“Think about the places that you remember fondly visiting, I think you and discerning visitors from all over this country and all over this world, actually prefer places that retain a sense of place, that boast a unique identity, that retain their local flavor, that nurture their authenticity, that emphasize their cultural and artistic richness … You come to Downtown Santa Monica because it’s a real place. It’s a place that people love, it’s a sense of history, a sense that this is a ‘there’ there.” (City Manager Rick Cole, in an August 2015 speech at the annual meeting of Downtown Santa Monica Inc.)
It was heartening to hear the city manager speak of the essential value in preserving the history and identity of our city. Cole went on to say, “Let’s work together to retain the support of all the residents…” Cole’s words spoke to the need for residents to buy in to the future development of Santa Monica. The Land Use Voter Empowerment (LUVE) initiative is important for the future of Santa Monica because the voters, the residents, must have a voice in the responsible growth and destiny of our town.
Why do we live here, what do we feel when we walk the streets, or along the pier, or the edge of the sea? Is it the blue skies and ocean breezes, the low-rise courtyard buildings, palm trees and sunlit sidewalks? Or large-scale buildings casting shadows and blocking sky and breezes? What is our vision for Santa Monica: Will it be a city primarily for residents or for tourists? Our collective challenge is to provide for responsible growth, by creating an environment that improves residents’ lives, making them feel comfortable and even joyous.
Roughly 15 percent of our city is available for development, either for reasonable development or excessive development. There is still a considerable amount of growth available in our downtown and along our boulevards without sacrificing what we LUVE about Santa Monica. With 30 percent of our downtown and 75 percent of our boulevards composed of low-rise buildings, there is room to responsibly develop up to 6 million square feet of ground floor commercial space (half of the existing downtown area!), and numerous apartments housing thousands of additional residents. Our civic duty should be to avoid turning Santa Monica into a carbon copy of Downtown Los Angeles. Reduced height limits will bring down land prices and reduce construction costs, resulting in more realistic housing prices, while still providing developers a yearly 15- to 20-percent return on equity!
But how much growth is necessary, realistic and environmentally responsible? Some organic growth in cities is necessary, but how much and where? Are we willing to triple the average heights of buildings in our existing downtown and along our boulevards, as proposed codes and development agreements would allow? Density is not synonymous with quality of life. Traffic, parking problems and the “canyonization” of our downtown streets need not become the norm. Ours is a city seemingly for sale to the highest bidders. Do we want to live by the mantra of the cash register instead of one of birds and blue skies? Have we lost a sense of balance and scale? We’re better than this; at least, we hope we are.
Our civic growth shouldn’t be at the expense of the spirit and uniqueness of Santa Monica. Otherwise we become victims of our own success. We need to make decisions based on human needs rather than economic gain. We need to focus on quality over quantity, ensuring we have open space and access to blue skies.
Have we created a vibrant community only to sow the seeds of its destruction? Is our perceived anxiety over tax revenues worth excessive traffic and density? The future of our downtown and boulevards shouldn’t just be about increased height and density. With this over-development crisis, our traffic arteries are already clogged and we are at gridlock today. The emphasis by developers on maximized commercial development, and the city’s acquiescence, is destructive to our way of life. In essence, our residents get crumbs while developers are eating cake! No additional number of community benefits can make a poor project a good project.
Do we need more height and density at the expense of the city we love? LUVE is about embracing what we have: a comfortable way of life while still leaving enough room for responsible growth. The stakes here are tremendous. We can retain our beachfront environment or become indistinguishable from Los Angeles. The soul of our city must always be protected.
LUVE chooses smart, responsible growth over excessive one-size-fits-all density. Our city government must represent our residents rather than that of special interests. LUVE will take our city off the auction block and put a stop to the trading of our beachfront environment for buildings that are too tall and too dense. It’s interesting that downtown Santa Monica development advocates seem smitten with the talk of iconic architects creating high rises within our midst, as those same architects have also created award-winning low-rise buildings that fit within the texture of our city.
Santa Monica once had a unique housing identity. Bungalow and courtyard homes once dominated our city. A significant part of architecture is the way buildings interact with open space — not imposing their will on nature, but existing within nature. Destroying our connection to the beach and ocean with over-development is not acceptable.
Santa Monica is quickly slipping away, as is our council’s consciousness. It’s alarming that our city council doesn’t seem to realize the reckless course they’re on. Approval of these large-scale projects is happening rapidly. Development agreements shouldn’t be approved while ignoring density and design, traffic and parking, water scarcity and open space. In Santa Monica we must only approve new construction that fits the authenticity and uniqueness of our beachfront community.
Proper infrastructure must always precede new development. We would become unglued if our infrastructure should begin to fail rapidly. The already excessive load on our downtown grid is already evidenced by numerous and increasing power outages. Rather than continue to approve new development, let us pause and spend our valuable tax dollars on reinforcing our city’s existing infrastructure. Is anxiety over tax revenues worth architectural and environmental mediocrity? Residents have begged the city council to veer from this reckless course, but sadly to no avail.
Santa Monica can continue to be a progressive city while balancing growth and maintaining its quality of life. Our beachfront character is our city’s sense of place. Handled correctly and with LUVE, Santa Monica can embrace the future and above all else maintain a strong sense of community.
Ron Goldman FAIA and Phil Brock for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects or a Responsible Tomorrow)