The Plaza at Santa Monica asks a very simple question of our downtown: Is our downtown the real center of our City or is it just a giant ATM for developers? If the downtown is to be the center of our city, it needs to have a commanding central open space that can be a “there” there for the entire City. An example of this kind of space is Saint Mark’s square in Venice. That square is the same size as our lot and plays that central role for a city that has two thirds the population of Santa Monica. Washington has the National Mall, Boston has the Commons. Most cities big and small have a big open space that is the center of their public life. This project is proposing a 148’ high cash register be the center of our public life. We can and must do better than this.
This parcel is the effective center of downtown now that downtown has been extended to Lincoln Blvd. With the downtown densification proposed in the upcoming Downtown Specific Plan, an open public plaza is just what this site needs. Centrally located on the Arizona bike lane, accessible from the 4th and 5th street transit corridors (which have their own freeway access), only one block from the Wilshire and Santa Monica bus lines and just 4 blocks from the light rail, this premium site should be an open space for the entire City. Not a park per se since we already have Palisades, Reed and Tongva Parks nearby, but an urban plaza that could have park-like elements but its major role would be public events and public enjoyment. Revenue generating services will certainly be needed on the perimeter of this space, but not anywhere near the scale being proposed for this site.
Because of the proposed oversize hotel, offices and housing, we get a puny corner open space that’s only 15% of the site. It’s actually smaller than the space currently dedicated to our seasonal ice skating rink. In other words, as the Downtown Specific Plan’s build out doubles or triples downtown’s square footage, we are actually shrinking the available public open space. The currently proposed roof decks garnished with faux ecologies are effectively inaccessible to the public because they are 18, 58 and 98 feet above the ground. The public has no real way to experience them. So exactly at the time when we need the foresight to build in more downtown open space for our future residents, tourists and workers, we are squandering this chance for a new inviting open space and filling it with an unneeded behemoth.
The proposed building is an ecological disaster. This building has no chance of being even close to energy neutral, which all buildings should aim for, since it has no where near enough solar collector area to even illuminate safely its 16 floors, much less operate elevators, air conditioning, or electric car recharging. While maximizing its own financial gain, it arrogantly compromises the ability of its neighbors to get to their energy neutrality. The gloomy shading and negative solar impact of this building will be felt in an arc covering 3 blocks west north and east of the building. In fact, the main facade of the building orients north west and will not have direct sun until the late afternoon. The open plaza is effectively shaded for most of the day by the main structure. It will block prevailing breezes needed for natural ventilation for a distance of 4 blocks to the east. Fifth street, which has only one lane southbound, will functionally collapse under the weight of the 1200 cars spreading a pool of congestion especially to the already overloaded 4th street. A building of this size can only move us farther from our goal of water independence by 2020. The list of its negative impacts goes on and on and all we will have to show for it is a couple of million dollars a year in rent.
But the real problem is that on a site owned by the City’s residents, the City is encouraging a development of exactly the kind of project the majority of residents hate while foregoing the kind of project citizens would love. Instead of modeling for developers an exemplary project on its own land, the City itself is advocating the kind of project that will make it very difficult to deny other developers similar 148’ high Godzillas. How can we as a community stop this kind of urban cancer when our own City is growing the biggest tumor of all? In other words, this is a repeat of Hines and the City should be visibly restrained and judicious in its use of our limited resources and while land is the most limiting resource, the trust of residents is also limited and is destroyed by these kinds of excesses.
But there are many good alternatives for the use of this land. The 4th/5th and Arizona site could easily become the center of our City by remaining a majority open space. The role of this space would be to continue all the activities currently happening on the nearby 3rd street promenade and sometimes in the Civic Center parking lot. In addition it could provide space for the current ice skating rink, farmer’s market, enlarged outdoor dining, book fairs, theatrical performances or movies, pet shows, car shows, political rallies and countless other public events that require a more rectangular space than the linear promenade provides. This new plaza would become the true heart of Santa Monica.
This can be accomplished in a much simpler manner than building a 12-story, football field size monster in the heart of our downtown. Architect Ron Goldman has sketched out such a more modest concept that involves keeping about 65% of the site open so it could function as an open City square.
Flanking the southeast edge would be the same nominal 50 units of affordable housing as in the original proposal. That wing might also house some retail at the ground floor, while a boutique 84 room hotel would be along 5th street and a classy restaurant with outdoor dining at the corner of 5th and Arizona and finally an open event venue along 4th street. Since the hotel would be only 50’ high (about 100’ feet lower than the original proposal), it would be in scale with the neighborhood and we could still provide up to 1200 underground parking spaces if desired to relieve downtown parking shortages even though the added structures might require only about 300 spaces in a single subterranean parking floor. The “extra” 900 spaces would give the City some flexibility, if it elects, to demolish any of the 4th Street parking structures to add theaters, for example, as has been previously discussed. However those same theaters could also be on this site with some judicious planning so as to activate the plaza at night.
A back of the envelope calculation indicates this would cost about $131 Million and generate about $600,000 profit each year after all maintenance, loans and land costs were amortized. A similar urban park called Bryant Park exists in New York and plays a similar role in an even denser urban context. The point is that even this modest proposal without pushing the design or financial envelope very hard would result in a project better suited to Santa Monica’s needs. Has anyone on the City Council or in the Planning Department shown why we “need” to violate our own zoning laws so dramatically on this particular property?
We should stop searching for a place to jam in an oversized iconic building and go back to the urban planning drawing board with a slimmed down Santa Monica Plaza project. This is clearly a case where less is more.
SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)
Thane Roberts AIA, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA t & Planning Commissioner, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Armen Melkonians Civil & Environmental Engineer, Phil Brock Chair, Parks & Recreation Commission.