Dealing with an Uncertain Future Part II

Good morning Santa Monica! In last week’s article we discussed what and who controls our city. It’s not the city council and certainly not the residents – it’s technology, corporate capitalism and their hired developers. The future is here, but not evenly distributed. Just how much will economics hurt our environment, our culture, our heritage? Can we slow this train, stop it, control it, reverse it? Hopefully yes, but certainly not easily.

Our city leaders seem to operate in an imaginary world. We’re scrambling to keep rising rents under control, homeless under control, traffic, rising crime, limited natural resources, gentrification and, financial expenditures all under control!!!  What can we do to re-evaluate these policies and get back to some sanity. Do we adapt or just renew from generation to generation? There are answers, but unfortunately not the way things are headed at city hall.

How will climate change affect Santa Monica’s real estate market? It’s not just solar rights, but all our environmental rights are being strained to the point of extinction. It is estimated that 2/3rds of our beaches will vanish with rising sea levels. Do we confront reality and recede or try to withstand nature by building walls? Either way is a costly decision and yet again, guess who pays the bill – not the corporate developers. We have used Mother Earth to deliver luxuries – how long can we rely on this?

Access to daylight, to outdoor spaces, to fresh air are no longer qualities we can take for granted. Although the city requires solar panels on new and remodeled houses, they haven’t decided how to resolve solar access from one property to another, much less have an overall climate plan. Zoning laws need to protect solar access and privacy, but this is not possible with large homes (+/- 5000sf) on small lots (+/-7500sf).

And we have a host of infrastructure issues to fix – from rising sea level impact on the coastline, and water dependence to electrical outages, sewer backups, and police in crisis mode. The city’s piecemeal reaction to mobility is like watching water dripping from a faucet. The city seems to be all talk, no show.

Water is life but what if rain doesn’t fall? California has enough water to currently support its agriculture and environment, its wildlife and fisheries, and our cities, but only at great expense of money and energy in pumping and moving water to our near waterless southern California. But. So how do we preserve this in the face of climate change and an ever-growing population expected to be 20 million more in 20 years! How do we turn from extraction to replenishment? Where is the willingness to transform, compromise, and conserve? Water dependence in Santa Monica, free of the county water district, is a major goal, yet multiple metering of commercial and apartment buildings is not required? We need to assure systems are in place before approving any more development!!

With respect to design, our codes as well as our senses need a realistic overhaul. Just how much should lower standards, in the pursuit of higher economic return, “trump” our needs? Are we sanitizing our city in the name of growth? Thirty years ago, local developers realized good design was also good economics – unfortunately not so today. Our increasingly corporate economy leaves little room for architecture as a work of art, as a project blended with its environment.

But what is required to create an inspiring domestic environment – to provide diversity while preserving neighborhood character. In the last two decades we have destroyed a significant part of our heritage. How do we overcome the perils of short-termism and piecemeal planning? How do we build to last? Is Santa Monica’s beautiful courtyard housing a remnant of the past?! Creative architecture is essential to create a place where people want to visit and for residents to foster a sense of pride. But our wonderful courtyard apartment buildings are being replaced with massive block buildings articulated with balconies top to bottom and side to side, looking more like computer punchcards than artful design. And we’re giving millionaires and billionaires higher and higher penthouse views symbolic of this growing disparity.

Couldn’t Santa Monica’s multi-family courtyard design be incorporated in commercial buildings and single-family housing? A first step might simply require 10 foot offsets for 25% of building frontage? What price are we willing to pay in creating an environment of block buildings (both residential and commercial) with narrow sidewalks and sunblocked streets? Is our forward thinking city council so blind to our city’s beauty and heritage? not to set appropriate and necessary design standards. It will be most interesting to see if revised R-1 standards address “courtyard Santa Monica” or “developer Santa Monica” !

With new development typically doubling and tripling the size of homes they’re replacing, while blocking views, sunlight, and privacy – why aren’t we incentivizing the remodeling of homes in lieu of demolishing existing, and promote Accessary Dwelling Units (ADU’s) instead achieving an increase in housing stock while preserving our neighborhoods.

In this regard, California’s SB330 housing bill, adding multi-family density to single-family zoning, would desecrate local control – a sacred cornerstone of city and county planning, allowing each to respond to its unique environment. Every community should be given 3 years to come forth with a specific plan for their percentage of growth, and If they fail, then the draconian requirements of SB350 would take effect. This would result in the demise of single-family neighborhoods along with requiring additional infrastructure to be financed yet again by the residents.

The world appears to be slowly unraveling – as is Santa Monica. Wake up City Council, City Manager, and Staff – do what’s necessary and right to save what is left of our single-family, multi-family, and downtown neighborhoods. Save us from this insane philosophy of unfettered growth. We need to stay rooted in our local culture but we need to incentivize what we want and dis-incentivize what we don’t in order to retain the Santa Monica we know and love.

Ron Goldman FAIA 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 Commissioner, Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission. For previous articles see