The High Cost of Learning

Santa Monica residents are tasked with the economic burden of financing a city that supports not just its 94,000 residents, but also the daily 200,000-plus tourists and workers who fill our community. Many of the students who attend Santa Monica College (SMC) also come in from outside our city. This burden on our emergency responders – our police and fire department, is disproportionate to the number of actual residents and impacts response times and efficiency.

We are a generous community with a big heart but one wonders how much stress our heart can take before we need a “bypass.” We are being asked to increase that stress by donating almost two acres of our civic center land for the purpose of allowing SMC to build an Early Childhood Education Center (ECEC). The rent for this facility for the next 55 years would be only $1 per year. On top of that our city would give them $5 million to start the project.

Only after the insistence of one city council member, have up to 30 percent of the 110 available openings in the ECEC now been promised for children of residents. The remainder of the slots will be allotted for children of city employees, Rand, and SMC staff. City council has already twice approved increases in area and height to the ECEC. The section of the current Civic Center Parking Lot to be occupied by the facility is now infringing upon that of the long-promised playing fields for residents and for over 3,000 teens at Samohi whose sports facilities are cramped or off campus. Eliminating the ECEC would give our high school the open space it deserves and better serve all of our residents.

With a declining child population, the decision to continue moving forward with the ECEC at the Civic Center is questionable. The Santa Monica Malibu School District (SMMUSD) has recently revamped three new early childhood education programs, two in Santa Monica and one in Malibu. SMC could conduct their “laboratory” programs at the School District’s existing ECEC’s. And as a new bond, Measure V, has been approved for SMC construction wouldn’t it be more sensible for the college to use those bond dollars on their own campus rather than on a project that would create more traffic on 4th Street and the downtown corridors? There is already constant construction going on at the Broad Theatre site on 11th Street, the Center for Media & Design building on Stewart Street, and development plans for a Malibu campus. We are a heartbeat away from an economic, environmental and sustainability “heart attack” or “stroke.”

The California Community College system is one of the truly great educational benefits that, with few restrictions, is accessible to all Californians. It offers an economical transition from the high school level to the university level, as well as providing a second chance for many who could not afford to initially pursue a higher degree. The system provides emeritus classes for seniors as well. However, SMC has outgrown its mandate as a community college. Originally it was intended to serve its immediate community. SMC has instead become so successful that students from throughout the world use it as a stepping-stone to our universities. The college proudly advertises its reputation as having highest transfer rate to local universities.

With only about 4 percent of the 34,000 students coming from its home district of Santa Monica/Malibu, SMC’s main focus and function is no longer that of a community college. SMC’s Bundy campus is actually in Los Angeles, for example, not Santa Monica. The impact of housing the large majority of the students from out of district has a tremendous impact on our residential rental stock, causing increased commuter traffic and congestion. Is it fair to place the economic burden and negative environmental impact on Santa Monica’s residents when the college serves so many from outside the city?

Most people are unaware that SMC educational facilities are exempt from local zoning and building regulations, community input, and design reviews, answering instead only to the Division of the State Architect for all permitting and approvals. For example, if SMC owns or leases land zoned for two or three stories, the State may still approve their request for a four or five story structure. A case in point might be the Broad Theatre Complex on a former elementary school site adjacent to a residential area. The Broad, essentially a high activity commercial facility, would likely not have been approved were it to have been subjected to City zoning. However, it secured a lease on SMMUSD land and the project was subsequently approved by the State with additional projects planned for the site.

SMC is a wonderful educational facility, providing a second chance for some and for others an economical stepping stone to the university level, but it is now confronting its own expanding waistline, seeking even more with a ravenous appetite for growth and what seems to be higher aspirations to perhaps become a four year college. The burden for residents is one of increased hardship, economic, environmental, with stress on infrastructure and commuter traffic, and housing demand on our rental stock. One has to wonder if the community can continue to sustain and finance such growth

Robert H. Taylor AIA for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)