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. (http://www.smgov.net/Departments/PCD/Plans-Projects/). 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)

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