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

“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