Santa Monica’s Divine Comedy

Dante Alighieri listed the sins of man in the first part of his epic poem, “Divine Comedy”. There were nine circles of suffering detailed by Dante in the first chapter, or allegory, of this poem, which is titled “The Inferno”. In ancient Christianity the seven deadly sins include Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, Pride and Lust. Dante expanded on the sins to include Treachery, Fraud, Violence, Heresy, Wrath, and Limbo. Scary indeed! Santa Monica residents have always thought that their city was an example of the third and happiest of Dante’s allegories, “Paradise”. However, many are beginning to believe we are teetering on the edge of the second allegory, “Purgatory”, in danger of sliding into “The Inferno”.

While the above comparisons are extreme, members of SMart and others in our city have identified many continuous problems with planning oversight in Santa Monica. It is appropriate to look at some of our civic problems in relation to the sins set out in the Divine Comedy. Gluttony has been suggested. There seems to be no other way to describe the “carpetbaggers” and “robber barons” intent on taking control of our city’s most precious resources. Our land, our proximity to the Pacific Ocean, our climate and our skyline all scream profit to those who want to exploit them.

While our natural attributes are precious to all of us, just imagine how valuable they are to outsiders who stand to make a tidy profit from blocking our sea breezes and sunny skies with their mid-rise and high-rise buildings. Developers just want to capitalize on our city’s potential. Mix in an element of Greed and they become dangerous. Rather than build within our city’s zoning codes, they set out to create Faustian bargains with city planners and our city council in order to maximize the plunder. Our land and our sky are incomparable commodities. Speculators know it and when Greed raises its head, they become blind to the natural beauty of our city and to the great value of the low-rise, comfortable, beach life style to the residents of Santa Monica.

Our city government is supposed to provide the checks and balances to counter Gluttony and Greed. It appears to many this responsibility to maintain our Paradise has been abrogated. In fact, you might suspect that our city planners, planning commission, architectural review board and city council are practicing card carriers of Sloth. They are not actively defending the residents of our fair city. They seem to be allowing the developers and their lawyers to maneuver around the planning processes of our city for their profit. Laziness has never been considered a virtue. Residents themselves have had to come to the defense of Santa Monica because our paid employees and elected representatives have failed to do so.

Lust is evident as developers eye our one- and two-story buildings, our historic stores and our renowned garden and courtyard apartments. They see dollar signs and we feel their Wrath when they don’t get what they want. We see Busy Bee Hardware begin to slide towards the abyss as landlords fight over a handful of parking spaces. We hear Typhoon begin its death spiral over rent that has been doubled. We witness older apartments approaching destruction and tenants being evicted. As small businesses and restaurants are lost forever, we see Greed, Lust, Gluttony and Sloth consume the leaders we elected. They should be working to protect our existing city. Instead we hear from them about the new “exciting” projects coming down the pipeline – the grandeur of a twelve-story building on city-owned land at Fourth and Arizona. They speak of the need to build more rather than the need to preserve. We hear that we need a new “local coastal plan, a downtown community plan”, and that the Land Use and Circulation Plan is a fine document – that more growth is needed. Perhaps the developers who are embedded in our Chamber Of Commerce and who pervade City Hall have Envy towards the growth they see in downtown Los Angeles or New York City. Santa Monica is a beachside community. To think that our city must become such a metropolis is Heresy.

In actuality, residents are not swayed by the bigger is better argument towards building more in our city. We feel pride in our uniqueness and want to fight those who would deprive us of our special sense of place. Many feel that Fraud and Treachery are being committed against them in the name of the need for more housing. Developers want more housing because it’s profitable. There is nothing altruistic about their sales pitches. They just want more money, more profit. It’s already dangerous to walk, bicycle or drive in our city. More people moving in create more traffic, clear and simple.

Santa Monicans do not want to see their lifestyle diminish. Growth that is organic and measured, growth that is in line with our city’s existing character, is acceptable. And, no matter how much our city planners and city council try to tell us that there is very little growth, we all can feel it. From maddening traffic to buildings blocking the sunlight on our streets, we know we are being stifled by growth. We are a special place and we must regain our Paradise.

These developers with their minds consumed by dollar signs want to come in and “Pave Paradise” – and without putting up the proverbial “Parking Lot”.  So the residents are all doomed to be driving around and around in a never-ending circle in a concrete maze looking for parking – or fresh air – or sunshine – or trees that are no longer there, never finding any peace or beauty again…is that Purgatory or the Inferno? It probably doesn’t matter which Allegory you choose – the point is made.

The focus of our city government seems to always be on our Downtown and how to grow it, how to build it up. No one listens to the neighborhood associations that are the voice of the residents of our city. Wouldn’t it be an act of healing for our city council, our planners and our city staff to take a holistic approach to the city…to listen to all residents and preserve what has made us such an enviable Paradise?

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