When it comes to sustainability, is Santa Monica in hot water?

Sustainable City

We’ve all heard the fable about the frog in a pot of water on the stove. At first, the frog is complacent and unaware of its imminent demise. It is only when the water becomes unbearably hot that it realizes the danger, albeit too late. Our fate and timing might not be so different. The earth is slowly warming due to the “greenhouse effect,” a result of rampant development on our planet. Some still believe it’s a hoax. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth.

Perhaps the scale of the problem makes it difficult to grasp. Many people do not accept their role in its creation and hence its remediation. This year was the warmest on record, made worse by the scant rainfall in Southern California. Despite overwhelming evidence, there are still many that deny that our climate is changing. To them, our current water shortage may appear as nothing more than another “dry season.” Unfortunately, some of the naysayers are leaders in their communities, who may be uninformed or in denial.

The best way to slow climate change is through sustainable practices. What is sustainability? It is the ability to live within limits that avoid the exhaustion of our resources and the resultant fouling of the planet on which our life depends. The endgame comes when our resources are depleted and byproducts have degraded the biosphere irreparably. It is then, like the frog in the pot, that we may find that it is too late.

In many ways, Santa Monica is more aware than most communities. We have an Office of Sustainability that is tasked with the management our resources. This office sets guidelines in the areas of water usage, reduction of waste, solar energy use and housing. On many of these fronts we have made progress. The fact remains, however, that we are still far short of our goals for a sustainable future by the City’s own targets.

Up to now, our ability to limit our City’s “footprint” has resulted more from the actions of our citizenry than our civic leaders. Ironically, it is often the case that our City policies are working at cross-purposes to their stated goal of a net-zero city. Case in point is the City Council’s rush to over-develop without consideration of the consequences. Our current path is clearly unsustainable and if not reversed will eventually lead to the depletion of our City’s resources, along with its unique charm.

For example, while residential users have reduced water usage and increased recycling, the opposite has occurred in the commercial sector. While residents are being asked to leave their cars in the garage and use bikes or public transit, the City has approved some projects that exceed our codes, strain our infrastructure, and increase waste. These developments will also increase traffic and negate any sacrifices on the part of the residents. This must stop.

The gravity of our situation recently motivated residents to gather more than 10,000 signatures to put the LUVE initiative put on the November ballot. If it passes, it will prohibit City officials from “rubber stamping” projects with special agreements that exceed our current codes. The responsibility for these approvals will revert to the residents and the ballot box. This is not a change to our codes. It is rather the restructuring of the approval process that has been abused by those in power.

Our City measures a little over 8.4 square miles, with neither the resources nor infrastructure to support the growth that is now projected. Currently, there are over 25 projects that exceed “by right” planning codes that are requesting special approvals through negotiated development agreements. The City Council will likely approve the majority of these requests, if past history is any indication. The Master Plan for our City and its downtown are still missing. It is our opinion that all future development agreements should be put on hold until this plan has been completed and it can be shown that the proposed growth is sustainable.

This failure to plan ahead will affect the capacity of our streets, electrical grid and water, in addition to the burden being placed on our schools, police and fire departments. When our infrastructure reaches its limit, it will be the residents, not the developers, who will be asked to “pick up the tab” for new water sources, electrical grids and waste systems. The developers responsible for the crisis will have taken their profits and moved on. The City’s paltry development fees will be of little use when the time comes to remediate the damage.

Some might claim that development is necessary to build more affordable housing. This is a Devil’s bargain. The argument that we should replace the low-rise buildings along our streets and boulevards with large commercial projects for a few token affordable units is fallacious. The low number of units in these projects, most unsuitable for families, cannot compensate for the increased traffic or the strain on our resources and infrastructure.

One of the main drivers of our City’s economy is tourism. When the shadows of towering new buildings turn our streets into gridlocked dark corridors, out of scale and character with our beachfront community, our allure as a tourist destination and as a place to live will be diminished.

There is a better approach — one that is sustainable and can still provide additional housing. It entails a shift from demolition to the rehabilitation of our existing building stock. It is an approach that is both more ecological and will preserve the City’s charm while avoiding the pitfalls of newer, larger projects. Family housing is best when it is integrated into the existing city fabric as low-rise buildings, more family-friendly and with proximity to schools and parks. The newer, larger commercial projects are usually the opposite: oversized, lacking in family amenities and placed in areas that have more traffic and pollution.

Although it is obvious that there are limits to growth, these limits are rarely discussed. We are already one of the densest small cities along the California coast. In addition, our residential population of 94,000 more than doubles daily if one counts tourists, commuters and SMC students. Santa Monica plays an important regional role, for both economic activity and recreation. To ignore the pitfalls of over-development in our small, already crowded City will reduce its desirability for residents and visitors alike.

Our City Council’s first order of business should be to do a thorough inventory of our infrastructure and resources and establish a sustainable level of development. This study would form the basis for the approval of future projects and the necessary upgrades required to our existing infrastructure to support them. While we will continue to provide affordable housing, we must do so in a manner that does not degrade our quality of life, that is consistent with best housing practices and is sustainable for future generations.

The esteemed biologist Rene Dubos once said, “Think globally, act locally.” Santa Monica is a small city but has a global reach due to its reputation and many visitors. Let’s set an example for all to follow — for our own good and for the good of our planet. An excellent start would be to have our representatives make more of an effort to plan ahead and act responsibly for a brighter and more sustainable future. If they are not up to the task, we should elect new leaders who are.

Thane Roberts for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

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