A Fresh Start for a City Mired in Old Solutions

When the COVID financial crisis struck it cut the city’s income in half, causing widespread layoffs and suspension of popular services. Right away, prominent groups who weigh in on the city’s actions sprang forward to offer their advice. This advice amounted to little more than “more of the same, doubled down.”

One group, strongly pro-development and largely identified with developers, immediately demanded that city approvals of very large buildings be sped up and most restrictions eliminated–along with public input from residents, who, in this scheme, would be completely bypassed.

Another group, representing renters throughout the city, began to consider a tax on the gross receipts of businesses–potentially a regressive approach, damaging to the small businesses that form the very fabric of this city unless structured with extreme care.

A city that has prided itself over the years for its innovation and public service appears to be boxed-in by outmoded ideas that may benefit the few at the expense of many. What happened to our sense of community?

We appear to have forgotten the age-old concepts of public ownership of resources held in trust for the common good. The concept of the town commons, where the community owns land and assets, including access to views and air, for the benefit of all (an American concept that goes back hundreds of years) has been deeply eroded by the wayward tangents of the city’s direction in recent years. We are in danger of making things worse.

One example is a recent suggestion, by the influential pro-development group mentioned above, that the City sell off its prime property at Fourth and Arizona to a private developer. The same group (and now the City’s staff) have pushed to remove restrictions on the project’s size, and eliminate public input on such a project. These are the same folks who advocate for the fire-sale liquidation of bonds and other assets that serve as the City’s safety net. Once those city-owned properties and financial assets are gone and another crisis appears, we can readily guess how the city will be forced to keep funds flowing for basic services. “Operators are standing by.”

Our city has acted, in recent years, as if it were a mining colony, controlled by extractive industries for their sole benefit. The result has been a local economy increasingly tilted in favor of corporations and investors at the expense of small and local businesses and organizations. Many of these can no longer afford the rents demanded by the large new projects. Local businesses are the foundation of services and goods on which the daily lives of residents depend. What’s more, the city’s focus on just a very few industries, such as tourism and development, (already ailing by the time COVID arrived), has made our community deeply vulnerable to the very disruptions we are seeing.

We need to avoid letting this current crisis make those trends worse. The writer Doug Rushkoff, in a recent viral email, suggested we apply the “this time, next time, meantime” approach to problem-solving. “There’s the crisis we’re in now, which we may have to address with emergency measures. There’s the next crisis, which we want to approach with much better systems in place. And there’s the meantime, when we can do what’s necessary to be in a position to do better next time.”

The city has acted swiftly with emergency measures. But we will likely fall victim to the next crisis, and every one after that, unless we take a fresh approach, and restructure our city to do better next time. We must lay the groundwork with a renewed focus on diversifying the city’s resources, boosting local businesses, local organizations and–not least– local residents. Resilience depends on local self-reliance.

The crisis has had a dreadful impact on the health of both our residents and the economy. A small window of opportunity exists to put in place local systems of self-reliance that will help us do better, far into the future. Here are a few concepts that other cities and organizations have explored.

1. A community land trust, in which community-owned land is leased at a nominal fee to local business and housing cooperatives. Over the past few decades there have been over 100 community land trusts established in twenty-three states. These helped establish permanently-affordable housing units, small business and commercial facilities. One example is the Champlain Housing Trust in Burlington, Vermont. The land trust owns the land, and residents own the house or unit in which they reside, on that parcel. Those residents pay less than 30% of their income in rent or mortgage payments, and resale prices are capped to allow future generations to live in the development. Similar land trusts can provide affordable gateways to local small business cooperatives as well. More info here: https://tinyurl.com/ya4hcmcj. (Thanks to our friend and colleague Arlene Hopkins for the reference).

2. A Business Improvement District geared to small businesses, with tax incentives and support for a local network that includes a local business credit union, barter exchanges, and perhaps even a local currency for specified exchange activities. The district need not be confined to a particular geographical location–it can span a variety of centers and areas around the city. A small-business “czar” appointed by the city can help navigate the thicket of regulations that often hinder businesses from thriving, and help guide applicants to appropriate sources for non-profit financing and other business support.

3. Zoning changes oriented to small businesses, to help preserve and increase the supply of smaller spaces. Zoning can encourage storefronts as small as 250 square feet, yielding rents that are affordable to small, family-owned businesses. This kind of rezoning was established  in the Upper West Side of Manhattan with great success. More information in the Institute for Local Self Reliance report here: https://tinyurl.com/ycn52xrr

4.  An expansion of community-owned gardens available to larger numbers of residents wishing to grow their own food or perform small-scale farming for neighbors. Santa Monica already has three community gardens (and one learning garden). But, as the city notes, the demand for these plots far exceeds supply and it may take years before a plot is available. Three-quarters of the city’s residents live in apartments without direct access to gardens in which to grow food. Locally-grown produce is critical for local self-reliance.

Coming out of the COVID crisis we must have in place the goals and systems that make us a more resilient local community. Selling off important community assets is not the ticket, and neither are new burdens on small local businesses. As Rushkoff says, “We have to stop asking when will things get back to normal. They won’t. There is no going back…We, the people, may struggle ourselves, but we’re in it together.”

Daniel Jansenson, Architect, Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission, for Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow.

Thane Roberts, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Architect, Daniel Jansenson, Architect, Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi, AIA, Planning Commissioner, Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission, Arlene Hopkins, Architect