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 The recently released Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the DCP based on these modest figures may be outdated before it is even approved.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.


Santa Monica’s Future: Sustainable or Untenable?

Sustainable City

In 2013, Santa Monica was named the nation’s fifth-most sustainable city according to a prominent national organization dedicated to sustainable development and living. As one of the densest cities in the state, we may need to work harder to maintain our high marks for sustainability in the future. Our density will only increase as our city attracts more tourists, visitors and developers wishing to share our good fortune.

What is sustainability? Sustainability is not wasting today what can be renewed, recycled, or saved for tomorrow. Sustainability is using our planet’s resources responsibly. Sustainability is preserving our fragile ecosystem, our rain forests and oceans, by reducing green house gasses, reducing our dependency on oil and our waste products. It also has a social component that addresses housing, open space, public health, education, transportation, etc. It is a broad subject that, at its core, promotes policies enabling Santa Monica’s residents to live healthier, more productive and more gratifying lives now … and in the future.

Although some measures of sustainability are difficult to quantify, there are metrics that can measure the success our city’s conservation programs. For example, the state has mandated all municipalities cut water consumption by 20% from 2013 levels. Santa Monica is currently on track to meet this goal through an intensive conservation program. While the residential sector currently exceeds the state’s goals, the commercial sector is still lagging. It is only when the two sectors are taken together that the City is shown to be on the path to compliance.

This is all the more important since Santa Monica controls only two-thirds of its water supply, sharing the remaining one-third with other municipalities, which makes its continued availability less certain. In 2013 the city’s water usage was split between single-family residences (22%), multi-family residences (39%), commercial (27%) and other miscellaneous users (12%). The total residential sector (61%) has shown the greatest decrease in water usage. From 2005 to 2013 this sector’s water usage dropped 6 %. During the same period, the commercial sector’s usage increased by 12%. This is an 18 % difference between the two sectors! Over the same time, the total commercial usage as a percentage of total increased from 22% to 26.5 % — almost 5%.

Why is this? This can partially be attributed to better controls on residential usage but perhaps also to an increase in commercial development. It is not surprising that the commercial sector would consume more resources since it is usually more energy intensive and its users more difficult to monitor and control. This sector’s users often include tourists and employees that live outside the city yet use its resources daily. In apartment buildings and some condos, tenants’ water use is difficult to determine if the building has only one master meter. Although a City ordinance was passed several years ago to require individual meters in apartments and condos, it has never been implemented. Now is the time to correct this lapse.

The “Road to Zero Waste” program managed by the Department of Public Works has set a goal of 1.1 lbs./person/day by 2030. From 2006 to 2010, this figure has gone from 7.7 lbs./person to 3.6 lbs. — a drop of over 50%. Current figures are not known. In 2011, the ratio of commercial to residential waste was 54% commercial and 46% residential. The recycling percentages were commercial 9%, multi-residential- 18% and single-family residences 37%. The more rapid growth of the commercial sector is one possible explanation for the increase in waste. The other could be accountability. The fact that the generators of trash are harder to identify in larger, commercial projects may partially explain the 400% difference between the two sectors. When the offenders are known, fines can be levied to enforce compliance.

Water usage and the creation of waste from the 7.3 million annual visitors must also impact the city’s resources, and again there is less that can be done to control it. Although daily use of energy and resources is likely to be greater for residents, an effective 20% daily increase in the population is sure to have some impact. One would doubt that most beach goers are taking their trash with them or waiting to shower until they arrive home.

In the social arena, there is a need for additional affordable housing. While this housing at one time was subsidized by the state, those programs have been cut and the burden is now falling on the city to make up the shortfall. One strategy has been to negotiate with developers to allow them to build larger projects if they include low and moderate-income units. This solution, however, can create its own set of problems. Sometimes, the very projects that provide more housing are the same ones that remove it and raise property values when the land is cleared. These projects also have a larger ecological “footprint,” negatively impacting the surrounding communities with more traffic, shading and water usage. The projects also put strains on our city services like schools, fire, and policing as well as our fragile infrastructure.

In the area of transportation and circulation, we should be planning now for the new modalities of transportation — from electric bicycles and skateboards to personal mobility devices (e.g. Segways) and self-driving cars. Transportation is evolving in ways that will require new solutions for parking as well as on our streets and sidewalks. Many of these new personal means of transport will help solve the “first mile to last mile” problem for our new Expo Line. It might also help the thousands of tourists arriving each day to access our city’s beaches without their cars. In the downtown, our City has a successful pedestrian mall that incentivizes walking over driving. Perhaps we can expand on this idea by creating more inviting pedestrian walkways across our downtown to encourage more to experience our City on foot.

Finally, the City has made progress to encourage the use of renewable energies, like electricity generated from solar panels. Since this trend is likely to continue, now is the time to start thinking about the implementation of the State solar Initiative passed into law but never applied in Santa Monica. This law would create regulations to protect solar rights from those who might block them. In the future, privately installed solar panels might become our primary source of power and their future use should be assured today..

In the last 30 years most people in the developing world have seen the ill effects of too many people in too little space competing for too few resources. The area of Santa Monica is a little over eight square miles, less than three miles on a side, and can be crossed (with no traffic) on a bicycle in 12 minutes. In this small community, we currently have over 90,000 residents with a daily population that it is much greater. We have the second-highest residential density in the state.

Our limited area should make it easier to implement more sustainability measures and policies within our boundaries. It is time that we start thinking about our limits and plan accordingly before it is too late.

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