Santa Monica’s 10 steps to civic sobriety

10 important steps

In November 2013 we met as a group of design professionals to discuss concerns regarding the city’s direction. Using our professional experience our intent was to provide a framework for discussing our city’s future. In May 2014 we authored an article outlining five goals for Santa Monica’s future:

1. To preserve Santa Monica’s relaxed beach culture
2. To maximize light, air, views and green space
3. To build at a human scale and for family life
4. To create a walkable, bikeable, and driveable city
5. To be a smart, connected and sustainable community

Our city currently faces many challenges. We appear to be lurching from crisis to crisis with only short term, piecemeal solutions. In the coming months we will address 10 issues of concern, 10 issues that weigh heavily on our ability to meeting these five goals in the future:

1. Transportation – One issue on which most residents can readily agree is that moving about the city by car, bus or bike is increasingly time consuming and frustrating. Traffic in downtown is abysmal and could get worse with the Expo rail and streets becoming restricted by pedestrians and new bike lanes. The city needs a realistic approach to mitigate this situation. Our quality of life, safety, and possibly our livelihoods are affected. Every new project needs to be assessed for its cumulative effect on this vital part of our infrastructure.

2. Parking – Many people feel that a lack of parking makes life difficult for local businesses, and for residents who must rely on automobiles. Efforts to reduce parking requirements have met with opposition from residents who, due to lack of parking in their buildings, need to compete for fewer spaces on the street. Others think that free and low-cost parking leads to excessive congestion and pollution. They believe restricting parking will engender a positive change in behavior among residents and visitors and ultimately reduce congestion. This has become a political issue that needs to be approached slowly, based on fact rather than theory.

3. Housing & affordability – The City faces a housing shortage for low and moderate income families. The high cost of land and construction necessitates affordable projects being subsidized. This will likely continue if we are to solve our job housing imbalance. The City has an affordable housing requirement that 10-20 percent of new units built be ‘affordable’. This ratio is programmed for failure as vacancy decontrol continues to chip away at affordable housing stock. Perhaps the inventory of city-owned land offers an opportunity for more affordable housing projects.

4. Adaptive reuse – Adaptive re-use is one of the most interesting approaches to sustainability and growth. Is it not preferable to see new life breathed into an older building instead of simply throwing it away? Sustainability has many facets, and as is often said, “the greenest building is the one not torn down.” Updating older buildings can contribute significantly to our town’s goals of sustainability. Our codes need to be improved to insure that demolition is not the only viable option.

5. Open space – We need to add to our forest canopy. Our sidewalks need to be widened and landscaped and no resident should walk further than 10 minutes to reach their community greenspace. Apartments that are in shadows instead of sunlight, must be avoided. The further canyonization of our streets and isolation from nature runs counter to a healthy City. Santa Monica has more work to do to lose the distinction of being the least green of all small cities in California.

6. Design – The city’s Development Agreement process allows trading density and height for community benefits. This negatively impacts our ability to maintain our historic courtyard housing and overall quality of life. Design professionals, beholden to developers who in turn answer to hedge funds and syndicates results in many of the newer buildings in the City being neither in scale or character with our beach town community. A creative code would greatly increase the quality of design.

7. Infrastructure- The city’s electrical and water infrastructure is increasingly under pressure due to the burden from thousands of daily visitors, increased development, and higher standards of living that use more resources. Strains in the city’s infrastructure manifest as disruptions in the electrical supply, the rising cost of water (only partially due to the drought), and the unwillingness or inability of our public officials to discuss reasonable limits on our city’s resources. A plan to honestly address inadequate infrastructure and limited resources must be part of any discussion on the city’s future.

8. Sustainability – Santa Monica has an Office of Sustainability that is proactively working to reduce the City’s “footprint” with the goal of water independence by 2020, a “Road to Zero” waste program by 2030, and a desire that all buildings are “net zero” — producing as much energy as they consume. To achieve this, buildings will need maximum exposure to sunlight. However taller buildings cause greater shading as their energy footprints increase. There are indications that we have fallen far behind in achieving our goals due, in part, to recent development.

9. Airport – SMO has become a concern among some in our town, and in the adjacent community. Issues center on how the airport contributes to overall pollution impacts that we live with daily. Safety is frequently mentioned due to the encroachment of housing development and its proximity to the airport. Third most mentioned concern is noise and how it impacts those living adjacent to and under the flight path. With the expiration of the FAA agreement, the future of SMO, and the large parcel of land on which it rests, is in question. What is without question is the important role it plays in the City’s future.

10. Transparent political process – The government of Santa Monica prides itself on being open and responsive to its constituents. Many residents are informed and proactive in City politics. Despite this, the City Council and residents sometimes remain at odds. Recently, this discord resulted in a referendum that reversed an Agreement where the City lost face and the developer much time and money. It behooves all parties to resolve differences within the Council Chambers rather than on the streets. To do this, all City Staff must make more of an effort to engage and respect the views of those they represent.

Will our city become the victim of its own success? City Council, Planning Commission, A. R. B., City Staff, Residents- let’s challenge ourselves to resolve these concerns together and secure our goals and Santa Monica’s future!

SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

Ron Goldman FAIA, Thane Roberts AIA, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Bob Taylor AIA, Dan Jansenson Architect, Sam Tolkin Architect, Armen Melkonians Civil & Environmental Engineer, Phil Brock Chair, Recreation & Parks Commission. SMa.r.t. is a group of Santa Monica Architects concerned about the city’s future.

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