As a corollary to “if you build it they will come,” I propose: “if it’s not there, they won’t drive to it.”
Let’s have a little review, ladies and gentlemen, of where we are in the great scheme to redevelop Santa Monica Place. In case you’ve just tuned in, you may be asking what’s wrong with Santa Monica Place and why are we even having this discussion. The fact is, nothing is wrong with it, but the discussion is necessary because the owner sees an opportunity to make a whole lot of money shifting it from a community-serving retail facility to a R-E-A-L E-S-T-A-T-E development. The rules of maximum allowable development in the downtown area, those pesky rules about heights, parking, and uses, are constraining to an outfit like the Macerich Company and its vision of Santa Monica as Rodeo Drive, Fifth Avenue and Trump Towers rolled into one. The only way to make this a destination for the uber rich is to change the rules. Never mind that we residents may not want to be displaced by a destination playground for the uber rich.
Two years ago, unbeknownst to most of us regular people, the Macerich Company began behind-the-scenes negotiations with the City staff. The goal was a development agreement that would greatly enlarge the built space in exchange for some benefits to the city that would presumably make abandoning the rules worth it. For more than two years we had, on one hand, a sophisticated developer, one of the largest owner-operators of shopping centers in the nation, and on the other hand, the Santa Monica City staff, equally sophisticated, highly educated professionals whose responsibility it is to protect the interests of the city and its residents. When the plan was finally unveiled a few months ago, one had to ask whether, during those years of negotiations, anyone had shown up to represent the city.
If you were not there on the day of the great unveiling in November, you will just have to imagine the gasp that sucked in virtually all of the air in the Ken Edwards Center as the developer – with a straight face – described three 21-story condo towers, a seven-story office building, an eight-story apartment building, three to four levels of underground parking spanning the entire site, three stories of site-covering retail, restaurant and loft space, and oh, yes, a patch of on-site-residents-only greenery and another patch of some-time public-accessible, developer-controlled green space three stories above the street. All of this mind you, on the 10 acres bounded by Second Street, Broadway, Fourth Street, and Colorado.
We’ll move on from this plan in a minute, as the predictable outrage heard throughout the city put an end to it. But let’s remember that the dream concept of the developer increased the density on the site by seven-fold, cast long shadows on the promenade, downtown, and civic center, provided views into countless windows and back yards, invading the privacy of thousands of innocent people, and increased traffic by an undetermined, but necessarily significant amount. And, oh yes, it made the developer a whole lot of money. In exchange, the city got more traffic, high priced retail (did I somehow miss the public clamoring for more high priced retail?), more traffic, a patch of green about 45 feet above ground controlled entirely by the developer, more traffic, a bill for $60-120 million, more or less, for the underground parking, more traffic, and the usual sop of so-called affordable housing in a quantity yet to be specified. Again, one must ask, was anyone sitting on the city’s side of the table during these negotiations?
If you’re with me so far, you have been shaken out of the naïve belief, as I was, that we could trust the City staff to look after the quality of life and best interests of the residents. The developer heard a message, too. But only after alarming us with the first version of his intentions and, as you will shortly see, it was not the message you might expect someone given the chance to start over to hear.
With the continuing cooperation of the City and its quarter million dollars of front money, a plan was hatched to solicit resident input in the planning for Santa Monica Place. We will go to the people, the TEAM said publicly. We will let them express their wishes for the site.
And so four widely advertised community workshops were scheduled at convenient times and places so the people could express their wishes. By this time, the TEAM, which originally consisted of the Macerich Company, the owner/ developer; architect Jon Jerde; and the City staff, was expanded to include the facilitator, Moore Iacofano Goltsman, Inc.; and Kaiser Marston Associates, Inc., the economic impact consultant. The latter two firms were brought on under contract to the city, which would later be reimbursed for their services by the developer. You’ll notice that the sides are lining up, with the TEAM (money, expertise, information, and power) on one side and the people (individual interested citizens with only their diverse concerns, quirks, pipe dreams, and trust) on the other.
Perhaps we are better off now than we were 30 years ago because there is a clearer understanding as to who will benefit from bloating up these two square blocks. In the mid-1970s, as part of an effort to capture more of the regional retail sales tax and entice shoppers to the Third Street Mall, the City turned its attention to the area now occupied by Santa Monica Place. Even though half the market area for this site was, and still is, in the Pacific Ocean, and even though the City had other, less expensive alternative sites closer to its eastern boundary, this site was deemed essential to the future viability of the city’s economy. It helped that the major property owner at the time, the Evening Outlook, was eager to rid itself of an antiquated printing plant. So, under the power of redevelopment law and an impressive imagination, the city declared the entire site “blighted” and acquired it by eminent domain.
But let’s get back to the recent community workshops. In the spirit of participating in an honest consideration of the use of the site, I attended the second workshop at Grant School, but the red flags started to fly when the facilitator began his presentation with misleading slides and loaded language.
He showed us where the transit terminal will be built and pointed to it repeatedly, as if it would be only a matter of days before we could hop on the train. But there is no train, no track, no funding, and no terminal. It will be 15 to 20 years before the transit system reaches Santa Monica, by which time the redeveloped site may be considered obsolete again.
Photos of the existing mall showed vast empty intersections and selected expanses of empty walls. The accompanying rhetoric mocked the mall as suburban, outdated, not profitable, not friendly, not chic – almost an embarrassment. We were not getting off to a good start.
Nothing in this presentation reflected our real life experience of walking, shopping, dodging traffic, milling across Broadway with crowds of shoppers, and conveniently parking in a safe, adjacent, airy structure.
And none of the presenters noted the owner’s responsibility, his outright contrivance, to drive tenants out of Santa Monica Place. We’ve watched the vacancies grow over several years, and I have had discussions with numerous former tenants. Every one of them expressed distress that the owner made the conditions of tenancy so onerous that they were forced to leave. Do we see a pattern here? Prove the mall is not profitable by making it impossible to be profitable and then present an outrageous plan to “revive” it. This is not the kind of behavior that gives us confidence in the developer’s good faith.
Before those of us at the workshop broke up into working groups, we brainstormed uses we would like and issues to be considered. The facilitator’s quick and clever scribes filled large sheets of paper with bullet points and caricatures. None of the suggestions had quantities or prices. We didn’t have to consider the impact on traffic or air quality. We didn’t have to prioritize. It was a game.
Once at tables, we were supplied with blocks of different colors representing various uses and paper symbols for greenery and pathways, and were encouraged to “build” our site, starting with a blank slate. It’s fun to play with blocks and cutouts. We had no information about what anything cost or what the financial goals of the developer were. Later, I learned the blocks were not to scale.
Our workshop table recommended that the options analyzed include 1) the renovation of the existing mall and 2) a reconstructed site of lower density than the existing mall, but I don’t believe for a minute that either the City or the developer will take any proposal seriously that reduces the uses on the site. But if they are honest, they will find economic sustainability in a small scale as readily as they will in a large one. And the externalities will be far less.
The City Council approved nine negotiating parameters for the redevelopment of Santa Monica Place. These acknowledge some admirable environmental goals such as sustainable design and construction, integration with transit, affordable housing, and a human scale with pedestrian orientation. But, as the door was left open for the developer to show that increased heights have advantages, we can be sure he will return with a proposal exceeding the current height limit. What is the appropriate amount of housing the Council wants ensured? And what on earth is economic egalitarianism?
It is admirable to aspire to affordable housing. But housing is a built thing. As far as anyone not living in that housing is concerned, it might as well be luxury condos because it occupies space and uses energy and is not open space and is, in fact, privatized and out of service for the rest of us. What ratio of market rate housing will the developer require for each unit of affordable housing? That is the density cost that we will all pay. Should the personal benefit of affordable housing for a few be paid for by a lifetime of increased density, traffic, noise, and resource depletion for the many? I don’t object to affordable housing. But its impact on the built environment is no different than market-rate housing. It seems far better and more workable to address affordability within the existing housing stock than to allow density bonuses that will impact all of us.
I like to put the proposed development to a simple test – who benefits and who pays? The benefit part is a little easier to see. The developer of course, the architect and all the consultants benefit. As will the lucky few who will get affordable housing. The City will be said to benefit from permit fees and increased sales and business taxes, but does a financial benefit to the City translate into a benefit for those of us who live here? Will we see this “new” money in a reduction of obscene street sweeping parking fines? Or reduced business license taxes, or lower cost building permits? Or free resident parking? Or free trash service? Not a chance.
Who pays – every one of us will pay with longer drive times to and through downtown. Yet to be determined heights will deprive all of us –- permanently -– of views, light, and air while subjecting many to visual intrusion into their windows and back yards. Test it for yourself. Drive the blocks north and south of Wilshire Boulevard between Westwood and Beverly Hills. How far do you have to go until you no longer see the high rises? That is how far people in those buildings can observe you as well. Thousands of beautiful private spaces in that area have permanently lost their privacy. Does anyone want this for Santa Monica?
Santa Monica is a treasure, as it is. And as it is, it lives in the tension between desire and contentment, between opportunists and guardians, between relentless pressure to grow and passionate need to preserve a quality of life that is rare and finite.
Anyone who doubts what could happen to Santa Monica should read The Lorax – Dr. Seuss’ wise allegorical children’s book in which many reasonable individuals acting in their own short-term interest succeed in cutting down every last tree to produce sneeds, “which nobody wants and nobody needs.”