“Failing To Plan is Planning To Fail.” Coach John Wooden, UCLA

Learning from Mistakes

In a candid address about Santa Monica’s traffic at Downtown Santa Monica Inc.’s annual meeting last Thursday, City Manager Rick Cole quoted President Franklin Roosevelt. Cole noted that Roosevelt mentioned Common Sense (one of my favorite phrases) and the courage to just try something. If the attempt fails, admit it and try something else. Roosevelt’s conclusion was “Above all, try something.” Cole admitted that our traffic downtown is the worst it’s ever been and we are experiencing “dramatically” increased pedestrian and vehicular traffic. “Our streets are jammed”, Cole said. He mentioned an email he received from a visitor who was “trapped” in one of our downtown parking structures for over an hour trying to exit onto our gridlocked streets.

Mr. Cole must be aware that long time residents and regional visitors perceive our streets as a bumper-to-bumper mess. The continual misplaced emphasis on finding alternative forms of mobility has not improved the traffic problem. We tout Breeze Bike Share, Uber, Lyft, crosswalk scrambles, Go With The Flow, The Esplanade and the Expo line as examples of our efforts to mitigate traffic. However more people equals more traffic. More is more! The number one hot button issue in our town is congestion and gridlock. Downtown Santa Monica Inc. may laud the 16 million individual visits to the Promenade in 2015. Santa Monica Travel & Tourism can point to the 8.4 million tourists who poured their dollars into our hotels and shops last year, and we are thrilled (mostly) that Santa Monica Pier is now the 8th most “instagrammed” spot on earth. However the lack of a plan to ease traffic congestion, our city government’s disregard for resident needs, and the 3.2 million square feet of development that the new Downtown Community Plan would add by the year 2030, are infuriating our residents. Residents cry out about traffic but their pleas are not heard.

Santa Monica keeps “packing ‘em in” while residents protest. One writes on Facebook: “Action on traffic? Now? It’s too late for DTSM, every kind of vehicle, metro drop-off, it’s NYC 5th Ave lunch hour foot traffic-and the developers just keep making mo’ $$”. Another resident pleads, “Stop building and stop advertising Santa Monica as a tourist town. I dread going anywhere near DTSM on a weekend. This isn’t the Santa Monica that the residents wanted.”

SMart has previously called for proper planning. Residents have repeatedly protested plans for mega projects in our 227-acre downtown core because they have seen the effects of traffic on their lives. Admitting the problem is worse than our City Council and administration could have conceived is a good first step. However, as in a 12-step program, more transgressions need to be admitted in order to take corrective steps. First, we CANNOT “build our way” out of this mess. Second, our traffic-engineering program has been a failure. We must stop further development downtown until the effects of the temporary mitigation measures that Rick Cole says the city is taking are tried and adjusted. Third, we must develop a traffic management plan that actually respects the necessity for resident circulation, rather than simply pay lip service to the needs of our 94,000-plus residents.

  • Don’t Block The Box! Saturation of our streets has led to blocking of our intersections. The substantial fines for this infraction are rarely enforced. Let’s enforce the law.
  • The city needs realistic transit plans based on common sense and valid statistics, not Council social agendas.
  • NO new Arclight movie complex downtown. Keep the existing parking garage. Downtown is now saturated with movie theatres in a declining market.
  • Let tourism expand organically. Subdue advertising campaigns until we can control circulation.
  • Attendance at the Twilight Dance Series is now out of control. Solve it.
  • Stop building mid-rise buildings on narrow streets that effectively trap air pollution and noise, increasing the exposure of motorists and our urban population.
  • Provide traffic officers on Ocean Avenue, 4th and 2nd Street during peak times. Downtown SM Inc. should pay for these services, not taxpayers.
  • Recognize that peak traffic times downtown include weekday afternoons/ evenings.
  • Time traffic lights so that cars can move smoothly through intersections.
  • Ad-hoc planning and lack of vision have caused traffic problems. Stop trying “band-aid” quick fixes.
  • Fix digital parking structure “availability” signs.
  • Reduce parking prices on the edges of downtown
  • Establish one-way streets on 2nd & 4th Street as SMPD suggests.
  • Re-think bus transit lanes downtown
  • End consideration of a high-rise building at 4th & Arizona. Our streets can’t handle it.

There is much to do. We’re glad that our city’s CEO admits what our residents all too painfully know. The rise of the resident-rights Residocracy group can be linked directly to reactions to proposed developments that would increase our traffic exponentially. Gridlock is a domino effect. City Council’s development proposals and decisions, replete with unrealistic parking and transit approaches, keep piling heavy dominos atop our city. Add to that their incentivizing of high density projects beyond the capacity of our streets, their attempts to increase office space thereby adding to the workforce/housing imbalance, and appeals by developers to have city staff service their money-making agendas instead of supporting residents. A Persian-American resident told me her culture has a proverb that translates, “First make the hole and then plant the tree.” It would be wise for our city to follow that axiom.

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

Reclaiming Our Civic & Architectural Culture

Local Culture

Both our country and city are at crossroads.  Both are also facing similar challenges. Locally, our Santa Monica environment is changing rapidly before our eyes?  As we approach elections, we are spending a considerable amount of time considering divergent points of view.  During this time, I invariably come back to a basic thesis – allowing for growth without compromising quality of life.  In this regard, residents have always been the gatekeepers of our community when they’ve had a voice.  Unfortunately, this can no longer be taken for granted.  If we want to be heard, It’s time for us to raise our voices to protect our sense of place, our pride, our community and our environment.  But as economic pressures for more development and gentrification take place, how do we maintain balance between protecting our neighborhoods and quality of life while also allowing for necessary growth?

We need to confront the challenge of building bridges, of coalition politics, of civic participation with groups that are multi-dimensional in their spirit and approach.  In Santa Monica, our challenge is a problem of integration – not racially or ethnically, but of tourism and economics while maintaining social equality for residents.  In a system of free enterprise, private land ownership is often at odds with the common good.  To avoid future conflicts we must address basic questions –  how much growth can we accommodate per year?  What are various ways to plan for that growth?  Is that growth sustainable vis a vis available resources and infrastructure?  If we don’t answer these questions now, one day we may find out we’ve paved ourselves into a corner where it is no longer possible to address them.

In Santa Monica, and nationally, we seem to have lost our moral compass.  Problems of declining industry, jobs, and wages in the 20th century have shifted our economic focus to outside sources of revenue- tourism and major developments funded by syndication and pension funds. We’ve shifted from quality housing projects to an overbuilt environment created for tourists.  Last year alone, tourism in Santa Monica increased 15% to 8.4 million visitors a year.  How much can a city of 8.3 square miles and 94,000 residents absorb before choking on excessive tourism and rampant development that accompanies it? 

As local government leaders focus on tourism and bloated commercial development, basic social and environmental issues remain unsolved.  Yes, we’re in a democracy of elected leaders, but are our priorities of quality of life compatible with their overriding focus on City revenue?  Can public elections make a difference if the process is compromised by putting economics over social needs?  At a national level, the minute you’re elected, you need to start running again.  At a local level, we’re not much different– money rules!

With the expansion of residential development in our downtown, we need to be cautious.  Recently approved housing is primarily for transitory singles rather than families who will become our future residents.  This has led to smaller living spaces, higher rents and fewer affordable family dwellings.  The result is more gentrification and less economic diversity.  Increasing financialization of society has led us to see housing as an investment instead of a place of shelter and liveability, with an emphasis on open space where people can meet and children can play – low-rise environments filled with sunlight and welcoming rather than huge edifices with no light or connection to the street.

Architecture is about more than aesthetic values, it also has a large political, economic, and social component.  Architects sometimes become too focused on aesthetics to the detriment of social context.  We can still have a mosaic of aesthetics and styles, but primary focus must always remain on the public sphere –  social and public spaces.  Given the sensory deprivation in our digital world, we need social ecosystems at a human scale, not generic architecture that diminishes it.

Can Santa Monica have growth while retaining our beachfront environment?  Absolutely!  New two and three-story development and adaptive re-use can flourish in our predominantly one and two-story city.  We don’t need to trade our beachfront community for an “out-of-state” or “off-shore” dictate.  We must have developers and their architects willing to see the broader picture. We must have elected leaders who are more than politicians to tame and guide the “economic development faction.” Finally, we must have a community willing to stand up and be heard, and even yell when necessary!

In the days and weeks leading to a November election, we desperately need to ask ourselves what type of city do we need and want and how can we achieve that goal.  If residents don’t take the lead, there are others, with their own agendas, who would be happy to buy their way into our hearts and our City.  Instead of a corporate/tourist based Santa Monica, we need a community/resident based Santa Monica.

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