Out of Chaos, Rebirth!

“We’re still out here, kicking and screaming,” a resident wrote to me, repeating her email to the Planning Commission about proposed changes to the city’s zoning codes. The Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City called the proposed changes “Ill-Conceived and Misguided.” The leader of Northeast Neighbors stated, “We are offended by the use of the euphemism “streamlining” to silence the community about the future of downtown Santa Monica.”

~ Why the uproar? The proposal on the table calls for eliminating the vetting process for development agreements by the public, planning commission, and city council on housing projects that exceed 90,000 square feet in downtown Santa Monica. We call them Tier III projects, and these projects that touch the sky are the ones that would no longer be subject to review by the Planning Commission, and most importantly, by you, the residents. As Mid-City Neighborhood Board Chair Andy Hoyer exclaimed, NO PUBLIC COMMENT!!!EVER!!! The staff recommendation would eliminate all public hearings for these large projects. From the Board of Directors at Friends of Sunset Park, “There are still residents in this city who would like to have some say as to what gets built in our downtown, and we object to this streamlining scenario, i.e., Developers Gone Wild.” Some developers and their sycophants have continued their push for us to become a west coast Miami Beach. Even during a pandemic, they won’t stop.

~ There has been time to smell the flowers on my daily strolls through our quieter town. It feels as if we have stepped back in time. Our city feels friendlier, even amid despair. It glows with the late spring sunshine illuminating the beautiful flowers that border each front yard. Roses, Poppies, and Birds of Paradise are the fences while towering Palm Trees guard our sky. Our neighborhoods present the best kind of spectacular flower show. But real life keeps rearing its ugly head. There are ongoing dramatic cuts to our city government, and many of the cuts hit hardest at kids, teens, and seniors. While the city inserts itself into the budget compactor, our leaders have made it easier to hit late-night happy hour. Gone are many of the conditions needed for a new restaurant or bar to open. You will see more restaurants and bars per block, especially on the Third Street Promenade, with less regulation and minimal opportunity for residents to appeal a liquor permit.

~ In a 4-3 vote, the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District Board of Education pink-slipped twenty-four teachers. Parents are hopping mad about losing enthusiastic, professional educators who have served their children well. Classrooms will see more students and fewer elective programs to help children excel. Parents and the Classroom Teachers Association are outraged that the school board isn’t cutting consultants or administrators. In one particularly egregious case, a single consultant contract is equal to the salaries of three classroom teachers. Who would you rather see on the payroll of our school district, a consultant, or a classroom teacher? 15% of our district’s students are permitted in from other communities without reimbursement to SMMUSD. Our homegrown youngsters face a future of bigger class sizes and less individualized programming. Let’s provide a stellar education for those kids who live in our community, stop hiring consultants, and decrease the administrative overhead.

~ Moms are mad. The upcoming cuts to youth programs are making mothers furious. From one anonymous mother, “I am tired of living here. I feel mentally exhausted daily.” From another, “I am beginning to wonder if the cost of living here is even worth it.” A word to City Hall – You don’t want the moms of our city mad at you! Restore youth programs!

~ Palisades Park has reopened, as has Santa Monica’s three-mile stretch of sand bordering the Pacific Ocean. If you go, don’t congregate, and PLEASE wear a mask. Here is the sobering reality — Three Hundred Sixty Two Santa Monicans with COVID-19 and Thirty-One deaths from the disease. These aggregate figures include those in Santa Monica’s assisted living facilities as of May 14th. Collectively, we mourn those who have been lost and wish Godspeed to those that are ill.

~ Please don’t contribute to the needless suffering and death in our community. Keep your physical distance, wear a mask when warranted, be kind, considerate, and love your neighbors.

~ The Planning Commission represents the first level of oversight for the entire city. All projects of a specific size, use, or zoning were reviewed and approved, approved with conditions, or rejected, with final appeal going to the City Council. Today the Planning Commission has been neutered. For example, State laws prohibit any review of code conforming residential projects, no matter how dysfunctional or ugly. The Planning Commission shortsightedly gave up its ability to criticize large projects, having been buffaloed by developer screams for “streamlining.” This approach assumes the code is perfect, staff reviews are excellent, and developers are honest brokers who will not take advantage of glaring loopholes. Historically, no such projects exist. All projects improve by having their “day in court.” So with no Planning Commission oversight, where is the appeal process for any disaffected party? Will everything end up on the City Council’s agenda? It is a disastrous way to manage the development of limited City resources – light, air, space, sunlight, and water. Residents must be seated at the review table. As the saying goes, “If you are not seated at the table, you are on the menu.”

~ The Big Blue Bus has lost over 80% of its ridership during the pandemic. From the east coast to the west coast, public transit is suffering. As much as we want people out of their cars, public transportation won’t resume in a significant way until everyone is vaccinated. We want the BBB to survive. For now, it needs to be a smaller, nimbler, fare-free system that serves residents.

~ The city is still pushing micro-mobility with an extension of the current e-scooter and e-bicycle “pilot” program for another year. The “Breeze” Bike Share system may end as the bikes are now outmoded, and the newer e-cycles are more popular. The inevitable e-scooter accidents will begin again.

~ Twitter will allow the vast majority of its employees to work from home permanently. Facebook, Google, Morgan Stanley, and Barclays are among others that are generally happy with the work-from-home system. Why would anyone talk about building more office space when that paradigm is a thing of the past? Companies will be ditching their office leases as soon as they can!

~ Cities with moderate height limits, low overall density, and plenty of open space will be first to recover in our post-pandemic nation. One of the most significant impacts our country may witness, post-coronavirus, is a migration away from living in big cities. While the Santa Monica of my generation was a beachside suburb of Los Angeles, it has now become of our region’s densest areas. The kids graduating from high school and college may be more inclined to opt for less densely packed environments in the decades to come.

~ Keep the Landmarks Commission intact. They have essential preservation work to do!

~ Carlthorp School seeks to make improvements to its longstanding San Vicente Blvd campus. Neighbors are justifiably concerned about their plan for a rooftop, outdoor playground in this residential area.

~ Reimagine and Rebirth! We have a rare chance in life. This opportunity to transform our city is extraordinary. If we don’t rush our journey, we can become a better city with a vastly improved sense of place. Now is the time to rediscover what we love about Santa Monica and develop a master plan that covers more than just zoning. We can invent new ways to solve the myriad problems we face and explore our heritage, culture, and collective sense of this city. Our city seal states, “A fortunate people in a fortunate land.” Santa Monica was an escape from the rigors of the big city for one and all. It can be that again. Let’s work on it together!

“What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.” — Charles Bukowski

By Phil Brock for SMart (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 http://www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writing