In Santa Monica… Size Matters

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 The recently released Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the DCP based on these modest figures may be outdated before it is even approved.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.