Santa Monica has always been a mixed bag. Since 1875, it’s been a breath of fresh air for Los Angeles. It is the ultimate seaside escape for millions of people each year. It was a working class city, occupied by small duplexes and triplexes, with a great deal of economic and racial diversity. Our town also had a wealthy, homegrown business community that held great sway politically. They devoted their lives to their neighborhoods, their neighbors and building a better Santa Monica. Flush with local banks, hospitals, industry and retailers these businesspeople cared about our community. The climate has changed. The industrial past gave way to office complexes, the local retailers gave way to national chains, the banks and hospitals are no longer local and our small businesses are becoming dinosaurs.
Our downtown and major streets throughout our city become impassable on most days. On streets designed for horse and buggies, we now pack in nine million tourists, almost 150,000 workforce members and 95,000 residents. Crime increases in the double digits are being recorded in downtown Santa Monica, our homeless population has increased by 26%, and our 8.3 square miles is bulging at the seams. Our neighborhoods have seen home invasion robberies and crimes of opportunity in the past month and residents are seeking answers. How many patrol cars are consistently in our neighborhoods…patrolling? The SMPD’s major response is always first-rate but has the need to constantly funnel tourists and workers into downtown drawn needed resources away from our residential neighborhoods.
Our Chamber of Commerce is designed to encourage business development but shouldn’t they be concerned with a livable city for all of our residents. Won’t businesses prosper if we remain a beachfront, casual town, a proverbial breath of fresh air for Los Angeles. The appeal of Santa Monica has always been its distinct difference to Los Angeles, not its similarities. The low-rise, slightly funky feel of our town was its appeal. Flip-flops, not penny loafers, Hawaiian shirts, a drink or two at the Galley or Chez Jay have always made the day for residents and for visitors. In fact, the tech start-ups that planted their business flag in our city moved here precisely because it’s not LA. They want a low rise, comfortable community, not one overflowing with people and structural density…that fresh air I talked about earlier. The Chamber now pushes increased height for downtown. It emails, “The Chamber has very serious concerns with the plan” that will soon reach the City Council dais. “The draft plan actually decreases height limits in parts of the downtown.” Wait, that’s a bad thing? Our Chamber used to represent hundreds of small mom and pop businesses in our city. Many of those are being pushed out of our city by higher rents. Incessantly seeking more growth, our Chamber seems to be in need of a constant fix and seemingly wants to destroy the qualities that make Santa Monica such a desirable place.
Let’s talk about this plan the Chamber attacks. The Downtown “Community” Plan is on the way to our City Council. It took 142 years to get to 12 million square feet in our newly expanded downtown. It might take only 12 years to add 25% more square footage to it. Are we building for the needs of our residents or our nine million tourists? The plan that goes to the City Council potentially adds 2,500 residential units and 3 million square feet of new development by 2030. You think downtown is crowded now, just wait. On top of this planned building boom, there are no new parks or public spaces added. Yes, we’ll keep cramming in buildings that are taller and denser, but not give our residents or visitors any more respite…in our beachside town. Think about our crowded streets downtown. It can take a half hour now to travel from Wilshire past Colorado on 2nd, 4th Streets or Ocean Ave. Add in the increase in auto, pedestrian and car collisions, major retailers closing on Wilshire Blvd and the crowds of tourists everywhere to ask yourself if downtown Santa Monica is better off now than it was just a few years ago. Will it be better in twelve years with all of the allowed construction?
Let’s talk green space for a minute. No, not the green space that is proposed in the twelve story, 357,000 square foot Plaza at Santa Monica. Much of the proposed green space is on upper floor outcroppings of the building. This “Plaza” would occupy fourth and fifth streets from Arizona south towards Santa Monica Boulevard. The city owns this large parcel and is considering 12 stories of offices, a hotel and a smidgen of housing on this site. This development will be on the public’s land smack dab in the geographical middle of downtown. I suggest an alternative. A PARK.
There is only one solution for the so-called Plaza at Santa Monica. Don’t build it. Build a true plaza, a park that will stand the test of time in our downtown. That’s right. Trees, grass, seating, an outdoor café and a mirror of water that mimic the Miroir d’eau in Bordeaux in the summer and becomes our ice skating rink in winter. This parcel can contain low-rise housing, if needed. Imagine the parking lots on Arizona replaced by parkland. It won’t need grassy knolls or extravagant features. Almost every town has a town square. We deserve one. We can have this at 4th and Arizona and its our only chance. No underground parking. Let’s not add more congestion. No more tall buildings or office space downtown. Say yes to open space.
I believe our neighborhoods lose as downtown mushrooms in size and gobbles up the city’s attention. Funneling resources to service the bigger downtown that the Chamber seeks is a mistake. We’re not supposed to look, feel and act like every other city. We should want to stand apart. We’re in danger of losing what the aircraft workers and early bankers loved about our special place. We are the ocean breeze, sandy shores and a comfortable place to hang your hat, not a teeming metropolis that has to blend in.
I’ve always been proud that we are not Los Angeles. I hope you are as well.
Phil Brock for SMa.r.t
Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow: Thane Roberts AIA, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Ron Goldman FAIA, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Planning Commissioner, Phil Brock, Arts Commissioner