Santa Monica Must Prepare for the Future… Again

Last year our article “Santa Monica Must Prepare for the Future” outlined eight important areas on which the city needed to focus, as it prepares to meet future challenges. A year later, how is the city doing?

1. The City must get ready to deal with the rise in sea levels.

Last year we wrote:

“In Southern California we are likely to see a huge erosion of the major beaches by the end of this century. Is the City ready for the near-disappearance of its major tourist attraction, and the funds it generates? Should the City be building major infrastructure components today where they will be covered by seawater in the next few decades? “

The Climate Action & Adaptation Plan, reviewed and provisionally approved by City Council last month does identify areas in the city that are particularly vulnerable to sea level rise and proposes some actions to help with the impact of sea level rise. So on #1, we say–good first effort, but we will wait to see how (or if) this plan is turned into real action.

Grade: B.

2. The City must prepare for a shortage of drinking water.

Last year we pointed out:

“…the numbers clearly show that our community will continue to be dependent on imported water into the foreseeable future…curtailing development, reducing or eliminating water-intensive landscaping, even ocean water desalination–seem unpalatable to City government, or the community.”

The City’s Climate Action & Adaptation Plan, again, does address the matter of potable water supplies. But it stays away from specific solutions with the largest impacts, including curtailing thirsty large-scale development and considering ocean water desalination as possible approaches. The actions discussed in the plan, while laudable (including storing and recycling water for landscaping) will not make up for the increased use that we foresee as the population increases along with atmospheric temperatures.

So on #2: Grade C-.

3. The City must move swiftly to address the huge reduction in retail activity in brick-and-mortar stores.

A year later the retail environment continues to deteriorate, with local mom-and-pop businesses closing up shop, and even chain stores leaving. The increasing number of empty stores on the Promenade, Main Street and Montana Ave. show the impact of the city’s inability to deal with this matter successfully.

Last year we urged the City to prepare a long-range master plan to support and preserve this sector. Other cities and communities have been successful, such as Brooklyn’s program that requires developers to reserve commercial space for local retailers with rents 30% below market rate, if they meet certain conditions. And some communities in the Midwest have implemented special districts with rent-control for small retail operations, or special enterprise zoning that restricts the size of shops, making rent more affordable.

If the City has implemented or even proposed a serious plan in the past year addressing this issue, it hasn’t been evident.

Grade: F.

4. The City must prepare for the arrival of self-driving automobiles and buses soon. 

Last year we wrote:

“To date little, if anything, has been done to examine the impact that autonomous vehicles would have on our city. Will more parking be needed, or less? How will this affect our current zoning and urban planning–will we need more pick-up and drop-off locations? Will these vehicles use electricity instead of gasoline? Where will they be charged, and what effect will this have on the city’s electrical infrastructure?”

The City’s draft Climate Action & Adaptation Plan discusses–very briefly–the impact that autonomous vehicles might have, proposing several steps to prepare for their arrival. But the plan’s language is shrouded in cloudy bureaucratic terminology that suggests a far-off horizon. For example: “develop protocols and policies for AV safety performance. Work with manufacturers to pilot technologies on fixed routes with limited services…” Does this statement hint at exciting and energetic action? No. We give the City points for beginning to address the issue. But the lack of serious short-term attention to a technology that may deploy sooner than expected is troubling.

Grade: D.

5. The city must prepare for the aging of its population.

Between the years 2000 and 2016, the number of Santa Monica residents aged 55-64 increased from 9.1 to 13.5 percent, and those older than 65 increased their share even more, to about 17%. A year ago we asked: “What is the city doing to prepare for the needs of these residents? Do our physical master planning efforts take into account the aging of our local residents? Is it easier for folks to get around town, deal with city authorities, and enjoy increased protection from crime?”

The City’s record in the past year is mixed. Efforts have been made to improve pedestrian and crime-related safety, but local transportation services, such as MODE, have seen their ride charges increased to the point where many seniors can no longer use the service. We have seen no specific action-oriented masterplan or blueprint intended to make the daily, routine activities of older folks easier or substantially safer in Santa Monica.

Points for pedestrian and crime-related actions. But a troubling lack of action to help an increasing and vulnerable sector of our population, a group with an important voting record.

Grade: C-.

6. The city must address the homeless situation with swift and bold action. 

A year ago we said: “…as we see every day walking around the city, [the City’s] efforts have not yielded effective results. Especially where parks are concerned, the city appears to have yielded control of those places to folks whose behavior makes many parks unusable to others.”

Three months ago the city’s staff proposed a four-point approach to the homeless issue, which included funding programs to prevent homelessness among low-income residents, bolstering the city’s outreach teams, funding special teams (including police officers) to connect homeless individuals with programs, and increasing collaboration with agencies throughout LA County.

This approach will yield dividends–if it is carried out energetically and forcefully. It will take time to see and check the results. In the meantime, the conditions in our parks have not improved markedly over last year.

Grade: A for intent. C for implementation, but reserved pending new action.

7. The city must stop the large increase in crime that all our neighborhoods have experienced recently. 

After the crime rate spiked by 8.8 percent in 2018, the Police Department put in place energetic measures to fight crime, and the number of incidents appears to have dropped across a broad array of categories, including a 9% drop in theft, and a nearly 50% drop in aggravated assaults.

These statistics reflect an excellent effort, one we applaud. Yet social and news media sites continue to report a large number of frightening crimes, including some that reflect late or non-existent police response. Clearly, there is room for improvement, not only in public perception but in police action, and the City should be encouraged to continue its crime reduction efforts.

Grade: B+.

8. The city must make immediate and serious efforts to stanch the financial hemorrhaging that is leading the City to financial peril. 

Last year we said: “The problem will not be solved with increases in service fees. Nor should basic services, such as trash collection, be curtailed and limited while the city indulges in large and discretionary expenses, such as costly new city buildings (when less expensive ones will do).”

This year the City announced a series of budget measures to cut down on expenses. These include paying down pension debt faster, leaving unfilled positions at City Hall empty, increasing certain taxes, and cutting back on programs–some of them very popular–that benefit residents.

It’s encouraging to see the City take the matter in hand. But it is discouraging to see certain resident-oriented programs slated for cutbacks. These include closing the aquatics program at Lincoln Middle School Pool, the KidZone Saturday activities at Virginia Avenue Park and eliminating CREST programs, among others. The new budget proposes to drop KCRW’s broadcasts of City Council meetings and reduce video coverage of City events. This is particularly troubling when residents are demanding more transparency and accountability. We are also worried about transferring money from a variety of important funds (such as the Clean Beaches/Ocean Parcel Tax Fund, which helps protect water quality) to help pay down the unfunded pension liability. We’re uncertain whether residents understand the full implications of these transfers.

Grade: B

Circumstances change rapidly. Next year we will review the city’s efforts again, and compare them to this and last year’s actions.

Daniel Jansenson, Architect, Building and Fire-Life Safety Commissioner

SMa.r.t.: Robert H. Taylor AIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Building and Fire-Life Safety Commissioner, Ron Goldman FAIA, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Planning Commissioner, Thane Roberts Architect, Phil Brock Arts Commissioner.