Power to the People!

LUVE Initiative

Note: The SMa.r.t. guest author this week is longtime Santa Monica resident Richard Orton. He is concerned about the direction our beach town is taking and has been actively engaged in our community for decades.

I moved to Ocean Park in January 1970 when I was going to UCLA and I’ve lived and rented in this wonderful seaside neighborhood ever since.

But when I moved in, it was the slum of Santa Monica. It was the honky tonk part of town, a leftover from the decaying pier that burned down regularly over the next couple of years. Main Street, always the heart and soul of Ocean Park, was a collection of dive bars that served alcoholics and the Bible Way Mission was a flop house, ready to pick up the pieces after last call.

But even then, there was a hint of the future.

At the southern end of Main Street was The Oar House, started by Western Airlines Pilot, Al Ehringer in 1964. This popular spot was the destination for every college student in a 50 mile radius. It made a fortune for Ehringer, who came to be called Mr. Main Street, and his partners enabling them to buy up a lot of property along Main Street and improve it.

I think they were gifted developers, sensitive to the old buildings, keeping the low profile, neighborhood friendly walking street as it was. By 1980 Main Street was fashionable, prosperous, full of fine restaurants, bars and upscale shops and services. Property values in the adjacent neighborhood increased accordingly. Everybody was happy.

Then the city got involved.

Main Street merchants had complained that the parking lot to the west was always full, keeping shoppers away from their stores. The city’s answer was to suggest buildiing a two-story parking structure on the existing parking lot, west of Main Street.

Then somebody at city hall got the bright idea that affordable housing could be built on top of this structure. Soon it grew like a wedding cake with two levels of affordable housing and two more levels of parking for the people that lived there. This mammoth monster would be two blocks long, four stories tall, dominating the neighborhood and blocking ocean views up the hill. It was a bad idea.

This is when I got interested in local politics, joining forces with my local neighborhood association and many Main Street merchants opposed to this monstrosity. We pointed out to the city a very simple solution they hadn’t figured out on their own.

Beach goers filled up that parking lot because there was, at that time, no alternative to the all-day flat rate price charged at the nearby beach parking lot. Going to the beach for just a couple hours, people put money in the meters of the lot that served Main Street, went to the beach and came back a couple hours later, saving lots of money. Our group told the city that if there was short-term parking at the beach, the demand for the Main Street lot would diminish and there would be no need for a structure and everything that went with it.

So the city spent $50,000 on parking studies with happy results. The city council rejected the parking structure, short-term parking was implemented at the beach, and the lot west of Main Street was re-striped to accommodate even more cars.

The lesson here is that the city doesn’t always know best. And that continues to be the case.

In Ocean Park today, life is good and the sea breezes are gentle, but there are two issues everybody is concerned about, traffic and development. The two issues go hand in hand and communicating with City Hall about it is an ongoing frustration. Bob Taylor said it best in a Facebook post recently:

“… that Santa Monica has morphed into a situation where residents needs are subservient to commercial/tourist serving issues is why there is so much dissension in the community.”

The commercial development approved by the city council in the last 20 years has been explosive. Our 90,000 nighttime population swells to an estimated 250,000 during the day. The biggest consequence of this is that our roads become parking lots over extended rush hours. And in spite of this expanded need for road space, the city makes the totally illogical decision to narrow Ocean Park Blvd., east of Lincoln, from two lanes to one. It can sometimes take 20 minutes to get from the beach to Centinela using this route. Pointing this out to city officials is, just like in the 1980s, met with deaf ears. “The city knows best” attitude continues to rule at city hall and it is very frustrating.

What can be done about it? Who really calls the shots at City Hall? I don’t know, but if you haven’t been on a personal bus tour conducted by the city staff of all the primo development sites all over town, you can be sure it isn’t you.

For generations, Santa Monicans have asked city leaders to moderate the greed of developers. No matter who is elected, city council, and city staff, always seem to side with developer interests. Huge projects in the pipeline for approval paint an even bleaker future for our city. We need to stop it.

We must go over their heads. Residents must have the last word by approving the large development projects that will impact our lives. There is an initiative on the ballot in November that will address this issue and return the power to our residents. I urge a YES vote on LUVE.

Richard Orton for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)


Is Santa Monica destined to become a Notopia?


If what is called the development of our cities is allowed to multiply at the present rate, then by the end of the century our world could consist of isolated oases of glassy monuments surrounded by a limbo of shacks and beige constructions, and we will be unable to distinguish any one global city from another. This pandemic of generic buildings will have no connection to each other, let alone to the climate and culture of their location.

This extremely dire statement depicts Notopia as envisioned by the British architectural publication, “The Architectural Review.” It is one potential scenario at the end of the ongoing and extraordinary urban growth taking place on every continent and is perhaps the compliment to and parallel of business/industrial globalization that is exacerbated by the migrations of mass populations from one continent to another. Further, it has been compounded by the widespread destruction of the less dense often historic cities by disenfranchised groups of peoples as well as radical extremists such as in Syria, Iraq and parts of North Africa. Often it represents a complete disrespect for the indigenous architecture and culture.

Although the global unrest, climate changes and changes in the worldwide economic fabric may appear to be having a greater effect on other larger communities, we are not immune. Smaller coastal communities like ours are and will continue to be altered physically and demographically by these worldwide changes. On the East Coast we have the urban and suburban sprawl, which has been deemed a megalopolis as it stretches from Boston to Washington and beyond.

How do we reinforce the fabric and sense of community for our small coastal town? In a recent article on urban growth, the Financial Times of London indicated that developments in a city such as ours pose a challenge to the social cohesion between existing residents and newcomers, putting pressure on urban planners to better understand how neighborhoods interact.

At the heart of the issue is the question: Does the increased density represented by these developments and those pushed for by some of our own city staff and politicians destroy the existing social fabric of the neighborhoods which make up our community? It is further complicated by the economics because as density increases property values escalate up forcing out those residents who have lived here 40 to 50 years.

An important part of the wellbeing and cohesiveness of any community is the personnel interaction between neighbors and neighborhoods. Good design, not density, can reinforce it. This is the continuing challenge that urban planners, policy makers and community workers face globally and should, of course, be the challenge right here. Some studies have shown that overly dense urban areas do the opposite and alienate. How is it local residents hesitate to go downtown? It is because most new developments do not facilitate this interaction.

We need to continually focus in on how as residents of this small city we can protect the scale and character which brought us here. Large-scale developments with so-called iconic buildings are not the answer. We cannot continue to sell off public property assets to private hands so they can leverage that value and build as much or more than the code allows. We need for our city a new kind of planning, one where master plans are in place accompanied by a completely visualized urban design component. These must take into account the external forces which, like the rising sea levels, will impact the ultimate form of our city and the need to develop net zero energy efficient building designs, and the need to retrofit existing structures so they are more energy efficient and earthquake resistant.

Further, plans need to create a distinctive image that respects our history and the cultural diversity that created our community.

These are tools we need immediately. They are long overdue. We need an acceptable downtown-specific plan with a detailed urban design component, one which reflects the existing residential and commercial projects that have already been entitled. That plan should allow an enhanced and interconnected system of open space. Perhaps, at 4th Street and Arizona Avenue, add a central urban park to provide the heart and core to our downtown which it currently lacks. This plan should enhance view corridors and arcades, pedestrian and bike access.

New residential developments should be required to have more open space for the use of the tenants and they should be encouraged to share that space at grade to pedestrians and other local residents. Solar access from one lot to the next should be respected in the plans.

That plan should enhance the potential interaction of the neighborhoods and the downtown and should not create barriers to that interaction. It should foster our interconnectedness by reducing traffic and allowing residents to re-engage with their downtown.

The plan contents should be completely vetted before the public so that residents can provide their feedback. So often in the past our awareness of planning decisions comes to us after the fact. In the end we need a system of checks and balances so that no individuals or powerful groups whether appointed or elected can subvert the will of the public and allow breakaway development.

Santa Monica has an opportunity to lead the way with the passage of the LUVE initiative.

The initiative is a step in the direction of controlling our own destiny. Effectively, it is tied to the Land Use and Circulation Element and to our zoning ordinance and does not impede residential development. Further, it puts back into the hands of our residents the final decisions on those larger development projects that may violate the quality of life that we have heretofore enjoyed and the sense of our community that we loved.

I believe we residents have the good judgement to never allow this city to morph into a Notopia.

Samuel Tolkin for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

Santa Monica citizens in the dark as planning goes rogue

Northeast Neighbors

This is the first in a series of articles on the neighborhoods of Santa Monica, addressing resident experiences with the impacts of development and the reasons why they support the LUVE Initiative.

Northeast Neighbors made front-page news in 2013 when the neighborhood group exposed a “mistake” on the official planning map in the City of Santa Monica’s new general plan, the Land Use and Circulation Element. A small surface parking lot behind the Bank of America property at Berkeley Street and Wilshire Boulevard had been changed from residential to commercial, and this change made it possible for the developer to plan a 5-story, 100-unit mixed-use project to be built across the two properties.

A building of that size would never have been possible without the up-zoning of the residential lot behind the bank.

As it turned out, members of Northeast Neighbors discovered the land use change and rallied their neighbors with flyers promoting the upcoming community meeting for the BofA project, flyers that illustrated the dramatic contrast between the current building and the proposed development. The night of the community meeting, the developer and his team encountered an angry crowd of more than 200 residents. Soon after, residents discovered that there were dozens of other “A” lots across the city that had also been changed from residential to commercial on the LUCE map.

Amy Aukstikalnis, chair of the neighborhood organization at the time, remembers that night as a turning point for many. “Residents began to ask who had made the map changes, changes that granted a significant increase in development rights and potential profit to commercial property owners and developers,” she said.

Six Santa Monica neighborhood organizations joined together to lobby the City to explain how the map had been changed, demanding that the City preserve the “A” lots as residential.

Councilmember Kevin McKeown called the map change “a mystery.” Former City Manager Rod Gould said the “A” lot changes on the LUCE map were “a mistake.” To date it has never been revealed when or by whom the map changes were made.

“These changes were never publicly proposed, vetted or discussed by City Council,” Aukstikalnis said. “People were concerned that there might have been other changes to the general plan that had been made without public knowledge. People began to feel distrustful of their city government.”

Not until eight months later did City officials in a Planning Commission meeting state that the map changes had been made to increase commercial development. While the Commission voted to restore most of the 89 “A” lot parcels to their original residential designation, no information was provided on when the map was changed or by whom.

City Planning Director David Martin stated that “some of the parcels along the boulevard were expanded in terms of the commercial designation in order to allow or to, you could say, incentivize the redevelopment of those properties.”

Martin conceded that the conversion of “A” lots made it possible for the City to include in the proposed zoning what they called “Activity Centers,” massive mixed-use development projects (up to 70 feet tall in some areas) that would have loomed high over neighboring homes.

David Yuguchi of the Northeast Neighbors board still remembers the many months of the “A” lot controversy as “a shocking example of the City’s disregard for the public.”

A mostly single-family-home neighborhood north of Wilshire and south of Montana on the eastern edge of Santa Monica, the Northeast Neighborhood is described in the LUCE as “a quiet suburban environment, enhanced by a natural tranquility that stems from their mature tree-lined and beautifully landscaped boulevards and avenues, as well as a lack of intense traffic and automobile noises.”

The leaders of Northeast Neighbors frequently remind city officials that the general plan specifically calls for the quality of life in neighborhoods to be preserved. The LUCE states that planning policies should “discourage regional traffic from using neighborhood streets” and that they should make neighborhood streets safe enough to “enable motorists to stop for a child chasing a ball.”

Aukstikalnis said, “We take that promise very seriously. Our utmost concern is protecting the quality of life for residents.”


Detail of the flyer distributed by Northeast Neighbors in 2013 to rally opposition to the Bank of America development on a residential “A” lot.

The group was disappointed in the experience and the results of the Zoning Ordinance Update process in which they rigorously engaged. One of their top concerns is that as development agreements and development in general have increased, so has traffic. They have seen their neighborhood streets become secondary arteries as more and more drivers seek to escape traffic on Wilshire Boulevard by cutting through side streets, making them noisy and unsafe.

Residents say the zoning update and City policies have made things worse in this neighborhood — not better.

The City has embarked on an aggressive Traffic Demand Management plan by advancing reduced parking standards and trip reduction measures for new development along the boulevards. While Northeast Neighbors supports the goal of reducing car trips in Santa Monica, these residents do not see the current policies working.

In fact, the City’s policies have had the unintended consequence of pushing commuting workers into neighborhoods in search of available parking. “Without strong parking restrictions in the neighborhoods and enforcement, instead of getting commuters out of cars, we just change where they park,” Aukstikalnis said.

While the new zoning code makes it explicit that parking in commercial buildings must be available to employees, those requirements are not being enforced. Case in point is the Whole Foods market at 23rd and Wilshire, a huge grocery store that employs some 190 workers daily. Because the market does not allow employees to park their cars in the market’s parking structure, the workers park on neighborhood streets.

However, City code requires Whole Foods to allow its employees to park in its parking structure (SMMC 9.28.030B). The board of Northeast Neighbors has written to the City Planning Director to request enforcement of the code but has received no response from either the City planning director or the City code enforcement division.

The campaign to get voters to support the LUVE initiative in the November election has strong support from Northeast Neighbors. The neighborhood group endorsed LUVE and members were active in the signature-gathering campaign that yielded 10,000 signatures to qualify the petition for the ballot.

LUVE’s requirement of voter approval for large projects is consistent with the results of recent surveys of the Northeast Neighbors members. The annual membership renewal form included a survey that asked members the open-ended question “What is your top concern?” For the past three years the No. 1 concern has remained unchanged: overdevelopment.

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


The Feel Good Article!

City Character

“It will be celebrated with pomp and parade…bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.” John Adams, second President of the United States of America.

Independence Day arrives on Monday and it’s the 240th birthday of our country. Americans celebrate outdoors with BBQ’s, parades, fireworks, family, lemonade and lots of beer. Parks throughout the country are filled with happy people and the aroma of hot dogs, hamburgers and ribs. In Santa Monica, our density increases tenfold as throngs of people from throughout the region come to spend their 4th at our beaches, downtown and parks. On this day, we welcome our visitors as they arrive to enjoy this special place. This year, many will arrive by light rail as well as by car, bicycle, by bus and as pedestrians. We are fortunate that we can enjoy each and every day in our beachside community.

Many of those who come are seeking the fireworks spectacle of bygone days in Santa Monica. Yes, to enlighten those new to the area, Santa Monica for decades had an extravaganza of fireworks explode and light the sky each July 4th. In fact, my mother and father met each other for the first time at the Pier on Independence Day. The aircraft carrier my father was serving on was the launch pad for the 1949 fireworks display. The Valley Forge anchored here and fireworks ensued… apparently between my mother and father as well. Unfortunately, the growing density of the region and the very popularity of our fireworks brought about their end. Huge throngs of people choked our roads, caused havoc at the beach and created unmanageable amounts of crime – too large and unruly a crowd for a small city police force to handle, as Angelenos forgot how to be good neighbors.

So, Santa Monica’s fireworks are now presented well before the actual holiday. Santa Monica College puts on a great afternoon and evening of family friendly fireworks on Corsair Field called “Celebrate America”. This year, the event was held on June 25th and by all accounts was a wonderful gathering where residents of every political persuasion came together to celebrate our city. Even though our fireworks celebration occurs well before the actual holiday it’s still meaningful to our residents. It has been suggested that our fireworks become “silent fireworks” – yes, that’s a thing. This is an idea worth exploring, as it would allow our pets to join in the excitement rather than suffering through the evening. We need more such family friendly occurrences in our city and, of course, more parks to facilitate those celebrations. As you prepare for Monday’s BBQ’s and Picnics remember that Marine Park, Virginia Avenue Park, Douglas Park, Ozone Park, Tongva Park, Reed Park, Crescent Bay Park, Hotchkiss Park and Palisades Park (the crown jewel of Santa Monica) are among the outdoor spaces where you can all gather together and party.
Although our municipality no longer has fireworks on Independence Day, there are fireworks just across our borders for you to enjoy. Here are some of them:

  • On Sunday, July 3rd, both the Beach Club and the Bel Air Bay Club present fireworks for their members at 9:00PM. To experience the Beach Club’s spectacular fireworks, stand at Inspiration Point in Palisades Park or walk to Lifeguard Station 2 on Santa Monica Beach. The Bel Air Bay Club (16801 Pacific Coast Hwy) is located between Temescal Canyon Road and Sunset Blvd with parking available on PCH. The rocks on the shore and small beach just north of the club are a fabulous place to watch the show.
  • On July 4th, Brentwood County Club sets off their fireworks at 9:00PM for their members. Free viewing is available on Montana Avenue, with prime spots between Stanford and Centinela. Palisades High School, Marina Del Rey and Malibu Pier also have excellent firework shows once darkness has fallen across Santa Monica Bay. Finish your evening at the highest point in Santa Monica, atop Franklin Hill. Park at Mt Olivet Reservoir, get out of your car (or simply walk up the hill) and face east. You’ll see fireworks from Downtown Los Angeles, through Hollywood, Century City and Westwood. Turn toward the south and you’ll see fireworks from Baldwin Hills to the South Bay, and then face the Pacific Ocean to see all the fireworks on the West Side. Mt Olivet Reservoir is the highest point in Santa Monica and is slated to become a small park – a simple peaceful park space to reflect, to look and to simply breathe.
  • I’m neglecting to mention one more activity in our town. It’s the 10th Anniversary of the Ocean Park Association’s Main Street Parade. This parade is a return to small town Santa Monica and everyone is invited to attend and to participate. City Council Members, Bands, Service Clubs, schools, local musicians and more will “promenade” down Main Street beginning at Pico and Main Street at 9:30AM. It’s a great reminder of the little things that matter in our city. A street without high rises and a parade that draws 10,000 to 15,000 …all of us people who love our town and can come together to solve the big problems by working together as a team.

Independence Day is the day to celebrate our diversity, our differences and our similarities. We can celebrate the great experiment that is our democracy in this republic. It’s a day to remember that even though we don’t always agree with each other, we are able to use a ballot box to change conditions in our city, state and country. With all of our civic discussions over height, density, traffic and that other kind of fireworks that will surely occur this fall, Santa Monica is still worthy of pomp and parade. The founding fathers of our country questioned whether we would come to be ruled only by the “almighty dollar” or whether we would be about more than that – about principles and ideas. Santa Monica will face those same questions this fall. Can we be live up to our founding fathers’ aspirations and expectations and rise above the continuous mudslinging that we see on the national level?

To remain distinctly Santa Monican must be an important ideal for each of us. Our city is unique and we have 141 years of shared history. Wisely, Santa Monica refused to join Los Angeles decades ago. We did not want to blend in to the vast metropolis. As Independence Day arrives, let’s celebrate that while Santa Monica is the lungs of Los Angeles, we will not blend in…July 4th is the day to celebrate the beacon of light that was our country’s birth as well as the wisdom our city fathers showed those many years ago.

In spite of our differences, Santa Monica has a true sense of place, a sense of history and community. We are progressive and compassionate. The yearly fireworks at SMC and the Main Street Parade prove that we are an American community that cares deeply… about each other and the future of our city. Our messy civic conflicts are part and parcel of our democracy. While you’re at the Parade and at Picnics, BBQ’s and the beach this weekend remember our city motto, that we’re “fortunate people in a fortunate land”. The entire city of Santa Monica is a proverbial “speaker’s corner”, set in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

I’ll see you at the parade.

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