Ode to the Future of My City

How sad it is to journey to Santa Monica and I can’t find it.
The open blue sky hides behind canyon walls.
I look for glimpses of sun and sea, but they are also hard to find.
Instead winds tempest through canyon walls like clothing torn from a corpse.
I wander the narrow sidewalks as cars move slowly by.
I look at trees, leafless without sunlight and air – looking old in their age.
Nature corrupted by greed.
Instead, I’m lost in an ocean of development.
The sun caresses then quickly disappears,
traffic comes instead.
I look for the city manager but he’s also moved on.
The day ends as a curtain of sunlight falls that both hides and reveals.
Feeling defeated, I stretch my legs and turn toward home – feeling lost as my city is lost.
As I wander home – how funny I can’t find it – like Santa Monica it has also moved on.

Five years ago I wrote the above letter, but momentum for change continues to accelerate. I continue to wander and ask -is our quality of life and beachfront environment improving, is Santa Monica flourishing or floundering?

As Washington is bifurcated, so is Santa Monica. Residents want responsible growth. The business community wants unbridled growth and has successfully commandeered Council, city commissions, and staff.

How did this happen – City Council of amateurs, Commissions riddled with political appointments, and a relatively incompetent, overpaid staff? An audit committee disbanded while council approves public restrooms costing $5,000 a square foot – kid you not! A city hall annex costing an extra $80 million including financing –three times what it should cost! And the range of problems continue unabated – rents, home prices, crime, homelessness, traffic, city budget, infrastructure, empty storefronts.

The mantra from the development community is “more housing,” but demand to live in Santa Monica won’t lessen rising costs and rents driving our children and their families elsewhere.

What is the wisdom of policies promoting density when corresponding water and power is not readily available. Also traffic problems driving into town, out of town, passing through town – in rush hour or midday.

Who is addressing the future of retail and office space with increasing vacancies on the Promenade, Santa Monica Place, and our boulevards? The demise of mom & pop businesses replaced with empty storefronts and discount stores has a negative effect on residents and tourists.

And the design and future of our public realm. If we want diversity, we have it in our population with 93,000 residents, 150,000 daily employees and commuting students, along with a daily average of 25,000 tourists.

But diversity is lacking in our built environment. Quoting the city manager, “downtown will be improved if focus is moved away from making money and into creating pleasurable experiences. The best way to make money is creating fantastic places that people want to come to.” Council, commissions, and staff should visit downtown Vancouver and experience substantial density alongside fresh air and blue skies.

In 1943, Churchill said, “we shape our buildings and our buildings shape us.” It’s shown that people are strongly affected by building facades and yet we continue to approve designs with little character. We need to change our public realm from a street culture to a community culture, from flat buildings looking like computer punch cards to a culture of wider landscaped sidewalks opening onto courtyard entrances. 

Wandering along our boulevards, I realize the average 1 ½ story buildings and parking lots redeveloped into 3 story mixed-use buildings, more than doubles the population (good heavens!). But unfortunately the “great wall of Lincoln” is beginning to take shape. Continuous 5 – 6 story inline facades will provide a dreadful entrance to downtown not unlike the massive buildings along Jefferson in Playa Vista. This accompanied by a ¼ – ½ mile line of cars waiting for a green light to exit the freeway and enter downtown – welcome to Santa Monica!

Once downtown, they will find a number of 8 story hotels – one will be 900 feet long – the length of 1 ½ city blocks, 5 times the average height of buildings on our boulevards and 3x the average height of current downtown buildings!!! Another behemoth will stand like an 84-foot erection instead of a needed city park!!! (note: Santa Barbara has a 4 story limit, Manhattan Beach and Laguna 3, etc.)

I sit and ask myself “what is the answer”? For smart development, you need a creative balance, a meeting of “business” and “residential” communities before our city’s coffin is nailed shut and buried 6 feet in mistakes. Do we want democracy or dictatorship, responsible growth or unbridled growth? Can we reach a successful compromise before it’s too late?

I continue to wander home, thinking how easy it is to come together and yet how hard to connect (think Congress!).

Out of our combined vision for Santa Monica will come a master plan – that marries density, open space, infrastructure – incorporating commerce and culture, traffic and housing, coastal frontage and the wealth of city-owned properties (Bergamot, Civic Center, BBB yard, Airport, Memorial Park, 4th & Arizona, boulevard medians, etc.). Not piecemeal planning which is our city’s current direction.

Is it too late to solve the problem of governance or stem the erosion and restore our city’s charm? As I turn the corner, stepping over bird scooters and around silly blue bus seats, I pass individuals asleep on sidewalks in front of vacant storefronts. Truly sad snapshots of a once beautiful beachfront city. At this point in time, we’re in the hands of a single superior court judge – let us pray!

In pending chaos, will we retreat to our couches, TV screens, computer screens, and smartphones to have virtual experiences rather than enjoying real civic and cultural life in our beachfront town. Meanwhile, I still can’t find my way home, but remaining lost is not an option.

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

Thane Roberts AIA, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Architect, Dan Jansenson, Architect, Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi, AIA, Planning Commissioner, Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission. For previous articles see http://www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writings.