Our Downtown Community Plan: Quantity or Quality?

One of the most important decisions our City Council will make this year could be approval of our new Downtown Community Plan (DCP). What is the DCP? It is the master plan that will define our public realm and quality of our environment for the next 13 years. It will address such issues as land use, open space, infrastructure and mobility. Its policies will have a major impact on the future development of downtown and hence its ultimate success or failure. As goes the downtown, so goes the City.

Unfortunately, the plan before Council is primarily a 300-page marketing document putting interests of developers above those of residents. The plan’s focus should have been creating a true downtown center, not a free-for-all with ‘large boxes’ as currently specified in the building design guidelines. For example, the five blocks along Lincoln Boulevard are proposed as a continuous wall of 5 and 6-story buildings where there are currently only 1 and 2-story structures.

As proposed, the DCP encourages 5 to 8 story buildings, with some as high as 12 stories, when average height throughout downtown today is just above 2 stories. The result will be greater demand for water, emergency services, schools, parks, and parking at time when these services are becoming insufficient for those who already live and work here. There comes a point of diminishing returns when adding to current infrastructure will no longer suffice. At that point, we will need to start anew at great capital expense and residents will likely pay it for.

The Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the DCP confirm many impacts but dismisses them as “insignificant” because “The Downtown is classified as a transit priority area with infill residential, mixed-use, residential, and employment center development; therefore, aesthetic and shade, shadows, and solar access impacts would be considered less than significant and analyses of these impacts of projects within the Downtown are not required pursuant to CEQA.”

The fact that these impacts are not considered does not change the fact that they will occur. The DCP proposes expanding our downtown beyond its ability to absorb more, larger high-rise offices, housing and commercial projects. The economic power of tourism, with an increase from 6 to 9 million in just three years, could possibly support this expansion. Ironically, it may also be the cause of its undoing. Why? When our city becomes mired in traffic with shaded streets and loss of its beach town character, we may no longer be the tourist attraction we were in the past. At that point, the economic burden will fall to the residents.

There are other reasons why the City should reconsider before going down this “one-way” street to dystopia. Today’s shopping malls and office buildings may be tomorrow’s “dinosaurs.” Recent studies show online shopping is challenging the office and commercial sectors. In addition, there is an increasing number of employees choosing to work remotely. Newly proposed theater complexes are likely suffer the same fate as home theaters improve and most films can now be streamed online. The City’s plans for the future as codified in the DCP appear based more on the past. If this were to come to pass, our future downtown might no longer hold the promise that it currently does.

There will also be negative impacts that extend beyond our downtown. The most obvious result will be an increase of traffic jams, both in our city’s heart and in adjacent neighborhoods. This will occur if frustrated drivers start to take short cuts through residential areas to get across town. These negative impacts could extend to our tourist trade as well. As our city becomes gridlocked and loses its character, it becomes less convenient for visitors as well as residents. Darkened streets in the heart of our city could make downtown a dreary place, particularly in winter. If and when that happens, we will have also lost one of our largest sources of revenue – tourism.

Santa Monica is no different from many seaside cities that are under constant pressure to increase density to accommodate more businesses and visitors. Growth is a fact of life and must be accommodated but with the recognition that this growth needs to be managed and comes at a price. The City cannot let market forces, or weak planning documents like the DCP, set the pace and type of growth. This needs to be done by City leaders and residents to insure that market forces do not override safety, health or environmental safeguards that protect residents and make our city safe and livable. Manhattan Beach, for one, has taken this step. To leave these important decisions to outside interests, often driven by profit, sets a dangerous precedent that could result in the loss of our city’s character as well as its economic viability.

When you’re in Santa Monica, you should feel that you’re in a special place. The DCP will neither protect our environment, nor our history, and values. As written, it ignores important civil and environmental issues, focusing instead on economic growth to service the City’s ballooning pension liability. This is a shortsighted and dangerous path that could ruin both our downtown and our city. If this train is to be slowed, or stopped, it will have to be done by the residents. The first opportunity to ‘stop the train’ occurs when the DCP comes before City Council next week. Please join with other concerned residents to hold the City Council and staff to account so that they take a step back and do the right thing.

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