A Santa Monica Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Potpourri of ideas

Those of us who came from other places in the world realize how lucky we are to be able to live or to work in Santa Monica, or even to be able to spend some time here. Those of us who were born here and chose to stay know that Santa Monica is one of the most beautiful environments anywhere in the world. In Santa Monica we are soothed by soft ocean breezes, we always have a close-by spot to look out over the ocean or watch the sunset, to have space, to gain peace.

Yet there has been a lot of anger and frustration vented recently about our city’s shortcomings: too little space for the deluge of traffic that comes in and goes out of the city daily, tall buildings going up that block the sun and the fresh air coming off the water, rising home and apartment prices that prohibit all but the elite from moving into our neighborhoods.

Many interests want a piece of that natural beauty that is Santa Monica. Arguments have divided neighbors, city officials, developers and business owners. We who live in Santa Monica do care deeply about our city, and that’s why our residents have had to step up time and again through our city’s history to save that elusive “peace” that permeates our surroundings. Now we all need to work together once again to find common ground for preserving what we already have, that which makes our city shine. Think about the things you love about Santa Monica. How can we make sure they remain for future generations?

Our SMart Group did just that and here is the Thanksgiving Potpourri of ideas that came to mind:

“I’m thankful that this city has so many citizens willing to both to serve officially and to participate in countless ways of making our lives better. I do not agree with all of them all the time but their willingness to serve and participate rebounds to all our benefit.”

“I am thankful to own a house in a city that has become too expensive for many.  I know that I am one of the lucky ones who was able to build my house before it became too costly to do so. “

“I am grateful for the growing and energetic commitment of aroused residents in pursuing and demanding a quality environment, and who show foresight in addressing problems and meeting goals for social equality and sustainability.”

“I am grateful that we have our beach and ocean that gives us the opportunity to breathe fresh air and enjoy unfettered views to forever.”

“I am thankful that my city has groups of neighbors who have banded together into neighborhood associations and preservation organizations to protect our quality of life, such as the Santa Monica Conservancy and the Historic San Vicente Coalition.”

“I am thankful to share my city with the world in the summer but even more thankful to have it back in the fall, winter and spring.”

“I am thankful for our many and varied small neighborhoods. I especially enjoy walks up Montana Avenue and the families I see doing the very same thing, and meeting someone, as I did yesterday, who was visiting from Spain.  And I’m grateful for the wonderful conversations and exchanges of ideas that arise from these chance meetings.”

“I am thankful that our city is capable of producing more than its share of affordable housing.”

“I’m grateful for Heal the Bay which keeps the health of our beach and ocean in the public forefront.”

“I love that we have classic, timeless, varied and unique restaurants such as Chez Jay, The Galley, Melisse and the original Hot Dog on a Stick.”

“I am grateful that we have a community of residents that seek to preserve our fresh air and sunshine, and who fight to resist the few power brokers that would change our unique quality of life.”

“I am thankful for the rich tapestry of the arts in Santa Monica – for organizations such as the Ruskin Theatre, The Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra, Santa Monica Playhouse, Beautify Earth’s murals and other public art, and so much more.”

“I am thankful to live in a City where the residents care as much about their urban and natural environment as I do.”

“I applaud all the service groups in Santa Monica whose members give their time and donations to help others in need.”

“I am thankful that because of our residents’ resistance of large scale high rises and their work towards preservation of existing housing, our town maintains a rich diversity of population.”

“I am grateful for easy walking access to our Palisades Park and the magnificent vistas it provides of the sand, the Pacific Ocean and the always colorful sunsets.”

“I am thankful for our great public education system – all the excellent elementary and middle schools leading students to Samohi, and our rapidly growing secondary institution, Santa Monica College.”

“I love that we have extraordinary public parks, playgrounds, sports fields, skate parks and swimming pools to keep our bodies and minds sharp, and most of all to have great fun. We need more of these.”

“I’m grateful for all the tourists who help keep our economy very healthy and add even more to the diversity of the daily experience in our city, and I hope they love Santa Monica as much as we do.”

“I am thankful to be living in a place where normal citizens can talk to government and attempt to influence its course, without repercussion. I’m also very glad to be surrounded by folks who have committed ethics, and are willing to act to make this a better place.”

“I’m thankful for Santa Monica’s great library system.”

“I am thankful for the generosity and camaraderie of my neighbors and fellow citizens who sacrifice their time and energy to preserve the unique qualities of our City for all to enjoy.”

I am thankful for our new city manager who brings a fresh outlook to our community – a manager whose varied background has led him to realize that it’s human-scaled design and spaces, not flashy buildings, that create a quality environment.

“I am thankful to be cooled by the ocean breezes in summer, warmed by the temperate climate in winter and powered by the sun all year long.”

What are your thoughts?

Phil Brock for SM.a.r.t (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

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Santa Monica: Manhattan Beach or Manhattan, New York?

Downtown Specific Plan

The Planning Commission is currently reviewing the Downtown Specific Plan. This document will govern what is built in the downtown area (Wilshire to the Freeway and Lincoln to Ocean) until 2030. Because of its location in the heart of Santa Monica, this plan will determine the City experience for the vast majority of residents, workers and visitors for years to come. It is for this reason that particular care is needed now to insure that it is done right.

Naturally, there is tremendous pressure by developers to build as high as possible to maximize their profits. These proposed heights are in conflict with how residents want their City to appear. There is simply no need for such excessive heights. For example, if the City were to take its fair share of regional housing growth (239 units per year), two-thirds of the total (160 units) would likely be built in the downtown area. This increased density can be easily achieved within a 50′ height limit. When you consider that about half the downtown is either parking lots or one and two-story buildings, there is already adequate room for the normal development cycle of lower buildings being replaced by slightly taller ones. Likewise, if more hotels are the goal, three 50′ high hotels, such as the successful Shore on Ocean Avenue, could easily be accommodated rather than one 150′ hotel.

It should be noted that the Downtown was increased by about 30% when the adjacent Civic Center Specific Plan was cut back from Colorado to the Freeway whose area was added the Downtown which was also enlarged to the east side of Lincoln. This land grab could have allowed for more low-rise buildings to achieve similar growth objectives but instead is being used to push for greater heights and the resultant impacts that are neither sustainable nor desired. For example, the Downtown plan currently advanced by staff would create an impregnable wall of buildings 84′ high, 7 blocks long and almost 3 blocks deep. This would isolate the downtown core (Third Street Promenade) from its southern and eastern entry points: Wilshire, Santa Monica Blvd, the Freeway, Expo and 4th Street. These routes are how the vast majority of us access and experience our downtown. This barrier is being promoted as necessary to “support” the light rail station, but its effect will be the creation of an additional rampart to the Freeway “moat” that already bisects our City. The Expo station does not need this super-sized “support” that will inhibit the current, natural flow and human-scale experience in our downtown.

The entire downtown area will soon become a transit district with a light rail stop at the south end, extensive bus routes at its center and a future subway stop on the north end. The proposed 84′ high development is not compatible with our small town character and its mass should be distributed over the entire downtown area instead of being concentrated at the most prominent corner where it will gridlock transit, cast long shadows and block ocean breezes. Finally we should be aware that when a City height limit is set at 84′, its effective height is 102′ since the code allows up to 18′ more for elevators, mechanical spaces etc. etc. The openness of our urban ‘skyscape’ will be further impacted by the ‘canyonization’ as a result of these massive, towering structures.

The benefits of low-rise buildings have already been discussed extensively in our columns and are well known to most: more sustainable, more resilient, cheaper and faster to build, among many other benefits. As a low-rise city, our residential areas should be two stories (nominally 30′), our boulevards three stories (nominally 40′) and our downtown core and the transit nodes four stories (nominally 50′). If this were the case, we might preserve our relaxed, beachfront ambiance for our residents and visitors alike. In fact, our low-rise city is already the perfect backdrop for the few high rises we do have: the Clock Tower Building, the Georgian etc. etc. They are made more prominent and achieve iconic status precisely because of their contrasting height. If the entire downtown area were to be built up, they will be lost in the rising tide of the multiple high buildings currently under consideration.

Since the Third Street Promenade is the crown jewel of the downtown experience, it should be expanded to 2nd and 4th Streets as it is already operating at “capacity.” This could be done with mid-block passages that created more pedestrian frontage for the finer grain small shops. The smaller shops are likely to be more suitable for future residents than the big chain outlets on the promenade. Properties in the middle portion of The Promenade should be incentivized to provide these passages that would also provide them with more display frontage. We would also benefit from a central square downtown that could act as the social center of the entire 35 block downtown area. Fortunately we have a perfect place for this central gathering place at the City owned property at 4th and Arizona. While mini parks and “left over” green spaces may function as green relief for the residents, the proposed doubling of the downtown population requires a much larger open space. If downtown is to be a viable living/working environment, not just a mecca for tourists and singles living in micro apartments, it will also require provision for a nearby elementary school as well as other services. Today there are less than 200 children living downtown. In the future, this population could double or triple, justifying the need for an elementary school that, at present, is not planned.

Finally, the impact of increased traffic in this area, combined with the arrival of the light rail, is still an unknown. The intersection at 4th and Lincoln and the Freeway interchanges are already reduced to a crawl during peak hour traffic. Train delays along with the already approved development will create additional bottlenecks and could overwhelm our streets’ capacity. For these reasons and others, it is prudent for downtown development to be approached with moderation and forethought so that we live within our financial, ecological and functional abilities. There is a risk that we may have to “write off” the downtown area if it were to become, as proposed, a dumping ground for unbridled development and traffic. The downtown is the area that should embody our core values, not denigrate them. If we are to remain the relaxed beachfront town we are today, these principles should be celebrated and preserved at every opportunity.

The City is working to get the Downtown Specific Plan approved by June. It is still in the processing stages with the next Planning Commission Meeting on November 18. Citizen participation during the next seven months is crucial. Please make yourselves heard by attending the meetings or writing to the City Council members. There is too much at stake. If Santa Monica does move forward with the currently proposed Downtown Plan, it will be too late and our beach town will never be the same again.

Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow

In Santa Monica, it’s the little things that matter

Listening to Stakeholders

Former Speaker of the U.S. House Tip O’Neill coined the phrase, “All politics are Local.” Indeed, he’s correct. Certainly residents of a state as large as ours often feel that each voice is not heard effectively. But what happens when residents feel ignored on a micro scale, in their own neighborhoods and city? Even in Santa Monica, a city whose populace is engaged deeply in civic affairs, it seems that local government can forget to listen to its stakeholders.

The city’s principal stakeholders, its residents, are the employers of each and every employee of our local government. When it appears that the city’s staff isn’t listening, residents rightfully become frustrated and then angry. Many times, their frustration is not about the big picture, such as pending high-rises and large-scale developments — it’s about the little things. Potholes are usually fixed on a timely basis, and the city gets most things right, but little things that aren’t handled effectively cause civic stress. When residents feel they are being ignored and belittled, our highly educated populace rises up in anger.

Let’s look at a couple of the “little” things that cause residents to feel ignored.

Transportation and planning officials, after much public outreach and in conjunction with the Santa Monica-Malibu school district, recently switched Michigan Avenue between Lincoln Boulevard and 7th Street into a one-way westbound street. Simultaneously, 7th Street became a southbound one-way street in front of Santa Monica High School between Michigan and Pico. There were also a host of bicycle improvements. All these changes were designed to funnel the 3,100 students of Samohi and their parents to the corner of 7th and Michigan. Previously, the high school had four entrances to the campus. Due to safety and budgetary reasons, there is now one main entrance to Samohi. The compression to one entrance has caused this traffic nightmare at corner of Michigan and 7th Street. About 750 high school students are dropped off by automobile each weekday morning at Samohi. The switch is recent and it has, at least temporarily, increased congestion and confusion, especially at that corner. The confluence of cars, bicycles and pedestrians has stoked fears of traffic accidents to come.

The residents have asked for a crossing guard, or equivalent, at the crucial intersections, but have been rebuffed by Santa Monica police. The stop sign that has been installed in front of a crosswalk at 7th and Michigan faces northbound towards the new Innovations Building. The sign stands unseen by drivers until they are on top of the crosswalk. If you monitor the Parent Teacher Association online communication chains, you see that parents have been calling our police and planning departments and sending emails to City Council members, to no avail. For the amount of outreach and planning that went into this new street configuration, residents assume that city staff would be nimble and keep the safety of our teenagers paramount. They would hope that city staff might quickly adjust street signage to ensure safety on this heavily congested street.

It also strikes residents as ironic that over 700 high school students are driven to school each morning. It seems that our city is not “walking the walk” when it comes to helping our youth and their parents choose their transit options. Currently, there is a big “push” to have all junior college students in Los Angeles County ride for free on Metro. This effort by local and regional leaders should be applauded. However, we are appalled that the same zeal isn’t being applied to public high school students in our own city. We have a municipal bus system that is finally offering reduced rates for students via a monthly pass of $28. We believe that’s a start. However, it’s not nearly enough. Our city leaders talk continually about net-zero trips, sustainability and traffic demand management plans. Yet we’re not offering substantive alternatives that might reduce the 1,400-plus automobile trips each weekday to our high school. These cars converge on Lincoln one block from the entrance to Interstate 10. More pollution, congestion and frustration for residents occur each day as a result of the lack of alternative modes of transportation offered.

Don’t get us wrong. We’re all for sustainability and thoroughly in favor of teaching our kids that cars should not be the first option in our future Santa Monica. Let’s begin to “modernize” our transportation options for the over 3,000 young men and women who attend class at Samohi. Our city must offer free bus passes for students. We can tailor our bus routes so students would arrive at school on time each morning and make it home each afternoon without extensive waits at a bus stop. City leaders can begin to discuss rebuilding the pedestrian/bicycle bridge that spanned the freeway at 7th Street for decades. This would make it possible for students on the north side of the city to walk or ride their bikes safely to Samohi. Let’s allow our future leaders to see that our current leaders are truly walking that proverbial walk. Our work should include safe streets with effectively designed pedestrian zones, free bus rides for our students on our municipally owned Big Blue Bus, and great bicycle routes.

Our city manager has added several positions to our communications and public affairs department. Why not give this new staff the laudable goal of broadcasting a successful reduction of traffic to and from our high school each day?

Finally, on our list of the “little things,” there is some good news. Members of the Recreation and Parks Commission noticed that the Milken Family Foundation building at 1250 4th St., had a locked courtyard on the west side of the property. Upon investigation, it was found that the courtyard was meant to be public. This was an example of noncompliance with a planning document from 1987. After a cordial conversation with the building owners, we now have a beautiful courtyard open to the public each day during lunch hours. That’s a welcome enhancement. On the same line of thinking, Recreation and Parks commissioners would like to see the “One West Bank” Plaza at the corner of 4th Street and Wilshire Boulevard activated as well. We support that quest. Open public space that becomes an empty barren patch of concrete is not a benefit to our residents. There might be some slightly used Santa Monica bus benches available on the cheap! Perhaps some of them could be installed there. Food carts and a floral cart could enliven that plaza as well. You can envision a lively active space at that corner.

It’s the little accomplishments in a city that matter, and the importance of their impact on our daily lives. It is so important for each resident to be valued … and heard.

Phil Brock, Chair, Recreation and Parks Commission for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

The Myth of a Housing Crisis

Housing by the Numbers

Santa Monica does not have a housing crisis. The Southern Counties Association of Governments (SCAG) target for our City is 239 new units per year. This is a fair number that reflects our percentage of growth for the Southern California region. In the last three years we have approved an average of 253 new units per year. In addition we have another 1929 units (not counting 679 units in withdrawn projects) in the pipeline at various stages of approval processing. If only half of those projects go to term over the next three years we would have approved an average of another 321 units in the next three years or 1/3 more than our SCAG requirement. Simply stated we are already meeting more than our fair share of the region’s housing demand in addition to all the other benefits our small city provides to the region. In fact, Santa Monica’s population increase (2000-2010), which we can see everyday in our traffic overload, was over twice that of Los Angeles County (6.7% vs 3.1%).

While housing is very expensive in Santa Monica, as it is in all beach communities, our median incomes are 20-25% higher than LA County’s. Because of that, our city is actually more affordable to its residents than to the average citizen in LA County. For example, 56% of our property owners (1/4 of our population) pay more than 30% of their income for their housing, while 67% of the average Angelo homeowners pay that burden. Likewise 67% of our renters (3/4 of our population) pay that unreasonable burden, while 85% of Los Angeles County renters are similarly encumbered. Even though rent control is slowly being weakened, thanks primarily to our robust affordable housing program, which maintains 10-20% of the new units as deed restricted affordable units, affordability is still substantially protected in the future.

In a relatively wealthy city, we have made Santa Monica comparatively more affordable than Los Angeles County. And remember, this was done in the depths of a recession on some of the most expensive land on the Westside. The ability to maintain affordability of our housing stock through the combined efforts of the City Council and staff, of the Rent Control Board and of affordable housing providers like Community Corp and of affordability advocates like SMRR to name just a few, is an incredible achievement. We can all be proud of this achievement.

In short we can stop beating ourselves up about needing more and more housing and focus instead on the consequences of this abundant housing production, particularly as its burden escalates in the future. It is already colliding with our sustainability goals. We simply do not have the water for the 8,000 new residents who are to join us in the next 20 years. In fact we do not have enough water for our current homes and businesses since we import about a third of our water from collapsing sources such as the Sierra snow pack (the expected El Nino this year will not undo four years of drought). Most of the new housing is headed toward Downtown, which does not even have an elementary school, so those students will need to go across half the town to possibly McKinley. Only one in nine of our workers live and work in the City so we cannot substantially reduce our job/housing imbalance by building more housing, since 9 of the 10 new workers will still work outside of the City adding to our peak hour traffic crushes. And there is no certainty this ratio will likely improve with the advent of the light rail next year. It may actually get worse.

This housing production is not free. New residents require more schools, water, power, traffic upgrades, fire and police services. In countless ways this growth burdens our infrastructure which is already compromised and has limited expansion capability in a built out city. For example, where would you amass enough land for the next elementary school? Where would you build the desalinization plant when desalinization becomes a cost competitive (and ecologically sound) water source? Where would you move the City yards to when Memorial Park is expanded? These are not trivial problems when you consider, for example, that we have the least amount of open park space and are the second densest city in California for coastal cities of our comparable size. The limitations of space in our impacted City means that infrastructure upgrades become much more expensive and increase faster than the tax base to support them. Whenever our growth expands beyond our infrastructure’s capacity, in all senses of the word, all the residents end up paying a horrible civic price in cost (have you looked at your water bill lately), in time and in quality of life.

Unfortunately the trumped-up housing supply crisis in our City has become a Trojan horse to try to drive more unsustainable development into our City. The poster boy for this is the recently approved Santa Monica Plaza project which the City Council green lighted to the next approval level with an astonishing 12 stories and a pitiful fig leaf of only 48 affordable units. The evolving Downtown Specific Plan is also freighted with an unsustainable amount of development.

Cities cannot and should not expand infinitely. Only so much land, sunlight and water is available to our City. For example cities actually do run out of water: even big ones like Sao Paolo, Brazil. So in our built-out beachside City we cannot sustainably produce all the housing there is demand for in our region, nor should we try, since we are already providing more than our fair share of housing AND other vital regional services: recreation (beaches), job creation (silicone beach), transportation (airport and light rail), entertainment (3rd Street Promenade, the pier), health (two regional hospitals), education (Santa Monica College) and tourism (hotel industry).

Those other regional services are as equally regionally important as the housing we provide. However our most significant regional contribution is to be a low rise city where residents, visitors and tourists can relax and get relief from the urban pandemonium all around us. Relaxed living that’s our real mission statement in this region and this aligns with the interests of our residents.

When we compare ourselves to other beachside Cities we do more than our share in many categories. How many regional hospitals does does Malibu have? Does Redondo Beach have a 30,000 student junior college? Does Manhattan Beach have an airport? We do housing very well, but it is just a small part of our metropolitan role. Sustainability of all our regional contributions without burdening our residents should be our major focus, not any one at the expense of the others.

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