Are We “Shovel Ready”?

Now that circumstances are forcing us to take a temporary break from life as usual, we have a chance to sit back and re-evaluate what the city is all about, what is truly important for all of us who live here, and hopefully come together with ideas that would make it, once again, a beautiful and calm place by the sea.

SCAG is the county housing authority who, in sharp contrast to other cities, points to Santa Monica as being “shovel ready” to add 8,800 housing units – 20% to its population over the next 8 years. And in quick response, our “progressive” city council obediently jumps to the task – increasing height limits 2 stories, expediting project approvals by eliminating public and planning commission oversight, and ignores resident’s pleas to join adjacent cities in contesting this absurd dictum. Although there is no cost to appeal, the City Council has decided we are indeed “shovel ready,” a decision which will bury the city– our beachfront environment gone forever. Talk about runaway development – we’re opening the flood gates!

Are we capable of understanding what we we’re taking on and where we are heading – that the city we inherited was significantly more beautiful than what we are building today? What is the legacy we found and will leave? We need to better understand our cities in times of growing urbanization to keep them enduring and beautiful. That is the art of planning – leaving our city successfully blending the natural and man-made? Or will Santa Monica succumb to coolness and functionalism, drowning out past warmth and creativity?

Sadly, Santa Monica is experiencing an unfortunate combination of developer greed and Council acquiescence to “panic-building.” We’ve built a system based on “who you know” and “greatest return on investment.” Have we lost our humanity, our values? To focus on codes and design that stress density at the expense of lifestyle is “trumpian” and I would hope we’re better than that. And where’s discussion about sustainability – the cost of additional infrastructure required. Does the kneejerk response to SCAG even address the cost of additional water & power, roads, schools, police, fire, ambulance – NO!

Aside from the health strain we’re facing, we have our own “shovel ready” emergency, and unfortunately, our Council is staying the course – as naïve and unrepentant as our president. Our way of life is drowning – buried with rising seas, added automobile trips in the thousands, ballooning pensions, expenditure of millions on public relations instead of necessary infrastructure. Unfortunately Santa Monica is “shovel ready” !

Will the development of our downtown be an organic process, or a political and economic one? Will downtown be a pleasure based, aesthetic experience or just over-scaled and endlessly repetitive? Corporate density and design is not the answer, as architecture is not the only or even the primary feature of one’s urban experience. The elements of walking and sunlight, courtyards and human-scaled design provide beauty and durability. These are the threads of humanity and artistry behind planning. And do we really need a “starchitect’s” building in the heart of our downtown. Instead, in the age of Amazon, we need to support small retail with alternatives to locate along landscaped arcades leading to the beauty and warmth of a central square full of people, trees, and events!

But is our Council capable of recognizing the complexity of cities. While watching our downtown and boulevards grow higher, denser, and less personal – on April 14, our Council will again beat their chests and sit their rear ends on 24 state-of-the-art composting toilets in consecrating the wildly expensive city hall addition when instead they could have shown real leadership by simply adding solar arrays to all our public buildings – schools, libraries, etc. – at a fraction of the cost.

But circling back to this draconian requirement of adding 8,800 units – can we even approach this number without further degradation to our community’s calm scale and beauty. This “emergency response” of adding 2 stories to existing height limits was proposed by the development community’s legal spokesperson, Chris Harding, along with the added backing of the Santa Monica Housing Council, a group he created on paper to fabricate further community support. Ironically, Harding’s comfortable offices are in a beautiful terraced 3 & 4 story downtown courtyard building where he promotes the density of 6, 8 & 10 story block structures.

What is Santa Monica’s sense of place and can we continue to grow without losing it. A sense of place creates a feeling of home, of familiarity that one feels has always been there. How do European cities, built 1,000 years ago or more, retain their charm and sense of place? We are in a period of volatile growth – hopefully we can address this in a creative, responsible way.

Or are we just hell bent on increasing the Silicon Beach population (13% to 33% in 5 years) by building higher and denser while coastal communities like San Clemente and Manhattan Beach value their beachfront environment. What is the emergency to streamline project approvals that hasten the demise of Santa Monica?

We don’t need the kneejerk reaction of adding 2 stories to our multi-family and commercial zoning when there’s adequate expansion within existing limits! We can meet this draconian request – if even necessary – with existing zoning of 3 & 4 story mixed-use on the boulevards and ADU’s throughout the city! And if necessary, we can hasten development with permit and tax incentives! So why disrupt our legacy of scale and beauty for explosive growth!

Santa Monica, with our Council blinded with hallucinations of grandness and self-importance, we need a rebirth of our city management and leadership. What is the “emergency” to streamline project approvals that will only hasten the demise of Santa Monica as we know it. Are we just abandoning a city of sunlight and blue skies for one of density and shade? Why are we allowing market-rate projects to go through a rapid approval process to meet state requirements instead of contesting this mandate as our neighboring communities are doing.

What is Santa Monica’s limit? How can we maintain what we love and still allow growth and maturity? There is a variety of ways to add units – from incentivizing mixed-use development on the boulevards to adding ADU’s in our neighborhoods or retrofitting under-used commercial and industrial space to re-imagining under-developed public property. With proper tax and permit incentives we can turn our boulevards from in-line commercial facades to neighborhood centers having meandering sidewalks and landscaped courtyards with terraced 2 & 3 story residential over ground floor commercial. Gutting our city and leaving it with an unsustainable fabric is not the answer.

Good planning does not come from pensions and profitability, but from recognizing the complexity and evolution of cities, from building on the past with common sense and reason. There are a variety of ways to add units, but high-rises are not the answer, they do not serve us well.

But our Council does not want to be bogged down hearing from residents. However, we need to live within our means and resist the contagious world of developer greed and misplaced civic leadership – a leadership in Santa Monica that fights district representation, while in closed meetings spends millions of our dollars to remain in power.

As our world is changing, we need a rational plan, a master plan that addresses the spectrum from charm and walkability, to the variety and sustainability of our city.

Next week’s article will focus on the challenging changes in the visual character of our city – stay tuned and stay healthy!

Ron Goldman FAIAFor SMa.r.t. 

Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow
Dan Jansenson, Architect, Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission, Thane Roberts, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Architect, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi, AIA, Planning Commissioner, Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission.

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