All Aboard The Expo Line!

Expo Line

As you read this, our train has arrived. After years of anticipation (and some dread), the Expo Line of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority has reached close enough to the Pacific Ocean for a conductor to be wary of a high surf advisory. Yes, our train has arrived and with it comes a tsunami of change to our beachside city.

Three light rail stations are now open and at each there is both excitement and a little anxiety. What will the train bring to Santa Monica? Will the changes be positive? Can our city’s residents cope with the adjustments that need to be made? Will the increased connectivity be the end to the vision of those that think Santa Monica should be a sleepy beach town?

The return of light rail service after decades of absence brings stories of the long deceased red cars and the connectivity that the Los Angeles Metro area used to possess. My mother told me about catching the Red Car (our previous incarnation of light rail) all the way from Santa Monica to Hollywood to go dancing on a weekend night. In fact, until the mid 1950’s you could travel practically everywhere in Southern California without putting a pedal to the metal at all. As the car culture grew, our streetcars disappeared, driven into oblivion by auto and tire manufacturers. In a “Back To The Future” moment, the Red Car has returned. It’s got a new name, shiny new tracks and different routes, but our children and grandchildren will now be connected to over 106 miles of existing light rail service in Los Angeles.

First, let’s confront the dread. Two of our stations and the corresponding tracks are at street level on Colorado rather than elevated over the center median of Olympic Blvd as Metro had suggested. The Expo Line bifurcates our city on Colorado making north/south street crossings even slower than before. The potential for accidents has increased, with two accidents having already occurred during the testing period. Delays at intersections from 20th Street westward will slow our residents’ crosstown journey. The accidents, traffic delays and added congestion on our streets could have been avoided by keeping the train running above street level to its terminus in Santa Monica. The experience of Metro’s Blue Line (the most dangerous light rail line in America) should have educated us on the perils of street level light rail in a major city.

Also, our city leaders forgot about parking. If Santa Monica’s three stations weren’t going to be the magnet for Malibu, Venice, Pacific Palisades and Mar Vista residents, we wouldn’t have as much concern about the less than 70 dedicated parking spaces for Metro in our city. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti touts Santa Monica’s 7000 parking spaces as ample parking for the Expo Line. He neglects to mention that those parking spaces are already filled to the brim each day. Residents, visitors and our incoming workforce all fight for parking. In fact, we have so little available parking that residents have to obtain permits to park on the streets they live on, park-goers now have to pay parking kiosks at Memorial and Stewart Street Parks, and the parking rates at the Santa Monica Civic parking lot are about to double. The failure to establish park-n-ride lots in Santa Monica was a critical mistake. It may mean that while the Expo Line to Santa Monica will be a huge magnet each day, it may be less so for the 45,000 of our city’s residents who commute to Los Angeles each weekday morning. And, even with the new routing schedules of the Big Blue Bus, many parts of the Westside have no easy access to the train. The Big Blue Bus may get you to your destination but it may not get you home that night.

There’s been a lot of talk about gentrification in our city. With the train comes extreme pressure for further development schemes. Institutional speculators see the area around each train station as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Most residents consider the large upticks in rent and the pressure to redevelop their neighborhood to be a symbol of unwanted change. Taller buildings, more people and increased traffic congestion are a sign that the city they love is fading away. Speculators walk the streets of the Mid City and Pico neighborhoods offering to buy apartments and houses knowing that the train will bring even more money to their pockets.

There is much we won’t be able to fix. We will not be able to build enough parking spaces, and the Expo Line won’t be re-routed. We’ll have to be careful at intersections and add even more patience to our already taxed emotions. All of us must advocate for more public, subsidized connectivity options in Santa Monica. Four north-south routes of a DASH type system are essential for our residents to be able to use our light rail system and access our central business district without driving. A subsidized shared ride system from the stations to your home is also needed. We can add bathrooms at Expo stops. The city must find a better method to help park-goers access our parks without charging them for parking. Perhaps, it’s time to think about a resident parking card with privileges.

The little things count. No bathrooms at any station west of downtown Los Angeles will aggravate some. The noise from the train maintenance yard at Stewart and Exposition and in the Mid-City neighborhood will disturb neighbors who live adjacent to the tracks. The fear exists that the increased connectivity will bring added crime to our city. Emergency vehicles will lose precious seconds as they wait for trains to cross our streets. And, there is real angst ahead for residents who feel that their city has slipped away from them.

Santa Monica must resist the development pressures that are ubiquitous to our city’s location. These pressures will only increase with the arrival of the train. Increased height and density that arrives without sensitivity will bring further discord and anger. On the positive side, Expo will be a valuable means of exploration for developers. They can seek areas of Los Angeles that are depressed and need their investment more. It’s interesting that some of these developers say that they must build higher and denser to find our city’s character. There’s one problem they didn’t anticipate: our city already has character, history and residents who love the sunny, breezy quality of their surroundings.

Has Santa Monica really slipped away or are we facing an exciting future? We’re no longer just the “beach” of Los Angeles. We have become a world-class city in our own right. The arrival of Expo is really a birth. It’s not about what that baby is now, but the adult it will become. While each baby causes some discomfort and a lot of teething fits, eventually you become proud of that child, as we will with Expo. Future generations will laud the foresight of voters in taxing themselves to pay for a more connected future. Even if Expo doesn’t go where you may want it to today, future riders will see it as their freedom to go where they want and need to go.

There is another positive addition the train brings to Santa Monica. Los Angeles is a vast place, full of mystery and reward. Your challenge is to hop onboard the Expo Line and exit at a stop you have never explored before. Find that neighborhood joint, have a bite, shop a little and explore a new part of town. Do that every weekend for a while. Venture to Pasadena, Chinatown, North Hollywood, The Aquarium Of The Pacific, the Rose Garden at the Coliseum and more. There’s only one rule – take the train. Follow my mother’s lead and take the train to the Palladium for a night on the town. Stop in downtown Los Angeles for great theatre or grand music. Explore the history of our neighboring city, all by train. Exit for a French dip at Phillippe’s, a steak and martini at Musso & Frank’s, dim sum in Chinatown or some Taquitos on Olvera Street. The train opens your life to a whole new world if you let it.

After a few weekends of exploration you’ll start to forget about our parking mess, the constant gridlock and the presence of the 8.3 million tourists who love to visit our town each year. Buy a Breeze Bikeshare pass, begin to use ridesharing, walk our streets, become enchanted with our city and region and look forward to your next adventure!

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


What’s It All About…Santa Monica?

Common Sense

When you sort it out,
Are we meant to take more than we give

What IS it all about? Is the divisiveness that permeates our world, our nation, and our beach town, merely philosophical differences, something territorial, or just people wanting and taking more? Whatever the reason, it is clear that divisiveness and friction seem to be the rule of the day. “Can’t we all just get along”? Apparently not, but we would like to at least see us try at a local level.

We are a small town, with monster W.L.A. hovering over us at our eastern border, creating a model for some to imitate, threatening to absorb us from within. But we can, with resolution, calm the beast down. Like David and Goliath, the biggest isn’t always the winner, so we needn’t succumb to the over-development threat out of fear. We just need to have a focus on the threat, put our palm up in a peaceful gesture, universally recognized as a signal to slow down, take a deep breath, and relax. It is a time to pause and regroup, to focus on what motivates such aggression and calm it down.

It may be that a primary cause of the over-development crisis we are facing is the endless supply of people that desire to live in a lovable small beach town environment, like we to date have been. It is ironic that the many willing to pay handsomely to live here are the one’s that are destroying it by altering it with massive over-development, yet that is the direction we are being taken by developers and investors, and our city government.

History has shown that such collaboration is a devil’s bargain, and it never ends well. What prompts a person or group to acquiesce to a more powerful and immediate threat usually comes from the misguided belief that there is something of which to be fearful, or the arrogance of thinking there is something to be gained by joining forces. Such capitulation is a self-fulfilling prophecy by destroying the very thing sought after.

We see such fear sold in Santa Monica fanned by developer interests in the form of large-scale commercial projects that mix in small micro apartment units, or a token number of what are presented as ‘affordable’ units. Of course the question is, affordable to whom? The developers and their advocates seek required development agreements and present their projects, most of which exceed current base line zoning regulations, with negotiated “public benefits”. They claim their project helps solve a housing ‘crisis’ or housing ‘shortage’, and to sweeten the pot will provide additional negotiated “public benefits”. They make claims that their project will aid in lowering rental rates while increasing the housing stock. They say their projects will reduce traffic and the need to commute because their projects will be built near the Expo line or a bus stop. They claim their projects will reduce gentrification and add to economic diversity. And they use non-applicable State or national statistics and sell a one size fits all solution.

Santa Monica, like every other community, has its own unique statistics, its own environmental, infrastructure, and demographic conditions. Somehow, however, this fact is lost on developers and city planners, and the research and analysis needed to define the problem they are purportedly trying to solve is seemingly non-existent. The notion that within our own 8.4 sq. mi.’s, any solution would require multiple 5 to 8 story commercial structures with market rate housing and a mere handful of ‘affordable’ units defies imagination. More than 4 million sq. ft. of projects is currently listed on the City’s Planning Department website as proposed or already approved. ( What and where is the justification for such over-development?

We are already, on a daily basis, probably the most dense beach town along the California coast, with a residential density of more that 11,000 people/sq.mi, and close to 30,000 people/sq. mi. when including our daily visitors, workers, and some 32,000 SMC students. Traffic and gridlock is a reality for all, and it is expected to worsen as the Expo comes on line, bisecting our north/south routes. The developers, pushing their products, try to sell the notion that by building more, it will lessen traffic and gridlock, and result in lower rents and home/condo prices. A false premise unproven in any high land value beachfront community.

The problem is not that we have a housing shortage, but that there is an economic imbalance that restricts many who would want to live here from doing so. The building of large over-scaled market rate commercial developments has never solved the economic issue of affordability for those of lesser income without government subsidies. Wants and wish lists always exist, but it is the needs that must take priority and be balanced with the economics available. That is the reality of problem solving as it relates to design. Our beach town is no different. While it would be nice to solve the economic imbalance that exists here for renters and purchasers, excessive over-development on high value land is not going to be the solution. Unless it is profitable developers simply do not develop, and with high land values developers will continue to build market rate and high-end commercial projects to get their return on investment. Expensive to the consumer and profitable to them, with a token number of low and moderate income units, often, as in a recently approved agreement, pushed off to the ‘other side of the tracks’, virtually on the freeway, on a site that the original Draft EIR (Environmental Impact Report) stated was potentially unhealthy for residential use.

Such projects are the norm in our current over-development crisis, adding to gentrification and economic segregation, loss of diversity, increased demand on our infrastructure, gridlock, and everything that exacerbates the divisiveness we see in our town, pitting residents and quality of life issues vs. developers and a City government unwilling to listen to their constituents. While it takes courage to face the threat and stand up to it, our City government seems to be coming from a position of weakness and capitulation, believing the beast won’t hurt you if you pet it and feed it; unless of course they have morphed into the beast themselves. We must find a way to slay the beast. Our residents, City government staff and officials must take a responsible and progressive stance on development and growth to save our City.

Bob Taylor, AIA for SMa.r.t.
(Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

5 ways Santa Monica must prepare for rising sea levels

Sea-Level Rise

Three weeks ago Dr. David Revell gave a presentation outlining what sea level rise might mean for Santa Monica. With the usual disclaimers about the uncertainty of all predictive modeling, he suggested that oceanographers are predicting for Santa Monica Bay a 2- to 5-foot rise by the year 2100. This range is not unusual since globally we are seeing a 1-inch rise per year while in Santa Monica Bay the rise has only been about one-eighth of an inch per year. This discrepancy cannot endure for long, so sometime in the coming decades we might see a sudden increase in the size of our own sea level rise (rises of up to 7 inches per year have been recorded in past geologic time). Please note that the projected sea level rise will not come to a screeching halt in 2100. Some studies (New York Times, March 30) suggest we may see an additional 5-foot rise from 2100 to 2150.

Although a one-eighth-inch rise per year now may sound trivial, the real punch comes when you add this to the typical 7-foot tidal fluctuations plus the 7-foot storm surge by periodic severe storms (in this case, storms of such intensity occur once every 50 years). For example, 33 years ago, in 1983, a putative 50-year storm tore off the western third of the Santa Monica Pier, requiring a multi-million-dollar reconstruction that continues with upgrades to this day. As a corollary, statistically, in the next 17 years, we might face the additional intensity of the so-called 100-year storm that might raise extreme water levels substantially higher than that 1983 storm.

If we combine the 100-year storm with only a 3-foot projected sea level rise, we lose the parking lot north of the pier and the lifeguard station headquarters, part of Muscle Beach and about half the bike path north of the pier. Taking it a step further, at a 6-foot sea level rise plus the 100-year storm, we would lose: large buildings along the boardwalk (the Sea Castle, Shutters, Casa del Mar), about half the buildings north of the pier, all the bike path and bathrooms plus virtually all the parking lots. Finally, Pacific Coast Highway would be cut at Channel Road. That level of damage is a serious blow to the tax base of the City and its tourist industry, not to mention the temporary loss of PCH. It’s unclear in this scenario what would happen to the pier.

There are other possible, less obvious effects of sea level rise unrelated to storm surge, including the problem of possible saltwater intrusion into our water table, the destabilization of buildings during an earthquake due to an enlarged liquefaction zone and possible basement flooding from a raised water table.

Finally, we need to add to sea level rise the possibility of tsunamis generated by far-off earthquakes. In 2015 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a tsunami forecast model for Santa Monica. It examined 19 hypothetical earthquakes from across the Pacific for their tsunami potential and found only one that would have the potential to generate a significant wave (13 feet) large enough to endanger Santa Monica. All the 18 other earthquake sources generated waves no higher than 7 feet, or about as bad as a 50-year storm. While sea level rise and 100-year storms play out relatively slowly, a tsunami with the potential to hit Santa Monica would arrive in only 14 hours. The last time we had a significant tsunami event was from Chile in 1960 with a wave less than 6 feet in height that came ashore 300 feet and halfway into the parking lots south of Pico Boulevard. I remember it well; I was a child body-surfing the morning after it hit and had to be rescued by the lifeguards from the excessive undertow it generated. However, if that tsunami were to come ashore along with a 5-foot sea level rise, it could generate a 19-foot wave that would scrub everything clear to the base of the Palisades Park bluff as well as put a dent into the first block south of Ocean Park Boulevard.

SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow) has always advocated preparing for tomorrow even if tomorrow is a generation or three away. Specifically, sea level rise, which sounded far away, is now an increasingly visible threat to our City. In the spirit of hoping for the best but being ready for the worst, we recommend the following concrete steps we can take today to be ready for when it inevitably comes:

1. Initiate a study for preserving the pier. The pier is arguably our most iconic asset and deserves the highest level of long term protection. This might involve protecting it by lengthening or raising its breakwater, which will continue to lose its protective capacity. It might involve planning how to physically raise the pier in place. The solution to these questions needs the expertise of marine engineers specializing in such contingent design. Certainly the new bridge access being planned should be designed to accommodate the fact that the pier will probably need to be raised vertically over the next decades.

2. Initiate a long-term study with Caltrans to protect PCH, which will eventually have to be raised higher than its current elevation. Eventually, that raised highway will hit the ceiling of the McClure Tunnel. That choke point, already the scene of innumerable accidents and functioning at limiting capacity (three lanes squeezing down to two in both directions) needs to be reevaluated in light of sea level rise before such speculative plans as the 4th Street crossover, the Wyndham Hotel expansion or covering the freeway are initiated. If we cannot accommodate plans for raising PCH, the Downtown Community Plan should plan now for a tunnel or a highway at grade heading north to Santa Monica Canyon to pick up a raised PCH on the way to Malibu.

3. Continue monitoring the tidal gauge at the pier to determine how fast sea levels are rising to give us a sense of how much time we have to enact our contingency plans.

4. Initiate a study of how to protect our beach assets (bathrooms, bike paths, parking lots). The study would identify cost-effective solutions, including when to retreat gracefully as opposed to the bankrupting cash hemorrhage of rebuilding them after every major storm.

5. Identify realistic funding sources commensurate with the challenge of protecting, adapting or retreating from our most valuable beachfront. This literal rainy day fund would grow slowly and be deployed periodically when needed so we can avoid panicked responses to crises we know are coming our way.

To some this might sound like a lot of wasteful pie-in-the-sky studies, but I would like you to remember the next time you are stuck in Santa Monica traffic that you are driving on streets laid out 140 years ago. Things we do today have consequences a century from now.

More than 80 years ago, the Santa Monica breakwater was completed and over the decades the sand buildup from that breakwater, along with a one-time sand bonanza from dredging Marina del Rey, provided us about a 600-foot sand buffer to the ocean. That awesome buffer is the investment that now buys us time needed for our wealthy City to respond gracefully with a well-conceived plan to address the current sea level rise. We should be as prescient today as our civic ancestors were then. Their stewardship has given us such priceless jewels as the pier, our beaches, Palisades Park and our own water system. We should not waste the gift of their wisdom. We need, literally, to “get ahead of the wave.”

Mario Fonda-Bonardi for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)


An Extreme Reaction

The Truth about LUVE

Council Member Kevin McKeown’s letter to the editor (5/2/16) says that SMart in its column of 4/30/16 misrepresented City Manager Rick Cole’s words. We merely quoted Mr. Cole’s comments in a major speech that he gave before Downtown Santa Monica Inc. in August 2015. His words were published in this newspaper.

We admire Mr. Cole, and thought his speech that day was an appropriate reminder to our community that our sense of place, our uniqueness, our local flavor and our people are what make Santa Monica a special place.

To that end, we believe that excessively tall buildings will not help our city retain that special sense of place that our city manager spoke of. In his letter, Mr. McKeown distorts our words and that of the purpose of the Land Use Voter Empowerment Initiative.

The truth is LUVE is not anti-growth; it is pro-resident. It would retain that sense of place that Santa Monica already possesses. It would make it harder for our “slow-growth, anti-development” city council to obtain approval for projects like the proposed 12 story Plaza At Santa Monica. The distortions that our Council Member makes in his response are many. The initiative allows three story construction projects “by right” in our city and matches the base tier of our current zoning law. Today, any development over three stories requires a direct agreement between a developer and our City Council. LUVE changes these agreements to one between the developer and our residents. It is understandable that a city council member might oppose this change however we see the results of the existing failed policies throughout our city.

LUVE will not deprive us of additional housing as over 70 potential sites are exempt from the effects from the initiative. LUVE would protect renters as each and every new apartment development in Santa Monica has edged rents steadily higher. The retention of existing renters is a priority for the writers of the LUVE initiative. The outspoken early opposition to this initiative has been by developers who wish to exploit our higher height limits for their own financial profit.

We need to merely walk around our city to evaluate the results of our current “slow growth, anti-development” policies and whether or not they have been successful. Mr. McKeown states that he has supported every slow-growth measure in our city for the past 40 years. It’s time for him to support the one initiative that will work for the good of our residents and for Santa Monica.

Phil Brock & Ron Goldman
Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow