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