A New Plan
“Santa Monica is no longer lost in a maze of chance,” heralded the June 19, 1958 Santa Monica Evening Outlook. “It is a city with a guide.” The City of Santa Monica had just completed its first Master Plan.
What prompted Santa Monica to produce its first Master Plan? “The benefits to the community of ‘coordinated, adjusted and harmonious development’ are almost too well known to require elaboration.” The document, prepared by Simon Eisner and Associates, lists three objectives: simple decision making based on sound direction and stated policy; stability of land values based on a balance of population, land and facilities; and, last but not least, a Master Plan is required for eligibility for federal and state funding for redevelopment.
This is the story of the Ocean Park Redevelopment Project that led to what is now known as the Santa Monica Shores and the Sea Colony I, II and III condominiums that bracket it.
The project demolished 259 homes, abandoned three streets and portions of four others (Grand Avenue, Surf Street, Hill Street, Raymond Avenue, Ashland Avenue, Kinney Street and Pier Avenue) in the development area and widened the alley, Speedway, into a full service street (Barnard Way).
The land was purchased by the Redevelopment Agency in 1961 and the towers we know today as the Santa Monica Shores were completed in 1967. They are 17 stories high and contain a total of 532 units. The condominium complexes that surround the towers contain an additional 346 units: Sea Colony I, completed around 1979 includes 46 town houses, Sea Colony II, completed in 1980, contains 144 units and Sea Colony III, completed in 1987, contains 156 units. The commercial strip originally intended for Marine Street was rezoned for affordable housing for senior citizens containing 61 units. A total of 949 units were realized in the redevelopment area. The project was finally completed 30 years after the plan was conceived.
Planning for Recovery
“Santa Monica is infected with a creeping form of decay. This decay is blight, an illness that strikes cities,” (Santa Monica Evening Outlook June 17, 1958). The article goes on to explain that blight can be remedied in one of two ways: through urban renewal, in which funding is found to assist owners in bringing their buildings up to code and into good repair, and through redevelopment, which involves government acquisition of land that is then sold to a developer who must build according to specific guidelines established by the Redevelopment Agency.
Ocean Park was the neighborhood in question, in particular, the blocks west of Nielsen Way from Ocean Park Boulevard to the southern city limits. Candidates campaigning in 1955 for City Council pledged “to make this southerly section of Santa Monica the garden spot of the bay district,” (SM Evening Outlook April 2, 1955). The council members spoke out against the bad publicity that the Ocean Park neighborhood was earning for the City. One candidate blamed the city for “fostering and protecting homosexuality in Ocean Park.” Several felt that Santa Monica was ripe for some new development and saw the blighted ocean front of Ocean Park as the ideal spot to carry out grand schemes of hotels, high-rise apartment buildings and parks. Another candidate promised to use his connections with the State to secure funding for redevelopment.
There seems to have been little disagreement with the overall assessment that the Ocean Park neighborhood was indeed blighted and that something should be done, but a group that called itself “Santa Monica Property, Home Owners and Tenants Association” (i.e. everyone but the government) spoke up strongly against the idea of eminent domain. They “opposed redevelopment via condemnation and sought a compromise renewal program for Ocean Park” (Santa Monica Evening Outlook February 10, 1958). In response, all references to a redevelopment plan were removed from the General Plan but that did not appear to further the requested compromise.
The City Council and Planning Commission of the 1950s had great ambitions for Santa Monica, desiring to develop her into a “renowned resort city” anticipating the growth of her 1957 population of 84,424 to an eventual 109,000. (Peaking in 1977 at 93,000, today the population of Santa Monica is 86,391.) Excited by the new Civic Auditorium and the new Pacific Ocean Park Pier, the goal of improving Santa Monica by attracting tourists would not be compromised by the proximity of a residential area. The commercial amusement area would be “buffered from the residential area by a broad, landscaped belt.”
The Master Plan adopted on May 14, 1957 recommended that a Santa Monica Redevelopment Agency be appointed. On August 13, 1957, just three months later, the Redevelopment Agency was established.
Our City planners felt that it would be of great benefit to the City of Santa Monica to raze the 259 homes, west of Nielsen Way between Ocean Park Boulevard and the city limits, which were in ill repair. They attributed the blight there to bad city planning by the original developers of Ocean Park and were confident they could do better. In fact, Mr. Kinney, Mr. Fraser, Mr. Hart, Mr. Wadsworth and others gave careful thought to the way those streets were laid out to provide a greater number of working class people with what they called “commodious and sightly” housing near the beach. In fact, the area was occupied by a number of people retired from the needle trade in Los Angeles. Neighborhoods often fall into disrepair as one generation ages before the new generation starts to move in and bring energy and life back into the area. This one was waiting for the next cycle to begin.
The blight in Ocean Park was characterized by mixed uses (a very unfashionable concept in the 1950s) and the accompanying nuisance and noise; inadequate lot sizes; inadequate streets; excessive land coverage; over occupancy of structures; deficiencies in public utilities; and deficiencies in recreational and community facilities.
Proposals in the 1957 General Plan for increases in density were based on quality of housing. If a neighborhood was well cared for, it would be preserved; if it were more run down, it became a candidate for redevelopment. Advocates for affordable housing today will tell you how that displaces our lower income neighbors and disturbs the economic balance of our city. Preservationists will describe the great loss of historic fabric such a policy can cause.
But in 1957, our City Council was very anxious to show that they had the answers for Ocean Park. Citing the density that came as a result of small, affordable lots that were purposefully planned as such, and the run-down nature of the once “commodious” homes, the South Beach Tract was deemed prime land for dense redevelopment.
The Ocean Park Project Redevelopment Plan, with funding secured, was set forth three years after the completion of the Master Plan, in 1960 by then Mayor Ben A. Barnard (The new street that was created by the project bears his name). Financial assistance for the project was provided through the Federal Housing Act of 1949.
We Have Other Plans
The few remaining original blocks of the South Beach Tract which lie north of Ocean Park Boulevard were also zoned in the 1957 Master Plan for high rise towers. “You couldn’t get a bank loan for a house in the neighborhood then because it was red-lined. The City could exercise eminent domain at any time,” recalls Susan Cloke, who purchased her home on Fraser Avenue in the late 1960s.
“Ours was an old beach house. We were going to fix it up in a fun way and live there for as long as we could. Unfortunately, three days after escrow closed, an angry squatter torched the house. We decided to take a chance and build a new house on the same property. It wasn’t long after that other young families starting buying houses on the block and fixing them up. I remember the Jenkins saying that they decided to take a chance and invest in the neighborhood because they saw that we had done so.”
Through the 1970s, the neighbors of the South Beach Tract gathered together. It was in the mid 1970s that Cloke, along with neighbors Margaret Bach, Connie Jenkins and Eileen Hecht, concluded they could best protect their neighborhood through rezoning that would continue the existing land use pattern of single family homes and duplexes, keep the height limits and allow for the unique roofs which are characteristic of the neighborhood. They wrote the R2R Ordinance to do just that and worked to get it passed and then applied to be the first neighborhood zoned R2R.
When planning of the Sea Colony Condominiums began, the next phase of the Ocean Park Redevelopment Project, the City considered refusing to allow them to be built because of a great deal of community opposition. City Council sought legal advice in an effort to void the contract signed by a previous Council. Voiding the contract would cost the City over $20 million so a decision was made to try to negotiate with the developers to make the plan more desirable.
The neighbors of the South Beach Tract met again in Cloke’s living room to discuss what the negotiating points should be. Working successfully with John Jalili, the City Manager, the beach front was improved with new bike and walking paths; a new sea wall; narrowing of Barnard Way down to two lanes and planting of a median there; creating a continuous parkway the length of the street; and turning a small play area at the foot of Ocean Park Blvd, into a real park with children’s play equipment and a large grass area.
The South Beach Tract is well-known to many Santa Monicans as one of the most charming and historic areas we have. Those small, inadequate, deficient homes today fetch some of the highest prices in Ocean Park in spite of their “excessive land use” and a great deal of money has been invested in them to restore their original character while updating them to meet modern needs.
Plan For Next Time
The Ocean Park Project destroyed a large neighborhood of original homes and commercial buildings and displaced many long-term residents for a fix that took 30 years to complete. The blight would have remedied itself in that time without displacing people from their homes and without the loss of what would today be considered valuable historic resources which, coincidentally, are one of the top draws for tourists to an area.
In exchange, we have different, unanticipated negative effects on the neighborhood in that the walled-in character of the redevelopment project separates its residents from the community and separates the community from the beach. It also serves as a barrier to visitors to Main Street who opt not to circumnavigate the nine-block area in order to reach the beach parking lots during their visits.
Master planning must respect the approaches of those who came before: renewing, re-adapting, reusing and rebuilding the historic bones of our city to meet modern needs while maintaining continuity with the past that brought us here. Since the 1950s, we have learned the imperative of sustainability and are learning to re-use our resources. Why not apply these ideas to the way we plan our city?Nina Fresco serves as Chair Pro Tempore of the City of Santa Monica Landmarks Commission.