A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

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).