Where Oh Where Is Our City Council? – Part 2

In last week’s article we touched on the nine bills currently before our state legislature which assigns and orders, under economic penalty, that Santa Monica builds 8,874 units in the next 8 years. 1,100 units a year in a city that currently builds 200 a year.  These bills, if executed,  would add a 20-25% increase in Santa Monica’s population requiring a 25% increase in infrastructure – water & power, fire & police, schools & parks, all paid for by the residents!  These bills void all land use constraints – allow increased heights, remove parking requirements, end single family zoning and prohibit environmental and public review of proposed projects. A developer’s dream.

Development density madness – 8,874 new units

Based on Santa Monica’s success in providing housing relative to other cities  – SCAG (Southern California Association of Governments) has determined that “Santa Monica is unique and shovel ready” – shovel ready to bury our city with 8,874 housing units.  But in a post-COVID world, we should disperse development, not densify it.  It’s a developer’s dream and a resident’s nightmare.  A fool’s errand.

How to counter a fool’s errand

How do we grow within reason without destroying our community?  Although our code currently provides for 9,000 new units without resorting to 6-8 story buildings, let’s stabilize  our population by shifting jobs to where the people commuting already live! We can solve an increase in housing and commercial needs using incentives among other means to manage reasonable growth without sacrificing our single-family housing or losing our beachfront environment, or needing to increase our density by 20-25%.

Alternatives to this craziness

The pandemic is redefining the country for a generation or more – remaking the retail and office landscape.  A fair amount of retail space, both large and small, is vacant, including big-box department stores and even entire malls as the public is not eager to return to enclosed spaces and crowds of people.  Add to this is a sudden surplus of office space with more working from home and with this sizeable increase in vacancies, there will be downward pressure on rents. This will provide the opportunity to repurpose the vacant spaces for housing and  we can also retrofit the significant majority of one-story commercial buildings on our boulevards by adding 2nd and 3rd story residential at considerably less cost than tearing down and re-starting from the ground up noting that adaptive re-use takes substantially less time and cost than building new.  

Without destroying our single-family neighborhoods, we can also use tax and permit incentives to encourage developing Accessory Dwelling Units on single-family properties, and there is a considerable number of Airbnb rentals in Santa Monica which, under the present circumstances, will return to the long-term rental marketplace.

Additionally, there is a substantial amount of city owned property – both large and small – BBB Yards, Bergamot, the municipal yards, and miscellaneous vacant lots where two and three-story affordable courtyard housing can be distributed on portions of these city owned properties with no land costs, and built at 2/3rds the cost of six and eight-story buildings with multi-level subterranean garages.

Every community should have a minimum one year period to work on a housing plan, or in Santa Monica’s case, preferably a master plan rather than this “one size fits all” mentality! A plan that can easily provide incentives to direct multi-family development away from R1 areas and transition creatively onto the boulevards.

Where is our City Council??

While Sacramento is considering

  • allowing heights for new construction based on buildings ½ a mile away!
  • allowing 10 unit, four-story apartment buildings in single-family neighborhoods without parking
  • silencing residents on the review of housing projects in their neighborhoods 
  • and each bill ignoring water and other infrastructure demands

It is truly unbelievable that we have a City Council that is so dependent on developer money, that they will allow us to be led down a path of no return, lined with six and 8-story buildings instead of trees and sunlight.  This is not just a political difference between a pro-development City Council and a resident population who increasingly lives with higher taxes, and more and more traffic.  This is a very serious problem we’re facing – adding 25% more housing, 25% more population, 25% more infrastructure, 25% more traffic, and, seems likely, 25% more taxes. This will literally ruin Santa Monica, and yet we don’t hear a peep out of our City Council!!!  A City Council that spent $40-50 million more than necessary on a city hall annex vanity project, $40 million judgement on a staff lawsuit that could have been nipped in the bud years earlier, or $20 million plus fighting district-wide voting which would likely have removed them from office.

And there’s the $800 million budgeted over 10 years for meeting sustainable solar energy and water goals.  But you can’t build solar energy efficient buildings higher than three stories!  These goals are just another fantasy, or as my colleague Bob Taylor says – “a philosophy looking for a solution.”  Like our White House, the Council is just throwing everything at a wall and hoping something will stick, but these bills will set Santa Monica’s sustainability goals back to the 1950’s!  And meanwhile, the city has just increased your water bill 100% over the next five years!  Imagine what increases are coming with the added infrastructure this amount of development requires!!

Wake up Council and stop this trainwreck

Why hasn’t our City Council appealed this draconian fool’s errand when other cities have appealed and successfully reduced their housing obligation.  Why – because they are wedded hand in glove with developers.  With this growth, Santa Monica’s future as a desirable, liveable city is truly at stake and they’re doing absolutely nothing, NADA!! 

We need government to act responsibly and creatively –we need a new City Council – one that will expand renter’s rights to include residents’ rights.  A City Council that doesn’t hide deliberation and expenditures in closed door meetings, listening to a deeply entrenched city staff – in number and in salary – organized with their own agenda, planning for their future, not the residents, and apparently not for the preservation of our beachfront town.

Goodbye City Council

Our future is at stake – we need leaders whose loyalty is to the residents.

This period of time presents us with an incredible opportunity to learn and take stock of where we’re headed and where we prefer to go.  We see streets with wide landscaped sidewalks, not tall buildings creating narrow canyons.  We see adaptive re-use of one and two-story buildings interspersed with three and four-story buildings.  In place of alleys, we see a downtown with arcades for local merchants, to offset the coldness of chain stores.  We see “beachfront,” not “urban.”

Our philosophy of governance has to change, it’s not protecting our community but conversely is directing our demise.  This is all to say our City Council is fundamentally incompetent to run our city.  Wake up City Council – better yet, come November, goodbye City Council!

By Ron Goldman 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 www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writing