It’s Time That Residents Matter!

Downtown Community Plan

Santa Monica has always been a mixed bag. Since 1875, it’s been a breath of fresh air for Los Angeles. It is the ultimate seaside escape for millions of people each year. It was a working class city, occupied by small duplexes and triplexes, with a great deal of economic and racial diversity. Our town also had a wealthy, homegrown business community that held great sway politically. They devoted their lives to their neighborhoods, their neighbors and building a better Santa Monica. Flush with local banks, hospitals, industry and retailers these businesspeople cared about our community. The climate has changed. The industrial past gave way to office complexes, the local retailers gave way to national chains, the banks and hospitals are no longer local and our small businesses are becoming dinosaurs.

Our downtown and major streets throughout our city become impassable on most days. On streets designed for horse and buggies, we now pack in nine million tourists, almost 150,000 workforce members and 95,000 residents. Crime increases in the double digits are being recorded in downtown Santa Monica, our homeless population has increased by 26%, and our 8.3 square miles is bulging at the seams. Our neighborhoods have seen home invasion robberies and crimes of opportunity in the past month and residents are seeking answers. How many patrol cars are consistently in our neighborhoods…patrolling? The SMPD’s major response is always first-rate but has the need to constantly funnel tourists and workers into downtown drawn needed resources away from our residential neighborhoods.

Our Chamber of Commerce is designed to encourage business development but shouldn’t they be concerned with a livable city for all of our residents. Won’t businesses prosper if we remain a beachfront, casual town, a proverbial breath of fresh air for Los Angeles. The appeal of Santa Monica has always been its distinct difference to Los Angeles, not its similarities. The low-rise, slightly funky feel of our town was its appeal. Flip-flops, not penny loafers, Hawaiian shirts, a drink or two at the Galley or Chez Jay have always made the day for residents and for visitors. In fact, the tech start-ups that planted their business flag in our city moved here precisely because it’s not LA. They want a low rise, comfortable community, not one overflowing with people and structural density…that fresh air I talked about earlier. The Chamber now pushes increased height for downtown. It emails, “The Chamber has very serious concerns with the plan” that will soon reach the City Council dais. “The draft plan actually decreases height limits in parts of the downtown.” Wait, that’s a bad thing? Our Chamber used to represent hundreds of small mom and pop businesses in our city. Many of those are being pushed out of our city by higher rents. Incessantly seeking more growth, our Chamber seems to be in need of a constant fix and seemingly wants to destroy the qualities that make Santa Monica such a desirable place.

Let’s talk about this plan the Chamber attacks. The Downtown “Community” Plan is on the way to our City Council. It took 142 years to get to 12 million square feet in our newly expanded downtown. It might take only 12 years to add 25% more square footage to it. Are we building for the needs of our residents or our nine million tourists? The plan that goes to the City Council potentially adds 2,500 residential units and 3 million square feet of new development by 2030. You think downtown is crowded now, just wait. On top of this planned building boom, there are no new parks or public spaces added. Yes, we’ll keep cramming in buildings that are taller and denser, but not give our residents or visitors any more respite…in our beachside town. Think about our crowded streets downtown. It can take a half hour now to travel from Wilshire past Colorado on 2nd, 4th Streets or Ocean Ave. Add in the increase in auto, pedestrian and car collisions, major retailers closing on Wilshire Blvd and the crowds of tourists everywhere to ask yourself if downtown Santa Monica is better off now than it was just a few years ago. Will it be better in twelve years with all of the allowed construction?

Let’s talk green space for a minute. No, not the green space that is proposed in the twelve story, 357,000 square foot Plaza at Santa Monica. Much of the proposed green space is on upper floor outcroppings of the building. This “Plaza” would occupy fourth and fifth streets from Arizona south towards Santa Monica Boulevard. The city owns this large parcel and is considering 12 stories of offices, a hotel and a smidgen of housing on this site. This development will be on the public’s land smack dab in the geographical middle of downtown. I suggest an alternative. A PARK.

There is only one solution for the so-called Plaza at Santa Monica. Don’t build it. Build a true plaza, a park that will stand the test of time in our downtown. That’s right. Trees, grass, seating, an outdoor café and a mirror of water that mimic the Miroir d’eau in Bordeaux in the summer and becomes our ice skating rink in winter. This parcel can contain low-rise housing, if needed. Imagine the parking lots on Arizona replaced by parkland. It won’t need grassy knolls or extravagant features. Almost every town has a town square. We deserve one. We can have this at 4th and Arizona and its our only chance. No underground parking. Let’s not add more congestion. No more tall buildings or office space downtown. Say yes to open space.

I believe our neighborhoods lose as downtown mushrooms in size and gobbles up the city’s attention. Funneling resources to service the bigger downtown that the Chamber seeks is a mistake. We’re not supposed to look, feel and act like every other city. We should want to stand apart. We’re in danger of losing what the aircraft workers and early bankers loved about our special place. We are the ocean breeze, sandy shores and a comfortable place to hang your hat, not a teeming metropolis that has to blend in.

I’ve always been proud that we are not Los Angeles. I hope you are as well.

Phil Brock for SMa.r.t

Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow: Thane Roberts AIA, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Ron Goldman FAIA, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Planning Commissioner, Phil Brock, Arts Commissioner


Housing Über Alles

Downtown Community Plan

The current Downtown Community Plan under consideration by the Planning Commission is a good start but could get better. It is single mindedly pro housing expecting to add about 2500 units (approximately 4000 new residents) in the next 13 years to 2030. In addition it reduces certain (not all) parking requirements to hopefully reduce traffic and create less reliance on the car as the primary transportation mode. Furthermore it provides major incentives to preserve many of the historical buildings which might otherwise be subject to demolition in the future. That said, it is not yet a great plan which was one of the City Manager’s Rick Cole’s stated objectives and what Santa Monicans expect of their downtown after the extended review and approval process.

When that long approval process started, the downtown area was supposed to absorb the half of the City’s 5000 new unit housing needs until 2030. Housing was supposed to be maximized through a tier system whereby developers could get extra height and density if they paid additional fees and added more affordable units than was required for simply conforming projects. But suddenly the rules of the “housing game” changed in three significant ways:

  1. In 2017 the State mandated that people could, by right, add an ADU (Accessory Dwelling Unit) to any lot with a single-family residence. These units could be up to 1,200 square feet, or big enough for a 3-bedroom apartment, significantly larger than the typical apartment currently being built downtown. This essentially rezoned the entire city to a 2-unit baseline eliminating the single-family zone as largest area in the city.

In 2016, Santa Monica had about 9,720 single family residences. It would not be surprising if 10 percent of those single family homes over the next 13 years took advantage of this new State law since no additional parking for the second unit was required if you are within 1/2 mile of public transit, which in Santa Monica’s case is the entire city. Faster, cheaper to build and rent, and more desirable than a typical downtown apartment, these so called ADU’s will propagate much faster than large multistory apartment projects. They provide many social benefits such as economically serving current students, returning students, Air BnB opportunities, live in maids, retiring family members, etc etc. It would not be surprising if their propagation was even faster, but about 972 units, or about 1/3 of our 13 year housing plan, could be met by the new ADUs.

  1. There has been a feeding frenzy of apartment approvals with about 850 new units being approved over the last two years. So only two years into the Downtown Plans’ life, we have already approved a third of our target housing. Although just approved, they still need to be built, but with the heroic effort needed to get those approvals, the developers are very likely to follow through to construction.
  2. Last November the generous citizens of Santa Monica imposed a ¼ percent sales tax increase which, combined with the affordable housing fees charged to new projects and possibly the late Redevelopment Agency’s loan repayments, will generate somewhere on the order of $16 million per year. This translates to about 32 units a year or 416 units till 2030. While the amount of money that is available fluctuates depending on the funding source, approximately half of the funds will be generated by the sales tax which is relatively stable each year and will continue to increase with inflation. All the funds thus earmarked for affordable housing provide fully affordable units as opposed to the relatively small number of affordable units that are required by the City’s affordable housing regulations in a typical market rate project. Note all these affordable units can be downtown or anywhere land becomes available.

With these three game changers, we will have over the next 13 years, realistically, about 2236 units in the pipeline. This already represents about 90 percent of the 2,500 units that were supposed to be produced downtown. In short, we are very close to meeting our regional housing goals and can look at our downtown differently than we originally did years ago when the Downtown Plan process started. Some may argue that the need for more housing is so great that even if we are already close to our regional goals, we should still produce as much as we can. The problem with this is that we cannot build our way to affordability. The end result would be to simply fill the downtown with more expensive units that would crush our already impacted downtown, endangering our sustainability goals and not really increasing the affordability for a full range of residents. In short the problem we face is not the number of units produced, but how many of them we can make truly affordable. Now any prediction spanning 13 years is subject to substantial volatility, so we can always debate the accuracy of any specific number, however the important thing is that their order of magnitude has significantly changed before the Plan is adopted so we have time to adjust it accordingly.

The path to affordability can be spread out over the whole city with ADUs and the sales tax increase rather than just piled on to the downtown. This means the Downtown Plan can be freed from the shackles of just optimizing for housing numbers. Other important goals can now be considered. For example we could easily reduce the allowed building heights by 10’ to create much more sustainable and resilient buildings, and more spacious appearing, safe and gracious streets. We could thus keep and enhance our downtown’s uniqueness while still meeting all our important housing goals. With such small shifts, we could make the Downtown Plan a truly great plan and not just a machine for housing production.

by SM.a.r.t. Santa Monica architects for a responsible tomorrow. Robert H. Taylor AIA, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA planning Commissioner , Ron Goldman FAIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Thane Roberts AIA, Architect, Samuel Tolkin AIA, Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission.

Why Indeed!

Downtown Community Plan

“Santa Monica is already so built out, an enormous tourist center, a huge regional office hub, with significant multi-family housing, home to a 30,000-student college, two major, growing hospitals, with our streets and sidewalks overtaxed, and more.

Yet, the Downtown Community Plan (DCP) never adequately answers “why” so much more rapid development – more than 3 million sq. ft., an excessive amount – much of it luxury hotels and very expensive rentals, and more office space, is good for residents or the City. We are not a big city and our downtown is relatively small. Wouldn’t more moderate growth be better?”

The above quote is from the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) in referencing their analysis of the Downtown Community Plan (DCP).

As pointed out, the “why” is what is missing in the DCP. The DCP is the presumed design “solution” for our beach town’s Central Business District (CBD) and should reflect the results of an analytic and creative design process of the planning problems that exist and need to be resolved. The “design” should result in a planning solution that will not further exacerbate the “problems” it was ostensibly designed to solve. But if the resulting design is based more on the desire and want of creating a city ‘image’, rather than solving specific problems, then we are simply trying to put hipster clothes on an out of shape body.

We have written before about what Prof. Horst Rittle described as “Wicked Problems,” to describe the nature of problems that are in a constant state of flux with many moving parts and stakeholders. The problem of planning a city is not a simple task to analyze and define, or to find a best solution. Rittle taught that there is a need to “define the solution space” by identifying and analyzing as many missing or needed elements (parameters) as possible. As more of the issues and problems are clearly defined the smaller the “solution space” becomes, and the number of possible solutions become fewer and more focused.

We’re not suggesting that the planners in preparing the DCP haven’t considered many of the issues confronting our town, but we are suggesting that it appears there are areas that may not have borne as much weight as we think they deserve. An example is the several sites downtown, now referred to as “established” opportunity sites. “Established” by who, and when? There is no such description in the Land Use Circulation Element (LUCE), which is the guiding document. The downtown, along with Bergamot and Memorial Park are very large areas that were left out of the multi-year LUCE effort that produced what some would call the City’s incomplete master plan. The LUCE not only does not describe “opportunity” sites, it does not give those, or other, locations special rights to exceed the new zoning code that was prepared, mostly following the guidelines of the LUCE.

One site that continues to live in the planning process is the city owned land at 4th/5th and Arizona. The council continues to allow the developers to modify their proposals thru a request for a Development Agreement (DA). So how is a 10- to 12-story, 500,000 sq. ft., mixed-use commercial structure, with a nominal 48 residential units, a solution to the well-known jobs/housing imbalance that exists in Santa Monica? That project, as presented, could produce upwards of 2,000 workers on site, yet provides only 48 apartments. It is allowing this type of project that makes one seriously question the analysis that led to the DCP as a solution to our needs. And one should remember Santa Monica City Councilmember Davis’ statement, as quoted in the local press following a candidate’s forum, that “we are a built out city.” The City’s own planning consultant echoed that same “you are a built out city” statement, yet the council has voted 7 to 0 to continue going forward with developer negotiations on this excessively large project, and they continue to champion excessive development. Why?

By contrast, the DCP is bounded by the east side of Ocean Avenue to Lincoln Boulevard, and from the freeway to Wilshire Boulevard, and it should be noted that within those limits there is no public open space, save the commercial/tourist oriented Third Street Promenade. Does it not seem that analysis of open space needs, considering that the DCP is suggesting growth of some 4,000 residents, might suggest 4th/5th and Arizona would better serve the neglected residents as a public plaza/park, rather than the proposed 10- to 12-story 500,000 sq. ft. commercial structure. A plaza, with small peripheral services providing cultural and food services, maybe a downtown post office, the beloved ice skating rink, fountains, and small green areas. In general, providing residents with a downtown central plaza like just about every other small city and town in the world.

It is simply unclear how the DCP, as currently proposed, is an adequate representation of a solution based on an analytically defined set of problems that needed a solution. It appears to be a proposal guided more by a set of specified wants and desires (by whom?…doesn’t seem to be the residents), and that in itself is a wicked problem.

Bob Taylor AIA for SMa.r.t.(Santa Monica Architects For A Responsible Tomorrow)

Sam Tolkin Architect; Dan Jansenson Architect; Ron Goldman FAIA; Thane Roberts AIA; Robert H. Taylor AIA; Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Planning Commission; Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission


SMart and Final

City Character, Common Sense, Downtown Community Plan, Learning from Mistakes

Santa Monica is at a crossroads. Will speculators or residents determine our city’s future? Since developers tend to think short term, focusing on profitability, it is important that residents, with their emphasis on the city’s livability, also weigh in to balance the discussion. At present, it appears that our City leaders have chosen to put the interests of those that would exploit our resources above those in whose interest it is to preserve them. This strategy is both short sighted and unsustainable in the long run.

Our downtown is currently “ground zero” – where the battle for our city’s soul is playing out. Although the new downtown plan will reduce height somewhat from the current allowable levels, more densification and height of the downtown is still likely. If the new regulations are enacted as proposed, property values are likely to go up and many of our historic downtown buildings would likely come down.

Since our city is only 8.4 square miles, and our downtown a small fraction of that (5 percent), it will not take long before we run out of space for new growth. Our dependence on new construction to generate income is both unsustainable and short sighted. Our land area is limited and the inevitable negative impacts on the city could be irreversible. Our main source of income, tourism, is bound to suffer if our city were to become overbuilt. Gone will be our “beach town charm” as the city falls into shadow and gridlock.

Another reason to reconsider a more sustainable approach is that retail and office space, currently in demand, may not be so in the future. Retail sales have diminished markedly with the advent of on-line shopping. Many “brick and mortar” establishments are going out of business, downsizing or shifting their marketing and sales to the Internet. The hospitality industry might also decline as tourists choose “home shares” over hotel suites. It may not be long before office rentals also start to fall off as well if more employees elect to work from home and forgo their daily commute to the office. The City may be “betting on the wrong horse” as business models change. In the not so distant future, our City’s choice to promote development at the expense of tourism may backfire.

While tourism is sure to continue, it is likely to diminish if our “beach town” character is lost and our city is mired in traffic. Perhaps now is the time to stop and ask ourselves what our current needs are, and in what kind of city do we want to reside in the future? Should we build on our past success as a small community or trade our beach town ambiance and scale for an urban dystopia – a “West Coast Miami Beach”?

So, what are the alternatives? What type of development might enhance rather than degrade our city? A good place to start would be maintaining our low-rise scale and beach town ambiance – the primary reasons for our current success. Secondly, we might consider focusing on new cCultural venues that promote the Arts and Entertainment to broaden our appeal, . sSince the alternative, relying on outdated commercial development, is more likely to diminish it. Lastly, we should follow the prescriptions in the 2010 Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) that recommended that high-rise development occur at our eastern border with Los Angeles, not adjacent our cCity’s primary assets – our beaches, downtown and The Promenade.

Our City currently owns several large parcels that can be developed as world-class venues for the arts, exhibitions, entertainment etc. For example, the Civic Center remains an ideal venue for a large cultural center. If the current structure is no longer viable, we could preserve the historic entry but replace the antiquated building with a large, tented amphitheater. This would be a performance venue similar to that in Aspen for their annual Music Festival. Daytime uses do not require artificial lighting or air conditioning, as does our current venue. Bergamot Station must become a center for the visual arts, with galleries, a museum and an open-air performance space. The airport site could become a college campus in addition to a world-class park. Perhaps we should be incentivizing the construction of more sustainable and adaptable uses rather than energy consuming, outdated ones.

We need an inspired vision for Santa Monica’s future, one that builds on our past success rather than diminishing it. We need to find the proper balance between preservation and innovation, such that each compliments the other. This is the surest path to enhance the unique qualities that define our cCity in the context of a rapidly changing world. If successful, we will assure our financial viability and our livability for many years to come.

Thane Roberts for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow).

Robert H. Taylor AIA, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Thane Roberts AIA, Architect, Samuel Tolkin AIA, Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission.


In Santa Monica… Size Matters

Downtown Community Plan

Do you know how big our city is? Most of those I ask imagine Santa Monica to be between 25 and 35 square miles. Actually, it measures only 8.3 square miles. If our city were square, it would measure less than 3 miles on a side. On an unlikely day with no traffic, you could cross the entire city on a bicycle in under 15 minutes. Our downtown is even smaller (1/3 sq. mi.). It would seem that the current Downtown Specific Plan (DSP), as written, is trying to get 10 lbs. of developers’ dreams (EIR’s actual weight) into a 5 oz. box.

Suffice to say, Santa Monica, and its downtown, are both much smaller than most realize. It is certainly smaller than some of our City planners might think. The recently proposed Downtown Community Plan (DCP) is studying two scenarios for projected commercial growth in our downtown to 2030: Plan A at 4.73 million sq. ft., and Plan B at 3.22 million sq. ft. Ironically, as of August 2016, there were already 27 downtown projects totaling 2.7 million sq. ft. in the pipeline. At this rate, the City could surpass their projected figures in a few years, perhaps a decade earlier than 2030. The recently released Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the DCP based on these modest figures may be outdated before it is even approved.

But this is not the most disturbing element of the EIR. Its assumed purpose is to provide a blueprint for the City to predict and mitigate any environmental impacts of the new DCP. What is troubling is that the report’s findings may not even matter. Why? Because Santa Monica’s entire downtown is now considered to be a “Transit Priority Area.” This is a State designation given to our downtown zone because all of its area lies within half a mile from either the new Metro Station or Big Blue Bus stops. Under a recent State law, environmental impacts are preemptively determined to be “less than significant” in “Transit Priority Areas,” letting both City officials and developers off the hook for any required mitigation of negative effects.

As a courtesy to the residents, the EIR report does look into some of the more egregious impacts from the proposed DCP. However, having done so, it immediately dismisses the need to address these same issues for the reason stated above. One wonders why they would even go through the effort of writing a 10 lb, 1,400 page treatise that is dense with facts, light on recommendations and “toothless” in its ability to correct any negative consequences- the presumed reason for an EIR’s existence.

If residents hope to achieve any relief from the negative impacts of the DCP, they will have to do so by other means. Several of the City’s neighborhood groups have already analyzed the EIR report and made their recommendations. The bottom line is that the proposed heights (50’ to 130’) and density of EIR’s two alternatives are both unrealistic and unsustainable. It is now up the citizens, and their representatives, to ensure that this plan is not adopted in its current form.

Specifically, the City needs to set more realistic limits on both height and density in the downtown area, well below those currently proposed. The final DCP should not exempt any buildings under a certain size threshold (i.e. 60,000 sq. ft.) from public review as has been proposed. The mitigation measures discussed in the EIR, but then summarily dismissed, should be acted upon. Strategies to reduce traffic, along with the building mass and density that cause it, should continue to be a priority downtown. To do otherwise, could cause significant negative aesthetic, social and economic consequences at our city’s heart as well in the adjacent neighborhoods. It was for this reason that the Land Use Circulation Element (LUCE) foresaw future city growth occurring far from the downtown and our boulevards – at the east end of the city at Bergamot Station.

Santa Monica’s historic downtown is an award-wining pedestrian environment as well as an important revenue generator for the City. Although our downtown area measures only 4 percent of our City’s land area, in 2015, it generated almost 38 percent of its tax revenue. These funds, along with lodging revenues, amounted to an infusion of $ 1.31 billion into City coffers. Its small scale should not detract from the large role it plays in our city’s current, and future, financial health. In fact, its human scale and beachside ambiance are perhaps the reason for its success.

Our downtown’s fate will depend upon foresight and good planning. This process cannot be spearheaded by outside interests and myopic developers. While the DCP and EIR might provide a good start in this process, it must not stop there. Citizen input and participation will be needed to ensure that a “green vision” will prevail over “green backs,” to ensure our downtown remains the vibrant, aesthetic asset that it is today.

Thane Roberts for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

Robert H. Taylor AIA, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Thane Roberts AIA, Architect, Samuel Tolkin AIA, Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission.


A Six Pack of City Defining Areas

Common Sense, Development Agreements, Downtown Community Plan, Fact vs. Fiction, Infrastructure Planning, light and air, LImiting Height & Density, Listening to Stakeholders, Long-Term Strategy & LIving Within Our Means, Neighborhood Improvement Districts, Planning, Plaza at Santa Monica, Preservation and Adaptive Reuse, Reclaiming Civic/Architectural Culture, Santa Monica's Opportunity Sites, Sense of Place, Spirit of the City, Sustainable City, The Value of Low-Rise Buildings, Transportation, Urban Design & Architecture, Water Conservation, Wicked Problems and Profit-making, Zoning and Development Agreements

In our built out City, there are six significant areas of land whose eventual development will have an inordinate impact on the future of our City. Development of these areas, if left to today’s “market forces” without considering the big picture. may result in in an irretrievably lost opportunity that could distort our City for decades. We invite all residents to think futuristically about our City plan as a whole, and to understand the importance these six critical areas and how they should be woven into the fabric of our community:

1. DOWNTOWN SPECIFIC PLAN. This is the heart of the City being subjected to incredible development pressures. Its already in constant gridlock  (despite the new EXPO line), with current development of over 500 approved new units, and faced with thousands more in the pipeline including several super sized projects (5th and Arizona, Miramar etc.) on the horizon.  Additional issues include preserving historical buildings, allowing for a soon to be needed elementary school, expanding the pedestrian feel of the Third Street Promenade, and addressing the lack of park space. In the next few months residents will be able to weigh in on the proposed Specific Plan to tell the City staff and Council what kind of downtown they would. like to see.

 2. BERGAMOT STATION. This is the east gateway to our City where 50,000 daily visitors arrive via the EXPO, plus thousands of commuters arrive via the 10 freeway. Currently, the art galleries in old factory buildings are struggling to survive the pressures of new development. The adjacent City yards with trash, recycling and fire dept. are wedged in with a mixture of new and old commercial uses. The Bergamot Specific Plan will determine which of these elements should be incentivized to remain and which should be relocated.  Should new uses (hotels, theaters, College expansion) be considered in the future along with the galleries?

3. MEMORIAL PARK.  This area is currently a low-rise neighborhood of residences and light industrial uses wrapped around a highly used park and playing fields served by a light rail stop.  Should this become a high density node? Should this centrally located park expand and be tilted toward athletics or other uses? Finally there are Public Works City yards nearby at the old Fisher Lumber site whose future is uncertain.  Again a future Specific Plan will determine what happens here.

4. CIVIC CENTER PLAN. This is a critical collision of public needs including a new high tech expansion to a historic City Hall, a historic auditorium needing a multimillion dollar rehab, an impacted high school without sufficient playing fields, a proposed daycare structure, and all the existing public services (police, courts, parking structure). Each one of these uses has fierce partisan advocates, so the residents will have to effectively adjudicate what they eventually want to see here.

5. LOCAL COASTAL PLAN (LCP). Our beaches are the lungs of LA and provide a respite from heat for all the Westside to Downtown and to the Valley. Coastal access (in all its forms: transportation, eating and hotels) is therefore vital to the health of the entire region. This will be increasingly significant as global warming cooks people out of the inland areas and sea level rise shrinks the available beach area.  The LCP will help determine the extent to which development can occur beachside.  There are questions whether the City can afford to subsidize public beach events such as the Thursday night Pier concerts. And finally, absent new water sources, with continued growth we will likely need an area for a desalinization plant. Residents will need to decide how much to invest in our beaches to benefit others and to protect them (or retreat) from sea level rise.

6. AIRPORT. Finally the big one, there are 227 acres of land (not including the business park south of Ocean Park Blvd., which we will address as a separate issue) that will be freed up if the airport closes in 2029.  In that event that, we can as a City start to envision how we might optimize the re-use of that land. Should this be the new Santa Monica College? Should this be a giant park? Should this consolidate all the City Yards? Should it be an extended silicone beach 2.0? Should it be acres of solar collectors and or windmills for our City’s energy independence? Should it be affordable housing? Should it be a combination of all those activities? For every solution proposed, special attention will be needed to address the gridlock that every day besets the entire South East quadrant of the City.

What these six areas have in common is that they must fit into an overarching City Master Plan. They are pieces of a puzzle that needs to work together. That plan will require the collective wisdom and political commitment of all the residents and not just reflect the immediate needs of developers. SMart invites everyone to become informed and to actively participate to realize their vision of Santa Monica’s future.

By Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA for

Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow

Sam Tolkin, Architect; Dan Jansenson, Architect; Mario Fonda-Bonardi, AIA, Planning Commissioner; Ron Goldman, FAIA;  Thane Roberts, AIA; Bob. Taylor, AIA; Phil Brock, Arts Commissioner


Is This Santa Monica’s Heart & Soul for Sale?

City Character, Downtown Community Plan, Uncategorized

“I find peace where the sun-kissed leaves dance in the melody of the cool breeze that floats through the air.”
-Saim Cheeda

In 2010, Santa Monica’s Redevelopment Agency purchased several parcels of land at 4th and Arizona. The purchases were made to facilitate the goals set out in the City’s Bayside District Plan- “encourage uses that will generate pedestrian activity” in the downtown district…”. Having already acquired the adjacent parcels at 5th and Arizona, this new purchase created a contiguous parcel totaling 112,000 square feet at the center of our Downtown.

In 2013, the developer selected by the City retained the services of internationally known architect Rem Koolhaas to design an urban commercial center for this city-owned land. This design has undergone review by both residents and City Staff. The result was a slightly reduced version of the original plan. The next hurdle of several prior to breaking ground, is the adoption of the project’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR). This is scheduled to begin next month by the City’s EIR consultant who will be looking at the 3 alternatives below:

• A 12-story (129’ high/ 420,000 sf) commercial development with 28% open
space at the sidewalk;
• A 4-story (50’ high/ 90,000 sf) commercial development with 75% open space
at the sidewalk; and finally:
• A 2-story (30’ high/12,000 sf) with limited commercial space and 90% open space.
NOTE: All three projects include 3-levels of subterranean parking.

In comparing these 3 alternatives, the main difference is that the second and third options would prioritize the public open space over the building itself. The net effect of scheme 3) would be to replicate what many iconic cities have- a large, open urban plaza at their center. It is a place where both tourists and residents can gather for public events, theater, music or perhaps to share a coffee as they discuss their day or plan their visit.

It has been said of Los Angeles: “When you get there, there is no there there”. Let’s not let this moniker define our City as well. A large public space in the center of our downtown would reinforce our City’s priorities- nature, community & culture. A large commercial project in the same location would do the opposite.

Perhaps the best argument for a town square is that this property ALREADY belongs to our City, and hence its residents. The stated goal, when the City purchased the land almost a decade ago, was to create “pedestrian activity” in the downtown district”. The current commercial complex, with mostly private tenants and minimal space at street level, will do the opposite. The Residents must not stand silently by as this publically owned amenity is usurped for private, commercial use. It must remain in the public sphere, like our beaches and promenade, to be enjoyed by all, taking advantage of our temperate climate and enhancing our beach town ambiance.

There are many other reasons as well why this property must become a refuge from City Life rather than an enduring symbol of its demise. The proposed project will further the destruction of our public sphere and natural environment only to replace it with unsustainable buildings that block the sun and ocean breezes, create traffic and produce pollution rather than fresh air.

One asks why the City Council would propose such a large commercial project that will provide minimal civic benefits to our residents? This is our last chance for a town square in the heart of our City! It’s time the priorities of our city’s leaders and staff align fully with that of our residents!

Of course, there are also other reasons why the project as currently proposed is a bad idea. Will further overload our infrastructure – from water & power to garbage & traffic, to a lack of open space and schools for a growing downtown residential population. It will block sunlight and ocean breezes and create shadows and “canyonization” of the surrounding streets. As currently designed, the proposed project will do nothing to ameliorate the scarcity of parking in our downtown and will likely make it worse. Compared to the Hines project, this development is both denser and taller, by far. It has nearly the same area as Santa Monica Place but on a site 1/3 the size!

Either of the two proposed alternatives to be studied in the EIR are better choices than that approved by the developer. Both alternatives prioritize open space over towering buildings. Both would create an “active pedestrian environment” justifying the reason for City’s original purchase. Both would reduce our carbon footprint while providing needed public parking in the heart of our City. Both would provide opportunities to experience nature and cultural events in the open air, a defining feature of our beachfront community. The difference between the two alternatives is that one is more weighted towards an “urban plaza” with shopping, dining, possibly a public theater or a small, boutique hotel while the other is primarily a park with some low-impact commercial activities along its periphery. For both schemes, the subterranean parking, along with limited commercial development, would defray the costs.

How did we get here? Wouldn’t it be better to promote a project that fosters wellness, social, and cultural benefits than placing commercial gain above civic health? This property’s eventual use will be a pivotal moment in our city’s history. A former West Hollywood mayor said, “our biggest challenge is to manage our success so we can hold onto our values.” If our City is to start making decisions based on cultural and environmental values instead of economic gain, this would be a good place to start. Should “The Plaza at Santa Monica” proceed as proposed, a huge opportunity will have been squandered. One that is unlikely to come again.

We can’t afford to let this opportunity pass. The time has come for residents to raise their voices and reclaim what was promised. There may not be a second chance.

Ron Goldman & Thane Roberts for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

Robert H. Taylor AIA, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Thane Roberts AIA, Architect, Samuel Tolkin AIA, Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission. For previous articles see


Getting To School On Time

Downtown Community Plan, Uncategorized

One of the fatal flaws of the currently evolving Downtown Community Plan is that there are no provisions for an elementary school. This is a severe problem because much of the City’s forth coming development is being concentrated downtown. Housing is being produced downtown by NMS and others at a truly incredible rate with over 500 units approved in the last 18 months and hundreds more in the pipeline. Typically these new buildings have about 30% two and three bedroom units which will not all be rented to Silicone Beach millenials. If only half of these new multi bedroom units have one school age child we can expect that the downtown elementary school population will double to approximately 200 children.

Because the downtown streets are currently not safe for unaccompanied children walking or riding bikes, these K-5 children and their increasing future cohort will have to be driven to the nearest schools: 1 ¼ mile to John Muir, 1 ½ mile to McKinley, and 1 mile to Roosevelt. Our already gridlocked downtown does not need more time crunched parents trying to get their kids to school on time and then trying to rush to work on time.
Building new schools is astronomically slow particularly in a dense urban environment. If you could get funding, acquire land, design, permit, bid and build a school in 10 years, you would be moving at the speed of light.

Fortunately the City already owns a perfect site for a downtown elementary school. This is the parking structure on Fourth Street just south of Arizona. That approximately 50 year old building, needs substantial a seismic upgrade so it is anticipated to be demolished and replaced with a large Arclight theater complex. Cinemas are not the best future investment of City land but education certainly is. So we should plan on relocating that parking structure’s 420 parking spaces under the new park proposed across the street and free up this 200’x150’ parcel for a new school.

Unlike the other elementary schools in Santa Monica, this would be an “urban” school of 3 stories (50’) with a 1 acre playing field on the roof. Simple programming indicates it would have 22 classrooms (kindergarden on the ground level) for a future nominal 600 student population, about 10200 square feet of solar collectors, and parking for 40 cars plus 75 bicycles allowing 25% of the students to bicycle to school.

What are the advantages of this school location?.
1. Central location. The school would be 12 minutes of walking distance (6 minutes by bicycle) to everywhere in the downtown area and fifteen minutes from the beach.
2. Accessibility. Its on a major transit corridor with buses and there’s a light rail station within a 5 minute walk. It would also be adjacent to a midblock passage way to the promenade.
3. Safety This lot has a mid block light on one side and a traffic light 100’ feet to the north. Arizona avenue would be the bike feeder street for the new school the same way for example Michigan feeds the High School. Arizona is probably the safest bike street in the downtown area. The park across 4th street will be the refuge area in event of a school fire.
4. Health. Walking or riding bicycles to school will be the default mode of going to this school. Thus we are conditioning generations of students for a lifetime of healthy transit and helping to avoid an inevitable car addiction if they always have to be driven to existing schools miles away.
5. Relief for other schools. Our elementary schools balance their load by adjusting the number of outside permitted students from other Cities. At some point our School District will use up that safety valve and face serious overcrowding. Needless to say this new school would not only serve the growing immediate downtown area, but its catchment area could extend beyond the Downtown boundaries to help relieve pressure on adjacent schools.
6. Social Cohesion. Elementary schools are a node for parents and children to build lifetime friendships. In addition they are incubators of future Santa Monican leaders through the osmotic leadership training parents receive in organizations like the PTSA, sports groups, and civic associations. As such, every neighborhood needs a local school as its “anchor” so those groups can coalesce at a natural and nearby center. The Downtown Neighborhood Association is the only neighborhood association without an elementary school yet ironically it has the fastest growing population. The auditorium of the new school would be directly accessible for public use from the sidewalk when the school was not in session.

There is only one major disadvantage of this proposal in that multistory urban schools are more expensive to build compared to 1 story large lot schools. This disadvantage comes with the territory of placing a school in an urban center.
The race between increasing population and a new elementary school has already started and we need to fast-track the process of creating that new school now. Think of it as a Valentine’s day gift for your grandchildren.

By Mario Fonda-Bonardi for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

Thane Roberts AIA, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA Planning Commissioner, Ron Goldman FAIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Samuel Tolkin AIA, Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission.  For previous articles see


What’s missing from Santa Monica’s downtown plan

Downtown Community Plan

There are two different visions for our downtown. Do we want to be a densely populated urban place, a smaller Downtown Los Angeles simply adjacent to a beach, or remain part of the beach and ocean environment? What is currently happening in our city has the potential to change forever the “character” that is Santa Monica. Our downtown can either be urban or beachfront — but you can’t have both. Will it have the warmth of local merchants or the coldness of indifferent mid-rise and hi-rise buildings filled with national chain stores? Will we relinquish our interest in community in favor of consumerism?

What will it take to get a downtown plan with which residents and visitors alike can be satisfied and that will allow reasonable, sustainable growth that respects the scale of our beach town and fosters intelligent design solutions?

Open space

Requirements for open space are missing from the plan. They include:

  • required front yard setbacks totaling 20 feet from curb to building line in predominately commercial areas and 15 feet in predominately residential areas and can vary with building offsets;
  • sideyard setbacks required where residential above 1st and 2nd floor commercial levels, allowing blue sky and sunlight instead of shade;
    a 5-foot rear yard setback to help activate alleys for increased pedestrian mobility;
  • development in the middle third of a block should provide a 10 feet sideyard setback for a mid-block “paseo or arcade” in lieu of other code required community benefits (i.e. TDM payments, etc.);
  • alleys that are now under-developed should be beautified as secondary mini-promenades, providing more access to downtown from transit, especially Expo, and allowing for small commercial outlets such as shoe repair, cleaning pickup and drop-offs, etc. Truck deliveries should be scheduled so to minimize pedestrian and vehicular interface;
  • Widened tree-lined sidewalks with trees at a minimum of 25 feet o.c.
    And most importantly, open space is to be defined as starting at the ground and remaining open to the sky.

Height and FAR

We don’t need excessive height and density to entertain tourists or to be healthy economically. The plan as written allows 67 percent of downtown to be 100 feet tall when “decorative features” are added, while currently 67 percent of downtown is 32 feet or less. In effect, this plan more than triples the overall height of today’s downtown! Is that what we want to maintain a beachfront community?

The plan states the “city should have a clear and realistic vision of what Downtown is and can become.” But there is no mention of how much area is necessary without losing our quality of life and environment — how much housing, how much office space, how many hotel rooms, how much infrastructure (schools, parking, piping) is needed to support this vision. And where will the water come from?

  • Maximum development should be 4 stories, and 50 feet with a 3.0 FAR (Floor Area Ratio), leaving a 25-percent open space envelope.
  • Developments with a footprint of 3 parcels or 22,500 square feet should require planning commission review, City Council review and approval, as well as the Santa Monica residents approval as outlined in the LUVE initiative, not simple staff approval of any project up top 100,000 square feet as proposed in the plan.
  • “Opportunity sites” in the plan should not exist, as they give special conditions to specific developers in what is often referred to as “spot zoning,” and did not exist in the LUCE.
  • Development agreements are permitted by state law to be applied for, but there is no requirement for them to be approved.

Cultural and community facilities

  • The downtown plan emphasizes the importance of community and cultural facilities. That’s good. It claims to analyze and address these issues but doesn’t, and that’s bad.
  • Such facilities can and should be located on city-owned property funded by an assessment on new development or by streamlining existing city expenditures. That would be good.
  • 4th/5th & Arizona should be a central plaza with the museum and playhouse (called for in the DCP) along the southerly periphery, and the street festivals (identified in the DCP) located within the plaza, and with the conversion of Arizona between the Third Street Promenade and 5th Street to an on demand promenade. Below the plaza should be a 3- or 4-level subterranean parking structure owned by the City of Santa Monica. That would be good.
  • The Civic Center site should provide athletic fields and an open air amphitheater for synergistic use by the Civic Auditorium and Samohi, and civic land should not be a giveaway to Santa Monica College. That would be good.
  • Maintain and update the existing parking structure on 4th Street and forgo the proposed movie complex. That would be smart.

Building design and massing

  • A punch card of balcony projections should not be the predominant design vocabulary as we currently see being approved and built.
  • In addition to sideyard setbacks above first- and second-floor commercial, minimum 8- to10-foot vertical and/or horizontal offsets in the basic building form/envelope to avoid the heaviness of in-line massing.
  • Where feasible, second-story landscaped areas can be used to benefit residents and visually separate the first floor commercial from upper floors but does not count as required open space.

Housing and adaptive reuse

  • Lower height limits will limit escalation of land cost and reduce construction cost resulting in a potential stabilizing effect on rents and will encourage re-utilizing existing buildings, which is more sustainable than tearing down and building new.
  • Assuming only 65 percent of the vacant land and 1- and 2- story lots were re-developed and/or adaptively re-purposed for truly affordable housing, with 4-story-maximum mixed-use buildings, together with projects already approved, there will be over 4,000 new residents in the downtown. This, coupled with the real possibility of three times that amount on the boulevards, represents a nearly 15-percent increase in the city’s resident population! And this is with only two-thirds of the readily developable property built to maximum 3 and 4 stories! There is simply no proven need for more growth.
  • Acknowledge the car is not yet dead and provide adequate parking for the residents and their guests. Garages can be converted to other uses when an adequate transit system is functional.



  • Among many long range possibilities discussed in the DCP, and in addition to wider sidewalks and bicycle improvements, we suggest the city look into the immediate possibility of a shared private-public partnership with a parking operator managing and using 9-5 weekday commercial parking lots for night and weekend use.
  • In addition, parking lots on the downtown periphery, such as the Broad Theatre at 11th and Santa Monica, be made available. This would keep a number of car trips from entering the downtown grid and instead take a connecting electric jitney to shopping or the movies.


  • The Downtown Community Plan in every chapter emphasizes the overriding importance of maintaining the “character, vitality and charm” of downtown Santa Monica, and the Council and Planning Commission need to honor that mandate.
  • Take the politics out of the approval process. No development agreements.
  • If the final version of the DCP doesn’t protect the residents, the LUVE Initiative must be approved.
  • The real “character” is found in the benefit of lower heights and our connection to the beach and ocean!
  • The real “community benefit” for the residents, as well as tourists and the visitor businesses, is the healthy environment found in a low-rise beachfront town.

SMa.r.t. is not against development, but we want responsible development. The issues we have outlined above should be thoughtfully considered by our planning staff, Planning Commission and City Council, in a new document crafted such that it respects the concerns of our residents.

This is a pivotal point in our city’s history. Let the council, city manager and planning director know where you stand. If staff and council won’t stand up to this reality, then residents have no choice but to approve the LUVE initiative.

Ron Goldman and Sam Tolkin for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)


Downtown Santa Monica and the ‘Community Plan’ that isn’t

Downtown Community Plan

The City’s focus on maintaining the character of our environment has recently shifted from the neighborhoods, to the Downtown. “Storm clouds” are gathering with an impending clash between residents, developers and City staff over the future of our City’s core. In 2010, the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) was approved. Its implementation has taken much longer – over five years. A new City Zoning Code was only enacted recently and the new Downtown Planning code has yet to be approved, six years after the LUCE. It is now being pushed for a fast-track vote by midyear. The question is not whether this is possible but if it is prudent.

While the lack of an updated Planning Code has created a vacuum that has fueled “Development Agreements” (DA’s), a rush to fill this gap could worsen matters if the current Downtown Community Plan (DCP) is approved. As it happens, last-minute changes in the DCP would allow higher and larger projects as well as the removal of both residents and City Council from the approval process for projects over 100,000 square feet.

If this is allowed, it is likely that the number of oversized projects downtown would increase, forever diminishing the area’s ambiance and character. As it is currently proposed, a developer’s path to approval would be faster and would avoid the public review as is currently required. The last time the public felt betrayed by their lack of input for a new project at the old Papermate site, the residents revolted and launched a referendum to stop the development. Let’s hope that we have learned the lesson that it is counterproductive to ignore public opinion. The recently launched LUVE initiative is a warning that residents will not stand idly by if City government fails to heed their concerns.

While the majority of our City now has an updated Planning Code, the downtown area will be the last to have a definitive set of rules to guide its future development. These regulations will either define our City as a small, unique beach town or allow its transformation into another large commercial center with no soul. Is this how we want to be seen by those who visit and live here? The new code is intended to “codify’ the goals and parameters laid out in the Downtown Specific Plan (DSP). At the eleventh hour, the DSP was revised and renamed the Downtown Community Plan (DCP). Although the City’s claims that the two plans are “nearly the same” may be true, their few differences are significant. Most notable is the removal of public input from projects less than 100,000 square feet. Other changes will be an increase in allowable heights, even though the LUCE recommended height reduction.

Previously, new projects less than 7,500 square feet under the DSP were exempt from community review. Under the new DCP, the bar for community review has been raised to 100,000 square feet — a 13-fold increase. Since most lots in the downtown area measure 50′ x 150′ (7,500 square feet total), this provision would encourage higher structures as well as lot consolidation resulting in the construction of more massive projects. This would be allowed with NO community or City Council review. The likely consequence of such a change would be the demolition of historic buildings and their replacement with large “box stores” and/or commercial office buildings. These building types are often lacking in character and are out of scale with our current downtown that is mostly comprised of one and two-story buildings, all much smaller than 100,000 square feet.

The City’s assumption of parity between these two versions of the Downtown Plan has emboldened them to submit the updated DCP with an old Environmental Impact Report (EIR) written for the original DSP. This is a problem. The EIR for the original DSP made the assumption that the entire Downtown area was a “Transit Area” defined by CEQA as within a half-mile radius from a transit station. This designation is important. In a ‘Transit Area’, some negative impacts are not considered “significant” and thereby do not require mitigation. These include such impacts as diminished sunlight, view, and aesthetic considerations, to name a few. In fact, 15 to 20 percent of the downtown’s northern portion may be outside of this half-mile radius. If so, all of Wilshire Boulevard and the northern portions of Ocean Avenue and Lincoln Boulevard would be exempt from the requirements of CEQA as a “Transit Area.” At the very least, aesthetic issues, access to light and preservation of views should be considered along this major corridor with a high-density residential community on its northern boundary designated in the EIR as a “sensitive area.”

If the new DCP plan is “fast-tracked” through the approval process, it will likely diminish the community’s ability to review and comment on the proposed changes. In addition, although the two plans have few, but substantive differences, the City should not be able to submit the revised DCP plan using the EIR intended for an earlier DSP that contained different requirements. Although few in number, the proposed changes will have significant impact on the scale and character of our City: increased heights, mass, traffic, infrastructure and the diminished importance of solar access, availability of water, and scenic view corridors. A new EIR must be commissioned.

If changes are to be included in the new DCP, they should be ones that support rather than diminish two attributes of our City that both residents and visitors alike cherish — small beach town character and sustainability. A further review of the new DCP might also enable the inclusion of some additional features to enhance our downtown area: 1) a comprehensive pedestrian network including “paseos” through buildings for access from alley parking structures; 2) an urban park at the City-owned site at 4th and Arizona; 3) Improved parking, better vehicular access, public transit lanes; 4) parks and green space with public art such as that on the popular Third Street Promenade; 5) more amenities, shops, schools and services for the growing number of downtown residents.

While we welcome the rapid implementation of the DCP, it is too important a document to rush, to allow be incomplete or to fail to address the issues that are most important to residents. It must undergo a thorough community review and participatory process to ensure that the community’s concerns are addressed and their priorities met. The stakes are too high to do otherwise. To do so could invite even further delays and public acrimony.

Thane Roberts, AIA, Architect, for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)