In Santa Monica… Size Matters

Downtown Community Plan

Do you know how big our city is? Most of those I ask imagine Santa Monica to be between 25 and 35 square miles. Actually, it measures only 8.3 square miles. If our city were square, it would measure less than 3 miles on a side. On an unlikely day with no traffic, you could cross the entire city on a bicycle in under 15 minutes. Our downtown is even smaller (1/3 sq. mi.). It would seem that the current Downtown Specific Plan (DSP), as written, is trying to get 10 lbs. of developers’ dreams (EIR’s actual weight) into a 5 oz. box.

Suffice to say, Santa Monica, and its downtown, are both much smaller than most realize. It is certainly smaller than some of our City planners might think. The recently proposed Downtown Community Plan (DCP) is studying two scenarios for projected commercial growth in our downtown to 2030: Plan A at 4.73 million sq. ft., and Plan B at 3.22 million sq. ft. Ironically, as of August 2016, there were already 27 downtown projects totaling 2.7 million sq. ft. in the pipeline. At this rate, the City could surpass their projected figures in a few years, perhaps a decade earlier than 2030. The recently released Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the DCP based on these modest figures may be outdated before it is even approved.

But this is not the most disturbing element of the EIR. Its assumed purpose is to provide a blueprint for the City to predict and mitigate any environmental impacts of the new DCP. What is troubling is that the report’s findings may not even matter. Why? Because Santa Monica’s entire downtown is now considered to be a “Transit Priority Area.” This is a State designation given to our downtown zone because all of its area lies within half a mile from either the new Metro Station or Big Blue Bus stops. Under a recent State law, environmental impacts are preemptively determined to be “less than significant” in “Transit Priority Areas,” letting both City officials and developers off the hook for any required mitigation of negative effects.

As a courtesy to the residents, the EIR report does look into some of the more egregious impacts from the proposed DCP. However, having done so, it immediately dismisses the need to address these same issues for the reason stated above. One wonders why they would even go through the effort of writing a 10 lb, 1,400 page treatise that is dense with facts, light on recommendations and “toothless” in its ability to correct any negative consequences- the presumed reason for an EIR’s existence.

If residents hope to achieve any relief from the negative impacts of the DCP, they will have to do so by other means. Several of the City’s neighborhood groups have already analyzed the EIR report and made their recommendations. The bottom line is that the proposed heights (50’ to 130’) and density of EIR’s two alternatives are both unrealistic and unsustainable. It is now up the citizens, and their representatives, to ensure that this plan is not adopted in its current form.

Specifically, the City needs to set more realistic limits on both height and density in the downtown area, well below those currently proposed. The final DCP should not exempt any buildings under a certain size threshold (i.e. 60,000 sq. ft.) from public review as has been proposed. The mitigation measures discussed in the EIR, but then summarily dismissed, should be acted upon. Strategies to reduce traffic, along with the building mass and density that cause it, should continue to be a priority downtown. To do otherwise, could cause significant negative aesthetic, social and economic consequences at our city’s heart as well in the adjacent neighborhoods. It was for this reason that the Land Use Circulation Element (LUCE) foresaw future city growth occurring far from the downtown and our boulevards – at the east end of the city at Bergamot Station.

Santa Monica’s historic downtown is an award-wining pedestrian environment as well as an important revenue generator for the City. Although our downtown area measures only 4 percent of our City’s land area, in 2015, it generated almost 38 percent of its tax revenue. These funds, along with lodging revenues, amounted to an infusion of $ 1.31 billion into City coffers. Its small scale should not detract from the large role it plays in our city’s current, and future, financial health. In fact, its human scale and beachside ambiance are perhaps the reason for its success.

Our downtown’s fate will depend upon foresight and good planning. This process cannot be spearheaded by outside interests and myopic developers. While the DCP and EIR might provide a good start in this process, it must not stop there. Citizen input and participation will be needed to ensure that a “green vision” will prevail over “green backs,” to ensure our downtown remains the vibrant, aesthetic asset that it is today.

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.


A Conversation About Santa Monica’s Future, Part 2

Common Sense

Last week we asked: what should Santa Monica look like in 5, 10, or 15 years? Will we be an urban city or a beach city? What questions need to be asked and answered? This week we continue with our review of important issues facing our community.

Housing and affordability: How much do we need and how best to accommodate it? With the influx of millennials, how many will become permanent residents and/or able to afford housing.

And with continuing higher and costlier development, the result will be more displacement of low income residents. We just approved 191 units on Lincoln to obtain 14 affordable units. Why are we approving this additional height and density, especially on Lincoln, when a one-quarter percent sales tax was approved to provide alternatives for affordable housing. A more effective strategy for inclusive growth is needed. Our code on the boulevards already allows three stories of mixed-use, housing and commercial, while also requiring 20 percent affordable.

Political structure: Is the City governing for its residents or for those who want to come to Santa Monica? Should Council and staff be responsible to residents or tourists?

Unfortunately politics and money are aligned, the City budget is strongly linked to development. Elected officials are influenced by developer interests in trying to balance budgets with future pension shortfalls or just to pay the cost of inflated re-election campaigns.

Cities have broad land use authority but in our city with 74 percent renters, there is only one political party backing candidates who put rent control far above beachfront character, quality of environment, even the public realm.

With the possibility in the state legislature of increasing rent control, this may result in more units being built for sale with the resulting conundrum of trading away our environment in exchange for a handful of replacement affordable units.

And with the heavy burden of high staff salaries, pensions and benefits, along with union contracts up for renewal this year, we need to further rely on excessive development. Meanwhile the City’s economic staff encourages large corporate development to improve the long term economic picture and encourages increasing tourism, currently at $9 million/year or an average of 25,000/day in our city of 92,000 residents.

We can’t stop this but can better control it. We need to raise the level of knowledge. We need decision makers who understand more than rent control and affordable housing, who understand urban design and true sustainability. We need to empower the public and put the City Council on notice. Is district voting for council in our future? Or is an off-shoot of Residocracy needed that provides more effective voice for the residents and balances Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR)?

City-owned properties: Are another significant variable with a big impact. The City is the largest landowner of properties which are spread throughout the 8.3 square miles and waiting for re-development. The Civic Center, Bergamot Art Center, Santa Monica Airport, Memorial Park, and 4th and Arizona downtown can provide multiple cultural and recreational benefits. The 2.6 acre site at 4th and Arizona is owned by the residents and should be used for public purposes – not leased to a developer.

Economy: The future ups and downs of our economy – tourism, media, auto, medical, and education, represent major, expanding industries in Santa Monica which also add substantially to City coffers. But money tends to burn a hole in one’s pocket. Will corporate chain stores continue to drive out local business, and how do we change that balance? Will we need enterprise zones or commercial rent control to keep our local businesses? With controlled growth in our downtown and on our boulevards it’s definitely possible to add more commercial area and population than will ever be required in 3 and 4 story buildings while maintaining our quality of environment.

Downtown Community Plan (DCP): Over the next two – three months, the DCP will be approved. Do we want or even need an urban downtown replacing current beachfront character? Five- to seven-story buildings will displace small business and provide further traffic congestion and higher rents. In addition, the proposed DCP allows three “opportunity sites” another 50 percent taller. Why? This will not appease the majority of residents but will make the city available to future “short term” residents.

Conclusion: What is the future of our city? Change and growth are certain, but exercising control over the pace and direction is fundamental in preserving our quality of life. With our beachfront paradise shrinking, will our current political and corporate culture eventually lead to further hard times for both residents and commercial entities.

The alternatives are quite simple – maintaining a beachfront city of two, three, and four stories or 30, 40, and 50 ft. in our residential neighborhoods, along our boulevards, and in downtown, with many related benefits, or an urban city of five, six, and seven stories or 50 – 84 ft. with a multitude of growth related problems.

We can maintain our beachfront city and meet perceived or real housing shortages while slowing escalating costs, but city stakeholders, the residents, must continue to fight. City Council and City Staff, Planning Commission and Parks and Rec. – are you also up to the task?

If not, the following service from an unknown source may take place:

“Friends gathered today to say goodbye to an old friend who died having suffered 40 years of caretaker abuse and incessant beatings and asphyxiation due to strangulation. Santa Monica, founded in 1875, incorporated in 1886, loved by millions, will be sorely missed by friends and loved ones following chronic severe hemorrhaging of development and blocked arteries. Spending the last years ignored by the caretakers, while actually in need of intensive care, was instead left to the control of witch doctors and charlatans that seemed to weave a hypnotic net over rational minds and led to this very early demise. Amen!”


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

Thane Roberts AIA, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Samuel Tolkin AIA, Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission.

A Conversation About Santa Monica’s Future, part 1

Common Sense

What should Santa Monica look like in 5, 10, or 15 years? Will we be an urban city or a beach city? What questions need to be asked and answered? With change happening at a faster and faster pace, computers have already taken jobs away from the middle class and robotics will take an even heavier toll on blue collar workers. What are the errors in forecasting? Predicting the future in a rapidly changing world takes visionary design, planning, and thinking!

To answer whether we become an urban city or remain a beach city is to understand the two possible areas of growth – development along the boulevards where currently 63 percent of the buildings are one-story along with a sizeable number of vacant lots, and development downtown where 55 percent of the area are one– and two-story buildings and open parking lots.

Talking about the city’s future involves a number of moving parts – traffic congestion, infrastructure, housing supply and affordability, political structure, the economy, etc.

Traffic Congestion: is the number one concern on everybody’s mind. There will be a variety of transportation systems, but is demise of the auto highly exaggerated? Will autonomous cars and ride-sharing be the answer? Will the city increase Big Blue Bus funding to provide local jitneys? Will increasing mixed-use of shops and apartments along the boulevards and in downtown along with bike sharing reduce the need to drive for every errand? Or will more development just further exacerbate the problem?

Our forward thinking to date has been less than stellar with $8 million spent on ill-conceived bus-stop furniture or changing Expo lines from overhead to on-grade or inaccurately forecasting increased carpooling for city employees.

Infrastructure: What will our infrastructure enable? What will be required for water, power, schools, police and fire? What will be the impact of sea level rise with bedrock replacing our sand beaches?

We’re currently water dependent, relying on The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), and efforts to become independent will largely fall on the backs of residents even though increasing demand will be primarily generated by hotels and other commercial expansion.

Will the City create an independent utility to reduce residents’ electric power costs or invest in a program to provide apartment buildings with battery power for electric vehicles?

Recently, as one of my colleagues noted, the New York Times ranked the top 20 solar cities nationally with San Diego as no. 1 having 60,000 homes powered by solar, Los Angeles no. 2 and Riverside no. 15. Sadly, Santa Monica is not ranked, choosing instead to replace inefficient toilets to allow more development.

Is it better to spend an additional $86 million of construction costs and financing for the new City Hall Annex for 250 employees with state-of-the-art composting instead of installing solar arrays on all public buildings (schools, libraries, parking structures) as another of my colleagues pointed out? And there would still be money left for food and housing vouchers.

Public Realm: What will our public spaces look like? Will we continue to approve massive buildings cheek by jowl along our streets, with minimal landscape, replacing our rich history of courtyard commercial and residential buildings?

Good urban design involves wider sidewalks, sunlight instead of shadows, courtyards and cultural activities instead of more corporate space. But the economic return benefitting the Florida State Teachers’ Pension Fund or the Boston “hedge fund” backing Santa Monica’s most prolific developer, NMS continues to control our politics and our environment.

And unfortunately, we missed another important design opportunity to create an exciting gateway from the Expo station to downtown. Instead we have two hotels of stacked boxes with a heavy dash of lipstick and locked front doors for added security.

Paying for it All: Corporations along with foreign investors and developers provide an enormous river of money that flows into our coastal cities, hijacking local culture and environment. And with the process weighted in favor of excessive growth along with balancing budgets, this money buys substantial influence. Would less massive projects allow local developers to obtain local bank financing for projects in scale with our city?

As a result, the development process is broken. Virtually every project is a development agreement allowing significant height and density increases! The era of courtyards where “good design is good economics” has been replaced in favor of maximizing wall-to-wall structures lining our streets. Development on a case by case basis becomes a political negotiation and fight over height, density, and community impact, with the process weighted in favor of excessive growth.

But short term interests override the long term interests of the community. Why do we have a General Plan if we don’t follow it? In other words, why can’t our Council follow the vision residents laid out? We need to apply smart growth principles rather than spot zoning – not more growth, but better growth.

Next week we will have more questions, and cover important topics such as housing and affordability. Stay tuned.

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


Thane Roberts AIA, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Samuel Tolkin AIA, Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission.