Is This Santa Monica’s Heart & Soul for Sale?

City Character, Downtown Community Plan, Uncategorized

“I find peace where the sun-kissed leaves dance in the melody of the cool breeze that floats through the air.”
-Saim Cheeda

In 2010, Santa Monica’s Redevelopment Agency purchased several parcels of land at 4th and Arizona. The purchases were made to facilitate the goals set out in the City’s Bayside District Plan- “encourage uses that will generate pedestrian activity” in the downtown district…”. Having already acquired the adjacent parcels at 5th and Arizona, this new purchase created a contiguous parcel totaling 112,000 square feet at the center of our Downtown.

In 2013, the developer selected by the City retained the services of internationally known architect Rem Koolhaas to design an urban commercial center for this city-owned land. This design has undergone review by both residents and City Staff. The result was a slightly reduced version of the original plan. The next hurdle of several prior to breaking ground, is the adoption of the project’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR). This is scheduled to begin next month by the City’s EIR consultant who will be looking at the 3 alternatives below:

• A 12-story (129’ high/ 420,000 sf) commercial development with 28% open
space at the sidewalk;
• A 4-story (50’ high/ 90,000 sf) commercial development with 75% open space
at the sidewalk; and finally:
• A 2-story (30’ high/12,000 sf) with limited commercial space and 90% open space.
NOTE: All three projects include 3-levels of subterranean parking.

In comparing these 3 alternatives, the main difference is that the second and third options would prioritize the public open space over the building itself. The net effect of scheme 3) would be to replicate what many iconic cities have- a large, open urban plaza at their center. It is a place where both tourists and residents can gather for public events, theater, music or perhaps to share a coffee as they discuss their day or plan their visit.

It has been said of Los Angeles: “When you get there, there is no there there”. Let’s not let this moniker define our City as well. A large public space in the center of our downtown would reinforce our City’s priorities- nature, community & culture. A large commercial project in the same location would do the opposite.

Perhaps the best argument for a town square is that this property ALREADY belongs to our City, and hence its residents. The stated goal, when the City purchased the land almost a decade ago, was to create “pedestrian activity” in the downtown district”. The current commercial complex, with mostly private tenants and minimal space at street level, will do the opposite. The Residents must not stand silently by as this publically owned amenity is usurped for private, commercial use. It must remain in the public sphere, like our beaches and promenade, to be enjoyed by all, taking advantage of our temperate climate and enhancing our beach town ambiance.

There are many other reasons as well why this property must become a refuge from City Life rather than an enduring symbol of its demise. The proposed project will further the destruction of our public sphere and natural environment only to replace it with unsustainable buildings that block the sun and ocean breezes, create traffic and produce pollution rather than fresh air.

One asks why the City Council would propose such a large commercial project that will provide minimal civic benefits to our residents? This is our last chance for a town square in the heart of our City! It’s time the priorities of our city’s leaders and staff align fully with that of our residents!

Of course, there are also other reasons why the project as currently proposed is a bad idea. Will further overload our infrastructure – from water & power to garbage & traffic, to a lack of open space and schools for a growing downtown residential population. It will block sunlight and ocean breezes and create shadows and “canyonization” of the surrounding streets. As currently designed, the proposed project will do nothing to ameliorate the scarcity of parking in our downtown and will likely make it worse. Compared to the Hines project, this development is both denser and taller, by far. It has nearly the same area as Santa Monica Place but on a site 1/3 the size!

Either of the two proposed alternatives to be studied in the EIR are better choices than that approved by the developer. Both alternatives prioritize open space over towering buildings. Both would create an “active pedestrian environment” justifying the reason for City’s original purchase. Both would reduce our carbon footprint while providing needed public parking in the heart of our City. Both would provide opportunities to experience nature and cultural events in the open air, a defining feature of our beachfront community. The difference between the two alternatives is that one is more weighted towards an “urban plaza” with shopping, dining, possibly a public theater or a small, boutique hotel while the other is primarily a park with some low-impact commercial activities along its periphery. For both schemes, the subterranean parking, along with limited commercial development, would defray the costs.

How did we get here? Wouldn’t it be better to promote a project that fosters wellness, social, and cultural benefits than placing commercial gain above civic health? This property’s eventual use will be a pivotal moment in our city’s history. A former West Hollywood mayor said, “our biggest challenge is to manage our success so we can hold onto our values.” If our City is to start making decisions based on cultural and environmental values instead of economic gain, this would be a good place to start. Should “The Plaza at Santa Monica” proceed as proposed, a huge opportunity will have been squandered. One that is unlikely to come again.

We can’t afford to let this opportunity pass. The time has come for residents to raise their voices and reclaim what was promised. There may not be a second chance.

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

Robert H. Taylor AIA, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Thane Roberts AIA, Architect, Samuel Tolkin AIA, Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission. For previous articles see http://www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writings.

Getting To School On Time

Downtown Community Plan, Uncategorized

One of the fatal flaws of the currently evolving Downtown Community Plan is that there are no provisions for an elementary school. This is a severe problem because much of the City’s forth coming development is being concentrated downtown. Housing is being produced downtown by NMS and others at a truly incredible rate with over 500 units approved in the last 18 months and hundreds more in the pipeline. Typically these new buildings have about 30% two and three bedroom units which will not all be rented to Silicone Beach millenials. If only half of these new multi bedroom units have one school age child we can expect that the downtown elementary school population will double to approximately 200 children.

Because the downtown streets are currently not safe for unaccompanied children walking or riding bikes, these K-5 children and their increasing future cohort will have to be driven to the nearest schools: 1 ¼ mile to John Muir, 1 ½ mile to McKinley, and 1 mile to Roosevelt. Our already gridlocked downtown does not need more time crunched parents trying to get their kids to school on time and then trying to rush to work on time.
Building new schools is astronomically slow particularly in a dense urban environment. If you could get funding, acquire land, design, permit, bid and build a school in 10 years, you would be moving at the speed of light.

Fortunately the City already owns a perfect site for a downtown elementary school. This is the parking structure on Fourth Street just south of Arizona. That approximately 50 year old building, needs substantial a seismic upgrade so it is anticipated to be demolished and replaced with a large Arclight theater complex. Cinemas are not the best future investment of City land but education certainly is. So we should plan on relocating that parking structure’s 420 parking spaces under the new park proposed across the street and free up this 200’x150’ parcel for a new school.

Unlike the other elementary schools in Santa Monica, this would be an “urban” school of 3 stories (50’) with a 1 acre playing field on the roof. Simple programming indicates it would have 22 classrooms (kindergarden on the ground level) for a future nominal 600 student population, about 10200 square feet of solar collectors, and parking for 40 cars plus 75 bicycles allowing 25% of the students to bicycle to school.

What are the advantages of this school location?.
1. Central location. The school would be 12 minutes of walking distance (6 minutes by bicycle) to everywhere in the downtown area and fifteen minutes from the beach.
2. Accessibility. Its on a major transit corridor with buses and there’s a light rail station within a 5 minute walk. It would also be adjacent to a midblock passage way to the promenade.
3. Safety This lot has a mid block light on one side and a traffic light 100’ feet to the north. Arizona avenue would be the bike feeder street for the new school the same way for example Michigan feeds the High School. Arizona is probably the safest bike street in the downtown area. The park across 4th street will be the refuge area in event of a school fire.
4. Health. Walking or riding bicycles to school will be the default mode of going to this school. Thus we are conditioning generations of students for a lifetime of healthy transit and helping to avoid an inevitable car addiction if they always have to be driven to existing schools miles away.
5. Relief for other schools. Our elementary schools balance their load by adjusting the number of outside permitted students from other Cities. At some point our School District will use up that safety valve and face serious overcrowding. Needless to say this new school would not only serve the growing immediate downtown area, but its catchment area could extend beyond the Downtown boundaries to help relieve pressure on adjacent schools.
6. Social Cohesion. Elementary schools are a node for parents and children to build lifetime friendships. In addition they are incubators of future Santa Monican leaders through the osmotic leadership training parents receive in organizations like the PTSA, sports groups, and civic associations. As such, every neighborhood needs a local school as its “anchor” so those groups can coalesce at a natural and nearby center. The Downtown Neighborhood Association is the only neighborhood association without an elementary school yet ironically it has the fastest growing population. The auditorium of the new school would be directly accessible for public use from the sidewalk when the school was not in session.

There is only one major disadvantage of this proposal in that multistory urban schools are more expensive to build compared to 1 story large lot schools. This disadvantage comes with the territory of placing a school in an urban center.
The race between increasing population and a new elementary school has already started and we need to fast-track the process of creating that new school now. Think of it as a Valentine’s day gift for your grandchildren.

By Mario Fonda-Bonardi for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

Thane Roberts AIA, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA Planning Commissioner, Ron Goldman FAIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Samuel Tolkin AIA, Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission.  For previous articles see http://www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writings

The People’s Park

Urban Plaza

Architecture should grow out of its environment, not dominate it. Paraphrasing our City Manager, “Every city has its own character and Santa Monica should not stray from its identity.”

However, in the immediate future, the City Council will deliberate approval of a developer owned and managed 12-story, half million square foot development on two thirds of a city owned block in the middle of our downtown – property which residents are paying for and own!

In addition to this goliath of a building housing retail, apartments, office space and a hotel, there will be paved open space but only 28 percent at street level, another 11 percent available to the public on a 20-ft high rooftop terrace, and two additional terraces 50 ft and 90 ft in the air for private use by office employees and hotel guests. Whereas, a public park would be 100 percent accessible at street level.

Santa Monica has the lowest ratio of parkland to population in the county. This space should not be privately owned. We didn’t pay taxes to give this space to a developer, and for only $1.3m per year!

A Central Park offers social, cultural and even political venues inviting connection and participation from all walks of society. They are community spaces, not adjunct plazas fronting a 12-story development.

Community parks offer something for everybody – children and elderly, residents and visitors – providing a healthier and natural retreat from surrounding traffic and tour buses. Parks need to be accessible and easy to use.

On the south edge of the property, we envision a narrow band of buildings four stories or less, adding life to the park with arcades and courtyards on the ground floor and possibly a skylight café on the roof; while screening the blank side of the adjacent building next door. This, together with one-story amenities – a “Tavern-on-the-Green,” and newsstands, coffee shops – all limited to 20 percent or less of site coverage. The park, with or without added development, can pay for itself.

A variety of activities will make this park even richer – from celebrations to protests, musical events and art exhibits. Yoga, coffee kiosks, lending libraries, carousels, tree-shaded walks, lawns for sitting or lying in the sun, water features, ice-skating, dance, music, outdoor movies – something for everybody! And rows of perimeter trees lining the walks will frame and enhance adjacent commercial development surrounding the park.

Closing Arizona between 4th and 5th can be home to the Farmer’s Market. Eventually, we suggest closing Arizona to the Promenade and even extending to Ocean Avenue. A three level garage below the park will offset the projected closure of the 4th Street garage, and provide enough parking for the range of possible activities without providing the majority of parking for hotel and office space. And there’s a wonderful opportunity to connect the park to the entire downtown with mid-block arcades weaving through redeveloped one-story buildings, vacant lots and alleys.

We should have a master plan before approving more piecemeal development. It’s not the architecture that should be the focus; it’s the outdoor community space, which will be for everyone.

A beautifully designed and landscaped central park that brings life and light to our downtown and redefines our city for its residents and visitors will not make just a good city, or a functional city, but a great city.

Council, this is the most important decision you will make. This is your opportunity to create something truly wonderful for Santa Monica with the People’s Park.

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

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Truth

Nationally, we have the Billionaire’s Club running the country, locally, the Developer’s Cabal running (and ruining) our city. It’s all about money and influence. As we enter a tumultuous year, we need to understand its influence that runs our city, not sound planning.

The world is changing at a dizzying pace as is our city. Urban design and environment is being shaped by our growing corporate economy, the vast societal change of globalization, hedge funds, pension plans, and foreign investments all requiring maximum return on investment.

National issues are also Santa Monica issues. Nationally, Wells Fargo and Volkswagen try to game the system and profit at the expense of their customers while locally we have NMS and other developers buying elections. Is there a difference between corporate America dominating Congress and developers dominating our council while both governments ignore their constituencies?

In this world of blossoming fake news and alternative facts – as recently evidenced in City staffs’ presentation of the hugely and unnecessarily costly addition to City Hall (an extra $75m in construction and financing) – how do we hold onto truth as a basic value?

What’s happening nationally is happening locally. Residents of Santa Monica, more than at any time in the past need to stay involved. We have the highest rents nationally, $4,800 for a one-bedroom apartment. Staff salaries and benefits represent 75 percent of our annual budget. We’re spending an extra $75 million for a public relations statement at city hall when that money could and should be spent on environmental projects that benefit the entire city and provide a model for surrounding communities.

And we balance these expenditures with taxes, hotels, and development.

We are eight years into a general plan which requires updating every twenty years, and we still don’t have specific plans called for in the general plan – Downtown, Memorial Park, Bergamot – much less a master plan.

We need to carefully watch what our City council chooses to do with approval of our Downtown Community Plan and the Development Agreement process as developer money is not easy to ignore. We need to limit, if not ban the influence of campaign contributions from developers.

Council and staff can avoid this influence peddling with a plan that balances all elements. But to date we have overlooked the critical importance of a master plan for our 8.3-square-mile city. A master plan would address questions in a more intelligent, comprehensive way, not a piecemeal process which is the worst way to plan.

A master plan would address questions regarding City-owned property. Should we redevelop Bergamot Art Center into hotel and office space as proposed or turn City-owned property in the center of downtown into a project 55 percent in excess of general plan limits when residents want an urban plaza that can be self-financed. And how will the airport, Memorial Park, the Civic Center property, or expanding education, and health industries fit in? If tourism keeps growing at the rate recently seen, both the business community and residents could ironically witness our demise.

Maybe it’s time for another initiative before it’s all gone. Maybe it’s time to deal with “influence” by banning all contributions related to piecemeal “Development Agreements.” Otherwise we can say goodbye to our social and economic goals and our beachfront environment.

Council cries that housing is paramount and that six and seven story buildings funded by out-of-state hedge funds, pensions funds, and syndicates are necessary to support our expanding city budget. But instead we need to foster two, three, and four story development with local developers and local financing that could easily double our population, if that much growth is even necessary. By capping land prices and lowering construction costs, we might even relinquish title to being “number 1” in rents. And this without further compromising our environment or encouraging further gentrification at the expense of our low and moderate income residents.

Recently in the news, a Los Angeles project substantially exceeded code but was endorsed by the LA city council. Under pressure it is being reduced by 20 percent along with a $1 million contribution but is still highly profitable. A similar local example is the demise of the Village Trailer Park housing 109 affordable units for the benefit of the Florida State Teachers’ Pension Fund and the Houston developer. Wake up Santa Monica, in approving these D.A.s, we’re creating richness for only a few (and they’re not even our local few.) These are monuments to prosperity – but not our prosperity.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, I had the privilege of working with some of the largest developers in Southern California in designing over 5,000 multi-family units. To a person, they appreciated that good design was good economics over the projects’ life. Unfortunately, now with pension plans and hedge funds requiring maximum square footage and return in year one, this is fast eroding our urban design and sense of place. Once we lose these, there’s not much our City council can do if we’ve paved and built over what allure we had.

Brace yourself Santa Monica – as the Trump advisors have warned “you ain’t seen nothing yet!” Corporate America is not going to disappear, but Santa Monica as we know it, may.

We’re in a world more divided and polarized than ever, a future more uncertain. Imagination and creativity needs to drive our future, not corporate America. It’s time for our council to protect the city and its residents. And it’s time for residents to fight relentlessly for the Santa Monica we love. We need to stand up, stand firm, and keep fighting.

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