In the mid 19th century, America’s West held the promise of cheap land and riches. In some ways, this myth still holds. Last year, Oregon and California had the fastest growing economies in the United States.
Much of the economic growth is concentrated along California’s coast and in the Los Angeles region. This rapid pace of change has caught our city-planners off guard. As a result, we are witnessing the degradation of the built and natural environments. City officials have been slow to recognize the negative impacts from newly approved projects. Often they have been complicit in this “land grab” that has resulted in the profits of outside interests taking precedence over residents’ needs and concerns.
Encinitas, Yorba Linda and Sierra Madre are among Southern California cities that have adopted tough land use ordinances that require voter approval on projects that are outside of their zoning codes. Over 104,000 Los Angeles voters have signed the petition for the proposed Neighborhood Integrity Initiative. It will be on the March 2017 municipal ballot. Throughout Southern California, residents are using voter initiatives to push back against the trend to overbuild in their communities. Santa Monica residents have placed their own Land Use Voter Empowerment Initiative (Measure LV) on the November ballot. If passed, it will cap development in the City to Tier 1, the “by right” height in the current code. Projects that exceed the “by right” height would require voter approval. This initiative would adjust the approval process, NOT the current, allowable height limits.
This would put an end to back room deals between developers and City officials. It would place the City’s fate into the hands of the residents where it belongs. Our City’s residents have been on the losing end of the development game for too long. The mantra that “bigger is better” would be replaced with “enough is enough”. It would allow residents to be proactive rather than stand idly by as their communities become unrecognizable. Our City Manager recently said: “A sense of place does not consist of buildings, but the spirit and uniqueness of the environment in which it exists.” Unfortunately, not all city council members appear to share this view.
Santa Monica has natural barriers that define our unique 8.4 square miles. These same barriers protect our unique character. We just need to control what occurs within them. It is imperative that we resist those who would believe our unique qualities are not to be enjoyed, but rather marketed and sold. This is why residents, not developers or City officials, must have the last word. This is what the voter empowerment initiative does. It returns these important choices to those who have the most at stake – the residents.
As the new planning codes are being rewritten, development agreements for non-conforming projects continue to be approved at a frightening rate. These projects strain our resources, our infrastructure, and increase traffic on our streets. These ongoing problems will be borne on the backs of citizens long after the developers have pocketed their profits and left town. The memories of the Santa Monica from earlier times will not be there for our children to enjoy.
So, how can we both preserve our past as we plan our future? Do we need to tear down what is here to make room for that which is to come? NO! Did you know that 15% of our city is now available for development? Specifically, 40% of our downtown and 85% of our boulevards are comprised of 1 and 2-story buildings or parking lots. These buildings would provide the area for more than 8 million square feet of additional ground floor commercial development. Above street level, it would be possible to create an additional 14,500,000 square feet of residential space, capable of housing up to 29,000 additional residents over the coming decades. We should be repurposing buildings rather than just tearing them down. It’s a no brainer to save both public funds and our heritage.
Santa Monica must not become stuck in time. However, we should not race ahead with short-term planning. Our residents know that these developments are driven more by profit than common sense. Although increased density is inevitable, it must be well managed. It is a devil’s bargain to allow for unrestrained development in exchange for a few tax dollars or undersized low-cost units. No amount of “community benefits” can compensate for the negative impact that would ensue and then would be irreversible.
For Santa Monica to continue to be a progressive, livable city, we must find a way to balance our priorities of growth and quality of life. Our transition to the future will be successful only if we can plan ahead properly and act with restraint. We must act to preserve our city for future generations.
Thane Roberts for SMa.r.t. Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow