A Tale of Two Cities

Land Use Voter Empowerment, Planning

A Tale of Two Cities

Santa Monica is two cities, one of 94,000 residents and another of 175,000 tourists, students, and employees, and increasing yearly. It consists of 5 basic industries – the tourism industry (3,500 existing hotel rooms with another 1,150 pending approval), expanding medical (UCLA & St. John’s – UCLA owns 20 properties and purchasing more!), educational (Santa Monica College expansion), media and arts (Silicon Beach), and automotive industries (although automotive is shrinking).

However, there are limits to growth – limits to tourism, students, and employees. Although as a city we have consciously addressed the issue of sustainability, it is proving to be more lip service than providing the infrastructure needed – an elementary school for a growing downtown population, updated codes that enable new construction to meet state environmental codes by 2030, a homeless issue that requires expanding policing and fire resources, etc. And we need to recognize that although tourism is essential in our city’s makeup, we’re slowly losing our beach with climate change and rising sea levels a near future reality. Santa Monica won’t be as popular if we look like Miami Beach!

And needless to say, we need a realistic plan to control burgeoning traffic. With the two major additions recently completed – Expo and Incline – traffic is worse, not better. With Expo, our city council finds the excuse to add density and height, but why when workers can now commute from Culver City or the Crenshaw district?

What is really unfortunate is our city’s lack of foresight in providing a master plan decades ago or even one today. And moreover, recently the city chose painstakingly to alter a zoning code written in the 1980’s instead of providing a creative form-based code relevant to today’s planning issues.

The LUCE, adopted in 2010, is a general plan and doesn’t address the specifics a master plan would. For instance a master plan would address the appropriate expansion of these five industries. A master plan will control the influence of money and power and would guide the city instead of battling the shortage of housing and soaring rents one project at a time.

Without a master plan, there is a disturbing lack of transparency couple with a huge amount of power from out-of-state corporate and global developers. Instead of the community fashioning a coherent master plan, business interests have taken over in piecemeal fashion with the blessing of the city council willing to support corporate profits in exchange for modest community benefits. An example of this would be the removal of 109 affordable housing units in exchange for a 5 story, 365 unit project (including 38 affordable units) in a one and two story neighborhood where the city will realize $2.4m in community benefits while the developer sold his approval to a Texas developer funded by the Florida State Teachers pension fund for $68m!!

Instead, a master plan would address the need for a downtown urban plaza or possibly mid-block walking and shopping arcades or the feasibility or not of activity centers such as low-rise retail villages around existing markets, or the feasibility of relocating the BBB yards to the Bergamot public yards and re-purposing the downtown site with workforce and affordable housing.

And we need to stop “quietly” altering residential lots to commercial use, or allowing a developer with a project up for approval to wipe out a councilwoman’s campaign debt, or currently developing a downtown specific plan that effectively removes citizen review of large projects. The city needs to look at the interests of citizens first and developers second!

So what is the answer? Without a master plan or realistic zoning code, how will we meld both “cities” – we need both perspectives, not just one primarily focused on tourism. We need to determine what we are and what we want to become in 2050, and when do we reach our growth limits. And we need to start this process now by getting out and voting – Santa Monica, you know what to do!!

Ron Goldman on behalf of SMa.r.t.

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