedent to set, but worst of all is totally unnecessary.

Net income for a 4 level garage structure with a park above would cover the $1.3 million land lease to the city. And if really necessary, adding modest development on 30 percent of the site along with a modest increase in sales tax revenue on properties fronting the park, the city would realize the majority of the $6.4M yearly revenue they expect from this huge 448,000 sq. ft. development.

What should it be?

If we drew a plan of growing downtown, we might recognize that this 2.9-acre parcel by its location has become the new center of gravity in an expanding downtown district. This is a real “opportunity site,” being geographically the central hub of downtown with shopping, dining and living spreading north, east, south and west – creating a sense of place for all to enjoy, not just tourists.

We don’t believe that we need a massive iconic building to attract visitors and little serve our residents. We already have the Pacific Ocean, our beach, our Palisades Park, our historic pier, our promenade of upscale commercial and our relaxed beach culture with its open skies, sunlight, and moderate temperature – assets in abundance.

We believe it is basically wrong and unnecessary to put affordable housing or still another hotel on this site. There are other properties in the downtown area available for redevelopment – not everything has to be, or should be, sold to the highest bidder – and especially when the city is demonstrably underselling itself.

And this is not the only project in the vicinity. There are another 1.5M square feet in planning east to Lincoln and nearly 2M square feet west to Ocean Ave.

So what do we need?

We believe that what is needed to offset the dense residential and commercial development presently occurring in the downtown is an urban plaza of both hard and softscape with amenities that we lack elsewhere. This kind of open space would directly respond to our LUCE and would have the following characteristics:

  • a park with shade trees, fountains and sculpture providing contrast to the paved 3rd Street Promenade;
  • a town square opening to 4th & 5th streets and Arizona, and benefiting from this solar orientation;
  • provide for small concerts, real public art, ice skating in the winter, an open-air market and much more;
  • a minimum of 70 percent open space;
  • possibly, low scale perimeter structures on the south portion which, if necessary, could include a theatre complex, or simply a café;
  • 3 – 4 subterranean parking levels;
  • provide a place for residents, commuting workers and visitors to recreate or rest, focused at street level where people will use it, rather than three staggered rooftop levels 20, 58, and 96 feet above the sidewalk;
  • and integrating this plaza into the fabric of downtown with enhanced access to new theatres and the promenade through the creation of an arcade.

This is public property, it is the residents who own this property, and the City has the highest obligation to do the best for the public good. As seductive as the developers’ proposal may appear in their shadowless renderings, we cannot let this “opportunity site” be squandered on a project that doesn’t represent either the needs or the will of Santa Monica’s citizenry. We’re advocating making this a remarkable town square which will bring residents back into downtown – an extremely important piece of Santa Monica’s future.

Sam Tolkin Architect, and Ron Goldman FAIA for Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow

A Plan To Get Around

Infrastructure Planning

The famous renegade industrial designer Victor Papanek once wrote: “The only important thing about design is how it relates to people.” Our city is in the midst of a comprehensive, multi-year redesign effort. We can see this in the dozens of development projects slated to start in the near future, in the appearance of new citizen advocacy groups, and in the pressure–loudly expressed by residents in City Council meetings–to improve conditions in this increasingly crowded city. Our mobility–the way we get around the city, and go to nearby cities, is an essential part of the redesign. We have got to get this right.

Our transportation infrastructure is being made to evolve, at this very moment, simply by the changing tastes and needs of people who live and work here. We have all seen the large numbers of bicycle riders on our streets. This is just one example of a trend toward alternative transportation methods that will rapidly evolve and diversify in the near future. The city has made it a great deal easier to get around by bicycle, but residents and visitors are leading the charge, making bicycle-riding a popular way of moving around the city.

Cars aren’t going away any time soon. Bus ridership will increase. The train is coming next year. Between all of these things and the rapid increase in smaller vehicles and in bicycle use, our physical spaces made for moving around–streets, alleys and sidewalks–are under increasing strain, because we cannot manufacture more streets, or make existing streets wider. We must function within the existing limits, but everyone wants complete freedom of movement. To prevent chaos, gridlock and conflict, we must have a comprehensive transportation infrastructure plan that takes into account a wide range of factors, from construction projects in the pipeline, to the increasing population of both young and elderly people, to the contrasting views of different people in the community. One-off, ad-hoc solutions simply are inadequate.

The design theorist and Berkeley professor Horst Rittel described this kind of situation as a Wicked Problem: one where solutions are difficult to come by because of inherent contradictions, stakeholders with radically different perspectives, and because the attempt to solve one part of the problem may reveal or even create other problems.

We can solve wicked problems, but this often involves choosing one of three strategies: we could place the responsibility for solving these problems in the hands of a few people; we can pit opposing viewpoints against each other in an adversarial, winner-take-all approach, or we can work in a collaborative way, in which all people with a stake in the problem get engaged in solving it. The collaborative strategy is often the most successful, although, as Rittel points out, the disadvantage of this approach is that it’s often a time-consuming process. But we have seen, here in our own city, the abject failure of the first two methods.

The City has done many things right. The Michigan Avenue Neighborhood Greenway project, for all its intense controversies, was a creative effort to solve many contradictory problems simultaneously, and provide more transportation alternatives to some of the most vulnerable folks in the city (students, and those of lower income). The city ultimately heard the concerns of neighbors and made adjustments to the plan. This demonstrated an interesting and rare compromise intended to resolve both future needs and present dilemmas. The result is a kind of prototype for identifying places where we can integrate different ways of getting around. Our colleague Ron Goldman has, for some time, been working on a similar project in the City of Los Angeles, identifying certain streets that could be closed off without impacting local residents, vehicular movement and providing protected space for bicyclists and pedestrians. The Lincoln Boulevard design program (LINC) shows great promise in integrating many different modes of transportation. And the City has also encouraged general awareness of bicycling as an alternative means of getting around, including the bicycle activities at this weekend’s Santa Monica Festival, an event well worth visiting.

All of these are important things. But they are limited in scope, and do not address the larger, systemic challenges that we face. For that, we need a more comprehensive planning effort that brings in many different interested people from around the city, professionals and other residents impacted by the need to get around easily and quickly. We’re dealing with an infrastructure problem linked to other important issues, such as development, and the availability of adequate electricity, water and sewage.

The City can take a stronger lead on this wider-ranging effort. It can create an umbrella plan that would take into account many different and contradictory needs. For example, there are areas in the city where sidewalks are so narrow that pedestrians have difficulty navigating the streets. In those areas we could make adjustments to the zoning code that would require new buildings to be set back, on the first floor, to provide more room for walking and a bit of green space as well–a true contribution to the community. We could reconfigure certain streets with carefully controlled one-way traffic and with timed traffic lights to encourage smooth and rapid movement. This would make room for safe bicycle paths that are physically separated from cars, and would allow cars to flow freely without fear of interacting with bicyclists. (These paths would require careful planning in order to avoid eliminating much-needed parking in neighborhoods with a scarcity of parking spots). We could rearrange our bus stops to provide adequate shade and enough room for seniors to sit comfortably–a change from the inadequate and poorly designed new seats. Perhaps we could even reconfigure the downtown area to include a real bus station, with shuttles for getting people to the station. The City could also help solve the problem of charging electric vehicles (including, most importantly, the increasingly- important electric bicycles) in older existing multifamily apartment buildings; a difficult and as- yet unsolved issue.

Taking the lead from the Urban Forest Task Force and the Lincoln Boulevard Task Force, we could have a Citizens’ Transportation Task Force on Alternative Mobility, to help solicit and implement real-world solutions to challenges that our residents actually experience every day. As with the Urban Forest and the Lincoln Boulevard Task forces, such a mobility task force could bring together people with very different viewpoints, working together to craft practical, real-world solutions. This is the kind of collaborative strategy recommended by Professor Rittel, mentioned above.

With transportation, as with so many other infrastructure issues we face daily, the lack of alternatives often forces (or encourages) us to use inappropriate technologies. For many trips, a “small is beautiful” approach can yield big dividends both for individuals and communities. The “last mile” problem (the mile between transit and home, and between major thoroughfares and end destinations) can be solved in many different ways. It is not necessary to drive everywhere, nor should we be forced to walk or bicycle everywhere.

Instead of an either/or choice, we should have a both/and option, and this can only be achieved with a proper planning approach that is wide-ranging, comprehensive and takes into account the real-world conditions that we actually face in this city. This includes the number of development projects in the pipeline, along with their traffic and other infrastructure burdens, the evolving transportation preferences of people that live and work here, and the actual impact of circulation changes to local neighborhoods and institutions (such as schools). It also includes the actual physical constraints of the existing curb-to-curb street widths that we must all share. As with any responsible infrastructure planning, this comprehensive transportation planning effort must come before the approval of major new projects, and not after.

Creating individual solutions for specific locations is helpful, but a piecemeal approach must be replaced with a larger vision for the whole city that is firmly rooted in the needs of local residents and businesses, that takes into account real-world conditions, and connects properly with the region as a whole. It may seem like a tangle of contradictions, but it is in such “wicked” problems that we can find creative solutions for all of us.

Robert H. Taylor AIA, Architect and Daniel Jansenson, Architect, for SM a.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

Press Release regarding the Metropolitan Pacific Project 6.9.14

Press Release

To the Santa Monica City Council:

Although the developer and his world class architect have done an excellent job in following the program which you and the staff outlined, neither the 148 ft. design nor the 84 foot design, though very well conceived and beautifully presented, seem right for this very significant and pivotal location in the future plan of our downtown. This project is not right for Santa Monica unless your intent is to create Santa Megalopolis, as this project is literally the size of a football field turned on edge vertically. We have enough assets already and unlike a Bilbao Museum we don’t need a massive iconic building to attract attention to our City . The program you gave the developer was a Rubik’s Cube which he beautifully solved – but unfortunately he was given the wrong cube. This property represents the shift in the center of gravity that the growth of downtown towards Lincoln Boulevard has created.

We need not remind you that while this is city-owned property, it’s the residents who own this property. This is the peoples’ property! How do the people want to use their property? The staff took results from initial community meetings in 2011 and, instead of controlling design, they set about increasing density and height as well as demand on infrastructure and services, creating more shadow and less blue sky and sunlight. Instead of the program for this project being decided from the top down, it should have been from the bottom up! The city has the highest obligation to do the best for the public good, and it should take into account the public’s priorities.

These 3 acres are a gift–a real opportunity site representing an extraordinary chance to recognize this shift in the center of gravity downtown with a kind of iconic space and buildings that we the residents, the commuting workers, and even our visitors will appreciate. We feel that this site surrounded by lower scale buildings should be developed as an urban plaza that opens to 4th street, a kind of Saint Marks Square with trees, fountains, sculpture and surrounded by cafes, a hotel, offices and more. Perimeter buildings to the east would be up on piers to provide physical access to 5th street.

With the objectives of the LUCE in mind, the program may well have envisioned the following:

First, this is not a standard lot, but the new center of gravity for a downtown that is moving from Ocean Avenue to the 3rd Street Promenade and continuing easterly to Lincoln. This effectively makes the property geographically the central hub of downtown with shopping, dining, and living spreading north, east, south and west.

Second, we feel this hub should serve primarily as a real town square, focused at street level where the overwhelming majority of residents, employees, and tourists will then use it – with a minority portion of the site occupied with development, even possibly including a boutique hotel all above 4 levels of parking.

Third, we also envision the future possibility of closing or with a pedestrian bridge over Arizona to incorporate the historic post office site as part of the overall design – increasing the size of the town square while also enabling some increased development.

Fourth, we don’t see this town square as solely another soft-surface landscaped park, but as the city’s central plaza over underground parking. Tongva Park south of the freeway and outside the downtown perimeter serves as the alternative soft surface park.

Fifth, we see the town square being primarily oriented to 4th Street in addition to Arizona enabling it to take full advantage of south and west sunlight.

Sixth, we feel that it is most important to integrate this plaza into the fabric of the downtown by taking into account and relating to surrounding development. For instance, a midblock arcade would connect the 3rd Street Promenade with the new 4th Street theater complex and the new town square.

We’re advocating continuing to be a low-rise, family friendly city, making this a truly exemplary project within a 50 ft. height limit, and bringing residents back into the downtown. Economically, we can more than make up the 6 million dollars of projected yearly income with either open development along the easterly and southerly perimeter of the commons, or free-standing buildings integrated within the commons. In addition, surrounding commercial space on 4th and 5th Streets will increase in value. And there is also the possibility of transferring a portion of this development to city-owned Reed Park

This could be our Central Park, our Millenium Park, a St. Mark’s Square – a long term community benefit and a truly meaningful quality-of-life commitment–an extremely important piece of Santa Monica’s future.

Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow (SMart)

Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Bob Taylor AIA, Dan Jansenson Architect, Armen Melkonians P.E., Sam Tolkin Architect, Thane Roberts AIA, Phil Brock Recreation & Parks Commission.

Failure to Plan Should Not Be An Option

Infrastructure Planning

Two weeks ago one of our SM a.r.t. members was forced out of his apartment by a fire resulting from the explosion of a faulty transformer. The response by the Fire Department was exemplary, but for many of us, this incident reinforced the sense of an aging, and indeed tottering infrastructure in our city. Too often we hear of transformer explosions, blackouts or brownouts, sudden drops in water pressure, and other events that make us wonder if the buildings, roads, and power supplies needed for the operation of our city are failing to keep up.

It is an indisputable fact that increased development requires increased infrastructure. A large new project will impose demands on the city’s road network, water system, sewage network, fire department, school system, electrical networks and many other services Santa Monica provides to residents and visitors. Do we have enough capacity to support the many new projects in the pipeline?

The city has made an effort to answer this question. The main planning document for our city is the 2010 Land Use and Circulation Element. This plan guides planning decisions in the city all the way out to the year 2030. The LUCE plan estimates that by 2030 Santa Monica would have 4,900 new dwelling units. How did the LUCE plan arrive at this number? It uses population figures developed by two California government organizations, and those–in part– are forecasts based on historical trends, and not on what the plan itself actually allows to be built in the city. This is an important figure to get right, because the number of people living here, among other things, will help determine the amount of infrastructure improvements the city will need.

In a report packed tight with data, back in 2012, our colleague Armen Melkonians noted the number of dwellings forecast by the LUCE plan, and compared them to the number that would be allowed to be built under the same plan. Armen found that just for the Bergamot area alone, the city forecast an increase of about 1,300 dwelling units, but the plan actually allowed an increase of about 7,000 units. That’s a huge difference in water, sewage, electricity and fire services right there, and that is just one part of the city.

So which estimate should we use–the one based on historical trends, or the one based on what the plan actually allows? Every large project up for approval has relied on the city’s numbers, so this is an important question. Will developers build to the maximum size allowed by the code, or will they stop short? For the answer, take a look around the city and notice that developers are doing their job well.

The city has a goal of water self-sufficiency (from its own wells and other sources) within six years. This is a worthy plan, because the city’s own groundwater supplies are more reliable than water purchased from the state (which is susceptible to droughts and other events). One problem is that the city’s calculations for the amount of water needed are based on the same historical-trend population estimates mentioned earlier, and not on what our own zoning code actually allows, which–potentially– could result in far greater water consumption. Another problem is that we do not have exclusive rights to the aquifer in which our wells our located. The city of Los Angeles, for example, recently commissioned a study to see how much water it could extract for the city from this very same source (at the Venice Reservoir site, near Palms). So it is unclear how much water Santa Monica could eventually get from its own existing wells, and from the new ones it is planning to build, even as its water conservation efforts (including the use of recycled water) achieve truly remarkable results. If we cannot meet all our water needs, we will continue to purchase water from the MWD to make up the difference, at prices influenced by outside factors (such as drought). In this scenario, the more development that takes place, the more water will be purchased, and at increasingly higher prices.

Another important issue is the ability of the Fire Department to provide speedy service in areas that are becoming increasingly congested by the construction of large projects. The LUCE Environmental Impact Statement, looking at this issue (p. 4.11-9) said: “implementation of the proposed LUCE would not substantially increase traffic volumes and worsen intersection operations on a citywide scale,” so the LUCE plan–according to the report–would not have significant impacts on the Fire Department. And, in any case, the report continues, it’s up to the Fire Department itself to do long-range planning for any additional staffing or facilities.

Our Fire Department is staffed by expert and extremely competent people who achieve wonderful results (in 2008, the average response time was 4 minutes for emergencies, and 5 minutes for non-emergency calls), and they must surely be thinking hard about how to deal with this problem. But it is unclear to what extent the Fire Department is able to evaluate the total traffic impact of multiple projects coming on-line within a short amount of time. There are about three-dozen projects in the pipeline right now. Reasonable people may differ on the cumulative impact these projects may have on Fire Department response times, but what if Armen’s estimates are correct, and we see much more intensive development than anticipated by LUCE? In that event, there will be no choice but to expand the Fire Department’s resources (and water availability, since those two are connected), and those must be planned in advance, before–and not after–large projects are approved. As in so many other city matters, it is better to plan ahead–transparently–than to play catch-up when it’s late.

If we assume that what the city’s LUCE plan allows will actually get built, then we must estimate the amount of water–and other infrastructure needs such as roadwork, electricity, sewage, fire services and schools–accordingly, and plan for the real impact of those costs on residents. When a project is evaluated, the full number of other projects in the pipeline must be taken into account, and not only some (as occurred with the recently defeated Bergamot Transit Village project). Will completion of a very large project result in increased water costs for residents throughout the city? It is only fair to let people know the answer. For the Fire Department, any single project may not have much impact on overall response times, but 30 projects completed in a short period could present a very different picture. As more projects get completed, the room for errors in infrastructure planning matters gets smaller.

It is possible that the city’s planners and many consultants are right: we might have enough water to last us through 2030. Our Fire Department might be able to cut through the extra traffic quickly enough to save lives. Our schools might be able to absorb thousands of new students brought by developments encouraged by the LUCE plan. But what if these hopeful guesstimates are wrong, and Armen’s estimates–that what the LUCE plan allows will, in fact, be fully built– are correct? Without a comprehensive and truly realistic plan, our goose, as the saying goes, will be cooked, and the ever-increasing infrastructure costs will impose an ever- increasing and heavy burden on our residents and businesses. The denser the city gets, the less room we have for mistakes in planning.

One explanation we often hear for the approval of large projects centers around the community benefits these projects would provide, but little is heard of the infrastructure burdens imposed by these same projects. Swimming vigorously in our city’s development waters is a large and hungry shark called the Law of Unintended Consequences. It would be an ironic tragedy if the very people intended to benefit from these projects were harmed, instead, by the rising tide of infrastructure costs that may, eventually, engulf the city.

 

Daniel Jansenson, Architect, for SM a.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

Keeping the Heart in Santa Monica

Sense of Place

What makes downtown Santa Monica unique? What kind of downtown do we want? What is our vision for its future? Every city needs a “raison d’etre” – a spirit that draws people to go there and stay there. Will it remain a relaxed and friendly coastal community, with the warmth of local merchants, or a mix of corporate high-rise buildings and bloated developments, transformed by consumerism and glitz into something we won’t recognize?

When you allow developers to design your city, it’s all about the bottom line. A “window of opportunity” in the form of “Development Agreements” has opened up for developers to present projects that exceed current allowable heights and density. Do we want a downtown that is an a wall of massive buildings, or will the citizens of Santa Monica become involved with the future vision and essence of their downtown? We all need to take action to make sure that the future Santa Monica reflects the ideals of its citizens, not just the developers.

In other words, how do we Santa Monicans bridge our past and our future?

To answer this, we need to understand how the heart of our city grew. Like other cities, Santa Monica’s basic downtown developed as a grid of linear streets attuned to the introduction of the automobile, with small buildings primarily housing local businesses. Santa Monica’s downtown is awash with warm weather and sunlight, and extraordinary visual landmarks -its pier, palisades and ocean, its weather and sunlight, its promenade and farmers’ markets, all on a very human scale. Small local businesses still exist in our downtown, although they are quickly disappearing, along with the character and texture of unique building designs, being replaced by national chains lacking unique character.

Downtown Santa Monica encompasses approximately 12 million square feet that has grown over a 138-year history. Seventy percent of the buildings in this area are one to two stories high. Currently the atmosphere is a relaxed beach culture, a walk-able environment, a human scale, blue skies and sunlight. With the remarkable success enjoyed by the existing downtown, we need to build on what works rather than overdevelop – we need to add the new without taking away from the old.

However what is currently happening has the potential to change forever the “sense of place” that is Santa Monica. More than 30 new building projects for are in the pipeline to be approved by the city. These projects could add 3 million square feet of new residential, office and retail space to our downtown. That’s a lot of development for any city, let alone a smaller scale city like Santa Monica, and that’s just the beginning. The proposed zoning code will allow another 9 million square feet beyond that – effectively doubling the current size of our downtown.

The current LUCE, which is a written plan envisioned for the city by citizens and city commissioners every 20 years, calls for “the preservation of the vibrant, beach town atmosphere.” So how do we keep our downtown colorful, vibrant, and pedestrian-friendly while allowing for growth and keeping the city economically healthy? How do we enjoy the benefits of the city – the cafes, art galleries and cultural facilities without the traffic, crowding and pollution? We need to act fast to save the face of our city.

Charleston and Savannah are communities that have been able to strike this balance. They have realized substantial growth in the past two decades, but have held onto their history and sense of place. Their downtowns, similar in area to Santa Monica, are flourishing with creative ideas for keeping open, spacious green areas bordered by a mix of historic and modern buildings. Santa Barbara and Pasadena, two California cities, have found the balance as well. In these downtowns you can experience wide, decorative passageways and arcades, filled with people, small shops, and café seating, between low-rise buildings.

In contrast, the type of 6-7 story buildings that have recently been constructed in Santa Monica will turn our city streets into darkened canyons with loss of character, sunlight, and blue sky if we allow them to proliferate. Proposed height allowances and zoning code changes will turn our warm beachfront downtown into an indifferent and solidly urban downtown, if we don’t take action. Remember, dense traffic-filled cities are expensive cities, bringing increased cost of living, higher rents and a terrible strain on the infrastructure that our city taxes support.

But there is hope for Santa Monica. The LUCE “provides for an overall reduction in building height.” In last week’s article, we strongly suggested doing away with the Development Agreement process in favor of an overall 50 foot, 4-story height limit in the downtown. Thus, potential developers would know up front, before purchasing a property and spending years on a design, what their parameters are. With these new limitations, there would still be ample opportunity for sustainable growth: up to 6 million square feet of space could be developed.

This would be a win/win for both the residential community and the business community. With height and density reduced, traffic and the strain on the city’s infrastructure would also be reduced, resulting in more open space and thus a more positive quality of life for Santa Monica’s residents. Lively, enjoyable public spaces are more important than buildings. Recreation & Parks Commissioner Phil Brock has repeatedly talked about “open space having the power to make you feel better about your city, to stay because you’re having a great time – like being at a successful party.”

We can rework the city’s zoning code to create key open spaces and a truly exciting environment. If the city adopts incentives in property taxes and cuts in city fees, then we might see a substantial increase in the restoration and reuse of the older low-rise buildings, which provide so much character, variety, and texture to our downtown. A recent study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation states, “Neighborhoods and commercial areas with a mix of older, smaller buildings make for more vibrant, walk-able communities with more businesses, nightlife and cultural outlets than massive newer buildings. People want to be where there’s an interesting and exciting mix of the old and new.”

In summary, we see a future Santa Monica with development parameters that encourage meaningful sidewalk setbacks, pocket parks and mid-block arcades. We see a future Santa Monica as a business-friendly low-rise beachfront location with a vibrant, spontaneous and eclectic atmosphere where residents and visitors alike can see the sky, feel the fresh ocean breeze and enjoy walking streets lined with smaller-scale unique buildings with diverse designs and histories. Each of us needs to insure that City Staff and City Council Members know the qualities that we want to preserve in our city’s essence.

Ron Goldman FAIA for SM a.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)