Small Businesses and the Development Challenge

The Architectural Review Board met this week to review several apartment projects in different parts of downtown, including 1238 7th Street–6 stories, 37 units and no parking. The staff report says:

“The project site is located along the west side of 7th Street and is currently a vacant lot.” (see the staff report here:

Leave aside for now any discussion of density, water, lack of parking and other issues. At first glance the notion of filling an empty lot with a building containing affordable housing sounds reasonable: nobody is being displaced, the new building’s design might be construed (by some) as interesting, and the added fillip of a cool hipster cafe on the ground floor is–not to mix metaphors–the cherry on top. What’s not to like? An urbanista’s dream.

One small fly in the ointment. The lot is not vacant. The staff report is wrong. Actually there is a one-story building in that spot, currently occupied by several small, and active businesses of a type that is very desirable in our town. There’s a physical therapist, a swimming school, a design firm, an educational company that helps students with writing and math and a product-prototyping firm. These are clean industries that employ a significant number of skilled people. What’s more, the building is of a modest scale that fits with the surrounding buildings and the nearby community.

Now, obviously, with the recent increases in land values, such a small building is a prime candidate for replacement (at least from a developer’s viewpoint). It is also clear, now, that the City appears to be uninterested in the kind of land use represented by the existing building, because no provision appears to have been made for the small, local businesses that will soon be displaced.

Someone obviously made a mistake, accidentally or not, by saying the lot is vacant. If the lot was occupied by a small apartment building full of low-income tenants, we would certainly have heard about that in the staff report. Whoever decided to describe this lot as vacant–and to be clear, this may not have been the author of the staff report–was either unaware of the lot’s actual status, or else engaged in a minor fib. Which is worse? Perhaps that person reasoned that it would paint the new project favorably in the public eye. Which sounds better: “the new building will displace a group of long-time small businesses,” or “the new building will replace a vacant lot?”

Deliberate or not, the presentation of this project both to the public and the Architectural Review Board as an urban infill housing project with no real-world downside is a distortion of what will actually take place on that property.

We ask, these days, why small businesses, a group without effective institutional representation, keep disappearing from our city. With this project we see that any discussion of this issue–small local businesses displaced by development and facing higher rents in new buildings–is completely bypassed by the casually-made errors, or perhaps even falsehoods, that accompany much development in this town. It is unimportant who was responsible for this project’s public description. Both the developer and the staff know that this property is currently occupied by a building housing several longtime small, local businesses.

The improper account of the property’s current status covers up a basic fact that could have led to an important public discussion of the type this community badly needs right now. The city has provided plenty of profitable incentives for developers to build such projects in the city. Should the city also require new projects to provide space for small businesses displaced by new construction, perhaps even with a break in the rent? We are unable to have these public conversations when projects are misrepresented to the public without explaining the actual circumstances surrounding their construction. Even small mistakes or fibs can be important, as we see here.

All of these businesses in the current building–the educational learning-help firm, the physical therapist, the swimming school, the design company and the product-prototyping firm will have to go away, apparently to be replaced by yet another hipster cafe when the new building is complete. These kinds of businesses are prime examples of the finely-grained texture of a healthy, diverse and sustainable community. We let them go at our peril.

Daniel Jansenson, Architect, Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission for SMa.r.t.

Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow: Thane Roberts, 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 Commission, Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission.