The Plaza at Santa Monica…. “It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again”

Plaza at Santa Monica

Yogi Berra’s legendary words were echoing in the ears of residents in the wee hours Wednesday morning when the City Council instructed staff to move forward with an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for The Plaza at Santa Monica project. As a concession to the many opposed, the EIR is to base its primary findings on a 15% reduced version of The Plaza. This is to be achieved with a 50% reduction in the office component and consideration of alternative uses for the 30,000 SF that would be freed up by its removal. It was pathetic to watch the Council beg for ‘scraps’ as the Developer threatened to reduce the last vestiges of community benefits if they were denied their height for ocean views at their high-end hotel. It was a sad charade.

Insanity was once defined as doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result. Once again, our City Council has embarked on a misadventure that will likely end the same way as before with the Hines Project- a major waste of funds and time for all parties concerned, especially the developers. The Hines project, when compared to the The Plaza, makes it look like the ‘poster child’ for responsible development. Although Hines was larger, its FAR (average lot coverage) was only 2.5 while the new Plaza will be 3.2 or 28 % denser. The maximum height of the Hines project was 81’ while the Plaza will max out at 148’- almost twice the height. The Plaza will have only 48 housing units vs. 497 at Hines- 10 times more. The Plaza will have nearly the same area as Santa Monica Place Shopping Center but on a site that is one-third the size. The list goes on.

Both projects were allowed reduced parking requirements. But since the Plaza is in Downtown, where the demand for parking is 2 to 3 times greater, this will be a bigger problem than it would have been at Hines. Hines was on the outskirts of our City in close proximity to the Expo Line where the demand for parking is less and mass transit was adjacent. Initial estimates show that both projects will produce generally the same number of daily car trips- around 7000. Of course, the impact of these trips in the center of downtown will be much worse than it would have been on Olympic, in an industrial area, at the edge of our City. The Plaza is almost twice the ideal ¼ mile walking distance to transit. It will be generating car trips in the densest part of our City, an area that is already congested. There couldn’t be a worse place to put such a large development. Since the project is already “under parked”, it will have NO additional spaces for the daily visitors or adjacent businesses both of which require more downtown parking.

“The Plaza” is a misnomer. This project’s “plazas” are on four different levels- grade, 18’ above grade, 58’ above grade and 98’ above grade. Can anyone name another successful “plaza” that is on 4 different levels, with 98’ between them? Most plazas are square or rectangular to accommodate a wider range of activities. Are there other small, triangular plazas that can be cited as examples of successful outdoor spaces? The office space and hotel on the top two ‘plazas’ are directly adjacent to the office and hotel uses that will look out onto them. They have been designated as “private/public” and, due to their location and privacy issues, will likely be used by the public only on rare occasions, if at all. The second level plaza 18’ above the street will be accessed by a spiral stair and elevator. This will further diminish its public access except, perhaps, for programmed events. It is likely that the only “plaza” that will get any significant public use will be the one at street level. Its modest size, smaller than most residential lots, hardly justifies the project’s moniker- The Plaza at Santa Monica.

The reasons given for the project’s excessive mass, height, lack of open space, housing and parking come back to costs- “We can’t afford it”. This despite the fact that the annual ground rent for the project is only $ 1.3 million/year for a project that will cost in excess of $ 250 million. The exorbitant costs likely have less to do with the requested community amenities than the design of the project. One reason its design is “iconic” and “one of a kind” is that it will be an extremely complicated and expensive project to build. While The Plaza’s stacked, splayed blocks looks simple, when it comes to construction they are anything but. Normally, structural systems “stack” atop one another from floor to floor starting at the lowest parking levels and continuing to the roof. This is not the case for The Plaza.

The fact that the floors are skewed and offset will make the structure of the building extremely complicated and hence more expensive to build. In addition, the economies of having the roof of one level be the floor to the next are lost. Instead of ‘one roof’, The Plaza will have many “roofs” and, in this case, ones that must be waterproofed and designed for landscape and foot traffic even if they are never used for that purpose. The Plaza will be a “Type 1” (steel) construction that is the most expensive building type due to the fire proofing, elevators, mechanical systems etc. that are required. At the other end of the spectrum is Type 4 (wood frame buildings) that is 1/3 the height (around 50’) but much less expensive to construct with fewer constrictions.

While an “iconic” building of this scale and uniqueness will certainly draw attention, is it the kind of attention the City wants? Does it compliment our current beachside ambiance or denigrate it? This conflict, as well the other ‘trade offs’ for such a massive building, renders it an illogical choice as our City’s centerpiece that will forever tower over our downtown. The alternative-several small, simpler structures that were in keeping with the scale of the City, would be much less expensive and could free up funds for housing, open space and some of the other amenities that residents desire. It is a more modest approach, one that would be more attuned to our small, beach town character. It might even save enough money to allow for a real ‘Plaza’ or park instead of one in name only. Sometimes reducing expenses is better than chasing more funds. Currently, it is a case of the tail wagging the dog.

Finally, there is the issue of sustainability and environmental impact. The Plaza by nature of its construction type will be a less sustainable design and require more energy to build and operate. It will prevent rainwater percolation and create a heat sink in the heart of our City that will raise temperatures. It will consume more resources and be a greater source of pollution due to its size and many systems. Finally, it will generate more traffic than a smaller project that has more landscaping, trees and open space. All of the values that Santa Monica claims and espouses would be put into question if this project were to be built in its current form. It will forever symbolize the City’s desire for spectacle over substance, of quantity over quality, of waste over sustainability and of putting the needs of those that would exploit our resources above those who strive to protect and preserve them. Is this the legacy that we wish for the City’s current residents and future generations? We would hope not! Lets learn from our past mistakes and stop this madness before it is too late!

Thane Roberts, AIA for SMa.r.t.

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