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 Conversation About Santa Monica’s Future, Part 2

Common Sense

Last week we asked: what should Santa Monica look like in 5, 10, or 15 years? Will we be an urban city or a beach city? What questions need to be asked and answered? This week we continue with our review of important issues facing our community.

Housing and affordability: How much do we need and how best to accommodate it? With the influx of millennials, how many will become permanent residents and/or able to afford housing.

And with continuing higher and costlier development, the result will be more displacement of low income residents. We just approved 191 units on Lincoln to obtain 14 affordable units. Why are we approving this additional height and density, especially on Lincoln, when a one-quarter percent sales tax was approved to provide alternatives for affordable housing. A more effective strategy for inclusive growth is needed. Our code on the boulevards already allows three stories of mixed-use, housing and commercial, while also requiring 20 percent affordable.

Political structure: Is the City governing for its residents or for those who want to come to Santa Monica? Should Council and staff be responsible to residents or tourists?

Unfortunately politics and money are aligned, the City budget is strongly linked to development. Elected officials are influenced by developer interests in trying to balance budgets with future pension shortfalls or just to pay the cost of inflated re-election campaigns.

Cities have broad land use authority but in our city with 74 percent renters, there is only one political party backing candidates who put rent control far above beachfront character, quality of environment, even the public realm.

With the possibility in the state legislature of increasing rent control, this may result in more units being built for sale with the resulting conundrum of trading away our environment in exchange for a handful of replacement affordable units.

And with the heavy burden of high staff salaries, pensions and benefits, along with union contracts up for renewal this year, we need to further rely on excessive development. Meanwhile the City’s economic staff encourages large corporate development to improve the long term economic picture and encourages increasing tourism, currently at $9 million/year or an average of 25,000/day in our city of 92,000 residents.

We can’t stop this but can better control it. We need to raise the level of knowledge. We need decision makers who understand more than rent control and affordable housing, who understand urban design and true sustainability. We need to empower the public and put the City Council on notice. Is district voting for council in our future? Or is an off-shoot of Residocracy needed that provides more effective voice for the residents and balances Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR)?

City-owned properties: Are another significant variable with a big impact. The City is the largest landowner of properties which are spread throughout the 8.3 square miles and waiting for re-development. The Civic Center, Bergamot Art Center, Santa Monica Airport, Memorial Park, and 4th and Arizona downtown can provide multiple cultural and recreational benefits. The 2.6 acre site at 4th and Arizona is owned by the residents and should be used for public purposes – not leased to a developer.

Economy: The future ups and downs of our economy – tourism, media, auto, medical, and education, represent major, expanding industries in Santa Monica which also add substantially to City coffers. But money tends to burn a hole in one’s pocket. Will corporate chain stores continue to drive out local business, and how do we change that balance? Will we need enterprise zones or commercial rent control to keep our local businesses? With controlled growth in our downtown and on our boulevards it’s definitely possible to add more commercial area and population than will ever be required in 3 and 4 story buildings while maintaining our quality of environment.

Downtown Community Plan (DCP): Over the next two – three months, the DCP will be approved. Do we want or even need an urban downtown replacing current beachfront character? Five- to seven-story buildings will displace small business and provide further traffic congestion and higher rents. In addition, the proposed DCP allows three “opportunity sites” another 50 percent taller. Why? This will not appease the majority of residents but will make the city available to future “short term” residents.

Conclusion: What is the future of our city? Change and growth are certain, but exercising control over the pace and direction is fundamental in preserving our quality of life. With our beachfront paradise shrinking, will our current political and corporate culture eventually lead to further hard times for both residents and commercial entities.

The alternatives are quite simple – maintaining a beachfront city of two, three, and four stories or 30, 40, and 50 ft. in our residential neighborhoods, along our boulevards, and in downtown, with many related benefits, or an urban city of five, six, and seven stories or 50 – 84 ft. with a multitude of growth related problems.

We can maintain our beachfront city and meet perceived or real housing shortages while slowing escalating costs, but city stakeholders, the residents, must continue to fight. City Council and City Staff, Planning Commission and Parks and Rec. – are you also up to the task?

If not, the following service from an unknown source may take place:

“Friends gathered today to say goodbye to an old friend who died having suffered 40 years of caretaker abuse and incessant beatings and asphyxiation due to strangulation. Santa Monica, founded in 1875, incorporated in 1886, loved by millions, will be sorely missed by friends and loved ones following chronic severe hemorrhaging of development and blocked arteries. Spending the last years ignored by the caretakers, while actually in need of intensive care, was instead left to the control of witch doctors and charlatans that seemed to weave a hypnotic net over rational minds and led to this very early demise. Amen!”


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

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

A Conversation About Santa Monica’s Future, part 1

Common Sense

What should Santa Monica look like in 5, 10, or 15 years? Will we be an urban city or a beach city? What questions need to be asked and answered? With change happening at a faster and faster pace, computers have already taken jobs away from the middle class and robotics will take an even heavier toll on blue collar workers. What are the errors in forecasting? Predicting the future in a rapidly changing world takes visionary design, planning, and thinking!

To answer whether we become an urban city or remain a beach city is to understand the two possible areas of growth – development along the boulevards where currently 63 percent of the buildings are one-story along with a sizeable number of vacant lots, and development downtown where 55 percent of the area are one– and two-story buildings and open parking lots.

Talking about the city’s future involves a number of moving parts – traffic congestion, infrastructure, housing supply and affordability, political structure, the economy, etc.

Traffic Congestion: is the number one concern on everybody’s mind. There will be a variety of transportation systems, but is demise of the auto highly exaggerated? Will autonomous cars and ride-sharing be the answer? Will the city increase Big Blue Bus funding to provide local jitneys? Will increasing mixed-use of shops and apartments along the boulevards and in downtown along with bike sharing reduce the need to drive for every errand? Or will more development just further exacerbate the problem?

Our forward thinking to date has been less than stellar with $8 million spent on ill-conceived bus-stop furniture or changing Expo lines from overhead to on-grade or inaccurately forecasting increased carpooling for city employees.

Infrastructure: What will our infrastructure enable? What will be required for water, power, schools, police and fire? What will be the impact of sea level rise with bedrock replacing our sand beaches?

We’re currently water dependent, relying on The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), and efforts to become independent will largely fall on the backs of residents even though increasing demand will be primarily generated by hotels and other commercial expansion.

Will the City create an independent utility to reduce residents’ electric power costs or invest in a program to provide apartment buildings with battery power for electric vehicles?

Recently, as one of my colleagues noted, the New York Times ranked the top 20 solar cities nationally with San Diego as no. 1 having 60,000 homes powered by solar, Los Angeles no. 2 and Riverside no. 15. Sadly, Santa Monica is not ranked, choosing instead to replace inefficient toilets to allow more development.

Is it better to spend an additional $86 million of construction costs and financing for the new City Hall Annex for 250 employees with state-of-the-art composting instead of installing solar arrays on all public buildings (schools, libraries, parking structures) as another of my colleagues pointed out? And there would still be money left for food and housing vouchers.

Public Realm: What will our public spaces look like? Will we continue to approve massive buildings cheek by jowl along our streets, with minimal landscape, replacing our rich history of courtyard commercial and residential buildings?

Good urban design involves wider sidewalks, sunlight instead of shadows, courtyards and cultural activities instead of more corporate space. But the economic return benefitting the Florida State Teachers’ Pension Fund or the Boston “hedge fund” backing Santa Monica’s most prolific developer, NMS continues to control our politics and our environment.

And unfortunately, we missed another important design opportunity to create an exciting gateway from the Expo station to downtown. Instead we have two hotels of stacked boxes with a heavy dash of lipstick and locked front doors for added security.

Paying for it All: Corporations along with foreign investors and developers provide an enormous river of money that flows into our coastal cities, hijacking local culture and environment. And with the process weighted in favor of excessive growth along with balancing budgets, this money buys substantial influence. Would less massive projects allow local developers to obtain local bank financing for projects in scale with our city?

As a result, the development process is broken. Virtually every project is a development agreement allowing significant height and density increases! The era of courtyards where “good design is good economics” has been replaced in favor of maximizing wall-to-wall structures lining our streets. Development on a case by case basis becomes a political negotiation and fight over height, density, and community impact, with the process weighted in favor of excessive growth.

But short term interests override the long term interests of the community. Why do we have a General Plan if we don’t follow it? In other words, why can’t our Council follow the vision residents laid out? We need to apply smart growth principles rather than spot zoning – not more growth, but better growth.

Next week we will have more questions, and cover important topics such as housing and affordability. Stay tuned.

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


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

A City for Everyone

A city for all ages


“…would someone be kind enough to tell me what has happened to our benches on the Promenade? When one entire block of benches disappeared, I questioned where they were and was told they where being ‘repaired’ and they would be returned. As a Senior, those benches are quite important to me. I can only go a short distance before I’m out of breath…When will the rest of them be coming back? ”

That message on the “Santa Monica Government, Politics, Policies and People” Facebook page represents a challenge for the city, and for many current residents. Although this specific issue was resolved soon after the message was posted, many residents have difficulties navigating the city’s man-made environment because of poor planning, inconsiderate design and weak communications. Examples range from parking structure signs on Fourth Street blocking the view of on-coming traffic, to problems with the bus benches, and from unenforced noise regulations to infrequent bus service. This affects people of all ages, not only seniors.

Here’s a reality: for all the efforts to make Santa Monica into the youthful city of the future, baby boomers make up over 40% of the city’s residents. These folks face increasing challenges with mobility, vision, hearing and response times. Santa Monica has been very active in developing services for seniors, people with disabilities and low-income folks, as can be seen on the City’s web site. But an approach based on service is only one component of a successful all-ages city. The physical “user-interface” is just as important. Make the city friendly and easy to use, and everyone’s life here improves. The new “scramble” crosswalks downtown are an excellent example.

It’s a matter of making it easier for people to use the city : provide street shade throughout the year, reduce ear-shattering noise from buses, trucks and motorcycles, make places where people can sit, relax and socialize, help pedestrians feel safe crossing the street or walking down the sidewalk, provide frequent bus service. These are all features of age-friendly cities that benefit all residents, regardless of their age.
What makes a successful age-friendly city? The World Health Organization has a checklist used by many cities. A few examples:
• The city is clean, with enforced regulations limiting noise levels and unpleasant or harmful odors in public places.
• Outdoor seating is available, especially in parks, transport stops and public spaces, and spaced at regular intervals; the seating is well-maintained and patrolled to ensure safe access by all.
• There are separated cycle paths for cyclists.
• Public transport is reliable and frequent (including services at night and week-ends).
• Transport stops are located close to where older people live, are provided with seating and shelter from the weather, are clean and safe, and are adequately lit.
• Roads are free of obstructions that might block a driver’s vision.
• Housing design facilitates continued integration of older people into the community.

Many of these examples are very familiar to Santa Monica residents, because the city has incorporated some of them into its planning activities, but also because the city has, famously, utterly failed to incorporate others. What we need is a systematic effort to make sure that the city’s physical aspects match the needs of its residents, many of whom are not only aging themselves, but also supporting children and caring for older parents. Fixing things to help people function well in the city should be a “no-brainer” project for the highly-competent planners now working for the city.

Here are a few things the city can start doing right away.
-Join the World Health Organization’s Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities, and use their guide (and checklist) as a roadmap for the city. Some items are already done, but many others remain missing. (see:
-Assign a planner to create a checklist of physical aging-friendly measures, and then spend several hours every single month to ensure that these items are designed and implemented, and that this “all-ages” urban design plan includes all the projects within the city limits (including parks and bus stops). No more stand-alone organizational silos, uncoordinated with other projects around town.
-Amend zoning to allow two-story apartment buildings (so-called “dingbat” buildings) to be turned into much-needed small assisted-living facilities. Many of these buildings are ideally situated for this activity, both in their age-friendly locations and in their physical layout, which would allow staff and support spaces upstairs, and resident care rooms downstairs.
-Enforce the noise and smoking laws. The downtown bus stops have become outdoor smoking rooms, a health hazard for all bus users and especially those with respiratory problems. Enforce the noise rules by ticketing muffler-less motorcycles and other vehicles that, apart from destroying the peace and quiet of many neighborhoods, also pose health hazards in the dense downtown areas.
-Fix the bus stops throughout the city, provide protection from the sun where possible, and increase service frequency.
-Fix the parking structure signs downtown. They are located at the exact height to obstruct the view of on-coming traffic.

These are just a few items to help start making this an “all-ages” city. The City should affiliate with the WHO Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities, and take a cue from New York’s Aging Improvement Districts, as one example. (see: Let’s plan and design this city to make it comfortable and usable for everyone.
Daniel Jansenson, Architect, 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

Riptides Ahead For Local Coastal Plan

Local Coastal Plan

While the focus and attention of many residents has been on the development of Santa Monica’s controversial Downtown Community Plan (DCP), another plan is also due for final draft release and potential adoption in 2017. Yes, there is more than one planning document underway and they overlap. Confused? Yep, so are we. While the Downtown Community Plan has had its share of preliminary controversy (including the projected 12-story Plaza At Santa Monica and other tall, dense projects to come) the Santa Monica Local Coastal Plan has been skim-boarding along our shoreline.

Let’s take a look at the Local Coastal Plan (LCP.) The California Coastal Act was adopted in 1976. The State acknowledged the importance of the California coast as a regional and statewide public resource and established policies to ensure that the State’s interests are given proper consideration in the development of its coast. The California Coastal Commission assumed the direct responsibility for the protection of California’s magnificent coastline and each coastal city was supposed to follow up with its own local coastal plan to delineate the conditions and issues within that city. There are two components to the LCP. The Land Use Plan (LUP) and the Implementation Plan. Santa Monica’s last Land Use Plan was certified in 1992. However an Implementation Plan was never certified.

In 2015 the Planning Department began to compile a new LCP. It consists of a Land Use Plan combined with an Implementation Plan that would be approved by the Coastal Commission. It would then act in place of the layered authority that exists today, with the Coastal Commission currently holding final sway over development from the high tide line to Lincoln Boulevard south of Pico Blvd, and to 4th Street north of Pico.

While the Coastal Commission has recently been plagued with administrative issues and commissioner conflicts, it is the only appeal option to overturn municipal planning decisions along our coastline. In fact, residents in Venice regularly turn to the Coastal Commission to assist in their attempts to preserve their community’s character and history.

Santa Monica’s Planning Department website asserts that our city’s downtown has dramatically changed since 1992. The planners are correct in that assertion. “New public buildings in the Civic Center; Tongva Park and the Village; Downtown pedestrian, bike and transit enhancements; renewed activity on the Pier; the Annenberg Beach House; the Expo Terminus Station and the Colorado Esplanade are some of the most significant changes that have occurred since the last LCP was certified.”

The City’s website goes on to state that “The General Plan Land Use & Circulation Element (LUCE), along with City-adopted specific plans and action plans have introduced progressive policies that foster movement into and around the Coastal Zone by providing a variety of choices, thereby reducing vehicle trips and parking demand, relieving congestion and promoting clean air.”

Once we stopped chuckling at the claim that Santa Monica has reduced parking demand (why build more parking lots then?), relieved congestion (really?) and promoted clean air (do endless traffic jams really lead to clean air?), we began to wonder why the Coastal Commission has approved all the changes that have occurred in our downtown. If they have been our extra layer of protection then maybe they are not effective enough. But that then begs the question: Will the City be more mindful of our coastal region without the Coastal Commission’s final approval? We know that the City uses the Coastal Commission as a scapegoat when needed. For instance, City Hall has informed residents that the Coastal Commission might not approve a playing field for the thousand-plus students who play sports at Santa Monica High School because some of the parking in the Santa Monica Civic Parking lot would be sacrificed. In this case, the Coastal Commission is being used to justify an $85 million dollar expense for the building of an underground parking lot.

So which is it? Is the Coastal Commission merely a patsy for our planners or does that Commission wield any real control? Will our residents be better off without the extra oversight? Currently, all development projects, City plans and plan amendments that are located within the City’s Coastal Zone require dual permitting. The City gives its approval and then an application must also be made to the California Coastal Commission. This results in more fees and more time consumed. The Local Coastal Plan Update will eliminate the need for Coastal Commission approval along Santa Monica’s coastal areas. Therein may be the potential rub. Do our residents trust that the City planning process will protect Ocean Park, work in conjunction with the Downtown Community Plan and protect the northwestern part of the city from developer greed?

The LCP will also look at the potential for devastating sea level rise as global warming continues to increase. It will focus on continued access to our fabled pier by those of limited mobility, and on protection of endangered birds along Santa Monica’s coastline. All of those goals are laudable. We’ll all have to decide whether California Coastal Commission oversight is necessary to help dampen the exuberant forces of development in Santa Monica – or can our City’s planning process be trusted to protect our fragile community?

We’ll be watching. You should be 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

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