Santa Monica has had the distinction of being recognized as one of the most “progressive” cities in the nation. It began in 1979 when residents coalesced around a rent control initiative. It continues today with a City known for its commitment to social and environmental issues. But is this still true?
It appears that business interests are rapidly eroding the values of the past. Those who would put economic opportunity before quality of life are compromising our small beach town character and past civic priorities. If this continues, we may soon be known for our regressive than progressive policies.
Our situation may have more to do with the limits to growth than a new political agenda. Although the current City Council values may not have changed, our City has. Our City faces many new challenges. Presently, we are lurching from crisis to crisis with short-term, piece meal solutions. A new approach is required if we are to retain our purpose and identity.
We need a long-term strategy that is well conceived and takes into account the City’s limits to growth. For starters, we must begin to live within our means, both financially and ecologically. It was once suggested that the best way to improve government is to cut its budget. We may be at that point. We must learn to do more with less. This includes our inflated City budget that allows for profligate spending instead of creative solutions and, substantive thinking. As we become more reliant on developers’ fees and their tax revenue, we become more beholden to them. We need to operate in the black while also being green- both figuratively and literally.
Santa Monica currently has one of the lowest ratios of park space per resident of any city our size in California. This is unacceptable. More opportunities need to be found in our neighborhoods and downtown to experience nature, watch children play or just find quiet respite in the sun from urban life. All aspects of city life will benefit from more parks, promenades and open space. It should not be difficult to find the land. The City currently owns many properties that could be developed as green space instead of being sold for more density. All that is lacking is the vision and the will to act.
For example, an urban park on City land at 4th and Arizona could serve as a public square at the heart of our City that is within walking distance of the entire Downtown. On its perimeter, it could have restaurants, shops and perhaps a boutique hotel. At its center could be a place for outdoor markets, ice-skating and other civic uses. Instead, the City is renting our land to a developer for $1.3 million year to build a massive, 148-foot building. This same revenue might be achieved with a multi-level parking garage below the plaza.
Another example is the 20 percent of the Civic Center site that is to be rented to a private contractor for $1 per month for the next 55 years for a day care center. Why? It is difficult to make an economic argument for fewer parks when the City’s land resources are being squandered.
Another hallmark of a “progressive city” is the preservation of low-cost housing. Contrary to its stated goals, the City recently allowed the eviction of nearly 100 low-income residents from an established neighborhood at the Village Trailer Park. The unbuilt project was then sold to another developer for a $60-million profit. In the end, the City was left with fewer community benefits (38 low-income units) and a worse project than that originally approved. Why didn’t the City buy the property for the original price of $4.5 million and build a mixed-use project that included more low-income housing or, at the very least, preserve the Village Trailer Park? Due to the high land prices and construction costs, perhaps the City needs to be more assertive and innovative within the bounds of its authority. Is it possible the problem is not lack of funds but rather the necessary will, coupled with out-of-the box thinking?
When large projects are approved that bring no benefit to the city, the city’s resources and infrastructure are stretched to their limits. Our future growth should be based on conscious decisions and not on the perceived need for more revenue and community benefits. Keep in mind that these large projects will require new services and resources from the city. The profits will be taken by the developers and the city’s residents will pay the price with rationing and higher water bills. Water conservation should be in the residents’ hands, not made more difficult by new development.
In addition to conserving our water resources, we need to move toward a Net Zero energy policy. Renewable resources are a good place to start after conservation policies have reduced our energy needs. Since these technologies are still in a nascent stage, local governments will need to provide incentives for the implementation of alternative sources of energy- solar, wind power, tidal etc. A first step might be the implementation of California’s Solar Rights Act that limits new construction based on the shading its buildings will impose. Specific code regulations should be drafted to insure that all buildings retain their solar rights for future use. The raising of height limits in the City runs counter to the goal of reducing shading between properties. There are currently many commercial roofs in the City that could be adapted for solar generation if the Solar Rights Act was enforced and height limits kept at reasonable levels.
To achieve our goals, more programs are required for energy and water conservation. Limiting water usage to that provided by our own wells would go a long way toward the City’s goal of water independence by 2020. The recycling of storm water has been successful in other municipalities and could also be tried in Santa Monica to reduce our dependence on water from outside sources. A requirement for individual water metering in apartment buildings and the separation of grey water from sewage might provide more options for future water conservation efforts.
The City’s traffic is becoming worse and will continue to do so as more development is approved despite our inadequate infrastructure. A moratorium on major development within the City should be considered until the City is able to provide sufficient alternatives to the automobile. While the TDM program offers some relief, it is not enough and could exacerbate the problem by reducing the number of parking spaces in new projects. The displaced cars will end up on the streets limiting other options for bike lanes and shuttle services. Some new measures to consider are: 1) a bike share system that is integrated with adjacent municipalities; 2) elevated pedestrian paths Downtown from the new Expo Line to avoid conflicts with street traffic; 3) “first mile” and “last mile” solutions such as small shuttles, improved bus service with better transit information, comfortable seating and weather protection at bus stops.
Ultimately, the most important aspect of a “progressive” city is a style of government that is open to scrutiny and responsive to the needs and desires of its constituents. This is achieved through transparency and placing civic needs above outside interests. If the City’s balance sheet is negative, it is always better to cut costs than sell the City’s assets or lease them below market value. In this scenario, no one wins and a progressive city begins the process of regression … eventually losing its bearings to become a mere shadow of its former self. It is our hope that this will not be Santa Monica’s fate. We need to act with intelligent planning now to secure our future.
Thane Roberts for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)
Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Thane Roberts AIA, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Armen Melkonians Civil & Environmental Engineer, Phil Brock Chair, Parks & Recreation Commission.