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

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