Six Questions about the Downtown Plan

The City of Santa Monica is currently engaged in finalizing its Downtown Community Plan (DCP). This Specific Plan is generally bounded by Lincoln Blvd., the 10 freeway, Ocean Avenue and Wilshire Blvd and is supposed to govern development in this area till 2030.

SMart (Santa Monica Architects for a responsible tomorrow) recognizes that different factions will advocate for their own visions for Downtown. That said, and regardless of which vision one may support, certain fundamental questions need to be answered by whatever plan is finally adopted:

• How many Residential Units should be added downtown during the next 14 years?

Let’s say for sake of argument there was some documented specific “need” for downtown growth. Until that is produced, we only have the drive of “market forces” to benchmark our growth as reflected by the City Council’s approval over the last 3 years of about 100 units a year in the downtown area. The DCP staff envisions, adding 2500 units over the next 14 years; or a rate of growth 178 units per year (a 78 % increase over the current rate) packing the downtown with about three quarters of the about 239 units that represent our fair share of regional annual growth. Is this over concentration wise given that our Boulevards with their current zoning have at least three times the growth capacity as the downtown?

2. How will this growth affect the character of the downtown?

The DCP makes a strong case for preserving its “our town” character “ yet the proposed growth, with heights up to 130’ and the expected 600, 000 to a million square feet of added retail and office area (equivalent to two new Santa Monica Places) would fundamentally alter the experience of downtown. Height is a good barometer of the character of a place since it affects shading, views, sunlight for photo-voltaics, street safety, energy self sufficiency and the relative pressure to demolish historical buildings. Height also relates to the number of floors which impacts all mobility loads (people, cars, buses, bikes), the tax base, housing, and business opportunities. Since over 60% of the downtown area is either empty lots or one and two story buildings, our current downtown has a very low rise feeling even with a number of tall buildings all built at an earlier less environmentally sensitive time.

The low rise buildings and open lots provide “breathing space” to the downtown urban fabric helping to maintain a human pedestrian scale. For example the Third Street Promenade is primarily experienced as a low rise two story environment in spite of its wide range of building heights. The proposed plan has maximum heights of 84’ over 2/3s of downtown. The other 1/3 averages 66’ with a few parcels allowed to go to 130’. If we ignore those ultra high parcels, our downtown will have an average allowable height of 78’ which translates to 96’, since buildings are allowed to exceed the building heights by 18’ for penthouses parapets, elevator shafts, etc. Is an effective 96’ height limit beneficial to the character we want to preserve for our downtown?

• How does the Downtown Community Plan help in preserving older buildings?

The effective height limit of 96’ translates to 7 or more stories. No developer tears down a two story building to put up a three story building. But once the allowed stories increase by two or more above what exists, the pressure to develop that parcel becomes irresistible. Therefore, this plan threatens the vast majority of the older one to two story buildings that provide most of “our town’s” character. While the Plan does provide minor breaks for Historic Buildings and advocates increasing the Historic Resources Inventory for possible landmarking, the new height limits crush any preservation effort since they incentivize massive demolition efforts on the majority of parcels. Are the DCP’s preservation incentives strong enough to preserve the 53 potentially viable important historic buildings? While historic buildings are not evenly distributed in the downtown, please note that if all these preservation efforts are successful only about three buildings would be preserved every 4 blocks.

4. Does the DCP incentivize reducing the City’s need for water?

Our City has a goal of reducing water use (or creating a new supply) by about 32% to reach self-sufficiency by 2020. From 2005 to 2013 residential use declined 6% (while the population increased 7%) and the commercial water use (about 1/3 of the City’s demand) increased 12%. In other words the commercial usage increase has cancelled out all the strenuous water conservation efforts of residents. This trend is not likely to change. Travis Page, the City’s DCP planner, expects the downtown population to increase by about 3750 (2500 new units X 1.5 persons/unit) or about 4% while the City’s overall job growth is projected between 2% and 5%. Since multifamily residents typically use less water than single family residents (fewer lawns and back yards), we can probably expect a 4% residential water growth and a 3.5% commercial increase for a blended consumption increase of 3.8% over the next 14 years. This doesn’t sound like much, until you realize that we are trying to cut consumption (or raise production) about 8% a year for the next four years in a row. Not during the depths of the recession nor in the historic drought, when the governor called for a 20% water use reduction, have we ever achieved anywhere near these kinds of targets. So the question is how are the downtown businesses and residents going to cut water use to the point that it makes that kind of difference for the whole City? As the growing “edge” of our City they will have to do more than their share.

5. Will the DCP’s mobility plan really increase mobility downtown?

Everyone knows that the traffic downtown is abysmal. The residential population is expected to almost double from 4016(2010) to 7766 while worker population would increase from about 19416 to as high as 23,884 (e.g. a potential 23% increase). The EXPO line, possible increased bus/bike usage, might help mitigate these additional demands, but we really don’t have the lane and sidewalk widths to handle them. TDMs (transportation demand management) which are a series of measures such as carpools, free bus passes etc. that can help reduce peak hour loads, have been implemented for a decade and have yet to show they are up to the task. The downtown EIR (Environmental Impact Report) predicts that, even under the best of circumstances, of the 48 intersection conditions studied (16 intersections at AM, PM, and weekends), 38 (79%) will be rated at Level of Service D or lower, compared 65% now. While the EIR struggles mightily, studying one way streets, lane closures, bus lanes etc., no clear solution emerges to really solve this problem. We have the 10 Freeway, the EXPO line, and 4 major boulevards dumping cars, buses, bikes, and pedestrians into a downtown already gridlocked. Something has to give, yet what we see is a DCP that suggests a solution by increasing and concentrating even more transit demand.

6. Finally where is Downtown’s Center?

Santa Monica Plaza (5th and Arizona) is proposed as Santa Monica’s Center. This 130’ high mish mash of housing, hotel, etc. does not include a big enough open space to be the center of our beachfront town. We have already built essentially the identical building on the North East corner of 4th and Wilshire, and its incapable of a flagship role. This new Plaza needs to be a real Plaza, a sizable urban open space, like St Mark’s Square in Venice, not a height busting monument. The discussion of this center, including the demolition of parking structure #3 for an Arclight Theater needs more community buy-in before millions of public dollars are spent.

These are six simple questions that the DCP needs to address.
Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow
Sam Tolkin, Architect; Dan Jansenson, Architect; Mario Fonda-Bonardi, AIA, Planning Commissioner; Ron Goldman, FAIA; Thane Roberts, AIA;; Bob. Taylor, AIA; Armen Melkonian, Environmental Engineer; Phil Brock, Chair, Recreation & Parks Commission