Santa Monica is at a crossroads. Will speculators or residents determine our city’s future? Since developers tend to think short term, focusing on profitability, it is important that residents, with their emphasis on the city’s livability, also weigh in to balance the discussion. At present, it appears that our City leaders have chosen to put the interests of those that would exploit our resources above those in whose interest it is to preserve them. This strategy is both short sighted and unsustainable in the long run.
Our downtown is currently “ground zero” – where the battle for our city’s soul is playing out. Although the new downtown plan will reduce height somewhat from the current allowable levels, more densification and height of the downtown is still likely. If the new regulations are enacted as proposed, property values are likely to go up and many of our historic downtown buildings would likely come down.
Since our city is only 8.4 square miles, and our downtown a small fraction of that (5 percent), it will not take long before we run out of space for new growth. Our dependence on new construction to generate income is both unsustainable and short sighted. Our land area is limited and the inevitable negative impacts on the city could be irreversible. Our main source of income, tourism, is bound to suffer if our city were to become overbuilt. Gone will be our “beach town charm” as the city falls into shadow and gridlock.
Another reason to reconsider a more sustainable approach is that retail and office space, currently in demand, may not be so in the future. Retail sales have diminished markedly with the advent of on-line shopping. Many “brick and mortar” establishments are going out of business, downsizing or shifting their marketing and sales to the Internet. The hospitality industry might also decline as tourists choose “home shares” over hotel suites. It may not be long before office rentals also start to fall off as well if more employees elect to work from home and forgo their daily commute to the office. The City may be “betting on the wrong horse” as business models change. In the not so distant future, our City’s choice to promote development at the expense of tourism may backfire.
While tourism is sure to continue, it is likely to diminish if our “beach town” character is lost and our city is mired in traffic. Perhaps now is the time to stop and ask ourselves what our current needs are, and in what kind of city do we want to reside in the future? Should we build on our past success as a small community or trade our beach town ambiance and scale for an urban dystopia – a “West Coast Miami Beach”?
So, what are the alternatives? What type of development might enhance rather than degrade our city? A good place to start would be maintaining our low-rise scale and beach town ambiance – the primary reasons for our current success. Secondly, we might consider focusing on new cCultural venues that promote the Arts and Entertainment to broaden our appeal, . sSince the alternative, relying on outdated commercial development, is more likely to diminish it. Lastly, we should follow the prescriptions in the 2010 Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) that recommended that high-rise development occur at our eastern border with Los Angeles, not adjacent our cCity’s primary assets – our beaches, downtown and The Promenade.
Our City currently owns several large parcels that can be developed as world-class venues for the arts, exhibitions, entertainment etc. For example, the Civic Center remains an ideal venue for a large cultural center. If the current structure is no longer viable, we could preserve the historic entry but replace the antiquated building with a large, tented amphitheater. This would be a performance venue similar to that in Aspen for their annual Music Festival. Daytime uses do not require artificial lighting or air conditioning, as does our current venue. Bergamot Station must become a center for the visual arts, with galleries, a museum and an open-air performance space. The airport site could become a college campus in addition to a world-class park. Perhaps we should be incentivizing the construction of more sustainable and adaptable uses rather than energy consuming, outdated ones.
We need an inspired vision for Santa Monica’s future, one that builds on our past success rather than diminishing it. We need to find the proper balance between preservation and innovation, such that each compliments the other. This is the surest path to enhance the unique qualities that define our cCity in the context of a rapidly changing world. If successful, we will assure our financial viability and our livability for many years to come.
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.