The only thing worse than a bad plan is a bad plan that becomes a reality. The City of Santa Monica’s Civic Center Specific Plan is a bad plan that has gone inexorably forward – in spite of its flaws.
It was cobbled together a dozen years ago not because Santa Monica needed it, or residents wanted it, but because the RAND Corporation decided to put its 15-plus acres of prime land into play.
From its founding in 1948, RAND’s principal sources of income had been the Defense Department and related federal agencies. When the Cold War ended, RAND chose to make up for an anticipated decline in revenue by building the largest commercial development in Santa Monica history on its acreage across Main Street from City Hall.
Literally leaping to do RAND’s bidding, City Hall immediately hired a consultant and devised what it called “the Civic Center Specific Plan.” To make a mega-commercial development the centerpiece of a “Civic Center Specific Plan” is, at least, disingenuous, and there could be no worse location for the ultimate commercial development than the hectic heart of the city. In sum, it was the crassest kind of expediency masquerading as progress.
Like the plan itself, the case the City made for it was hopelessly contrived, larded with Urban Planning 101 clichés and devoid of substance.
The City caroled that the Civic Center Specific Plan, which looked like nothing so much as a massive building jam, would “enhance the quality of life in the city; give greater meaning and identity to the government and cultural uses within the area; create a public gathering space of citywide significance; and help integrate this large and underutilized parcel meaningfully into the fabric of the city.”
As it turned out, RAND’s income not only didn’t drop, it continued to rise, so, after several years, it abandoned plans for the mega-commercial development and decided to build a new HQ on the south end of its land and sell the remaining 11-plus acres, most of which it had bought from the City in 1951 for $250,000, back to the City for $53 million.
The City financed the purchase with Redevelopment Agency funds, which mandated a very different sort of plan. But rather than making a new, and possibly workable, plan, the City opted to rejigger the existing plan. The result was a patchwork job that was as misbegot as the original, and even less coherent.
But the City was downright euphoric, claiming “The proposed CCSP sets forth a vision for the Civic Center that provides great potential to help meet Santa Monica’s housing, open space, cultural, civic and recreational needs.”
In trying to include everything, the City has reduced the Civic Center Plan to nothing but overwhelming clutter. Even on paper, in dreamy renderings, it was profoundly wrong.
It’s the biggest public project in history. It’s been on the City drawing boards for more than a decade. The City has already bought the RAND land ($53 million), built the new public safety facility ($69 million), approved the mammoth new RAND HQ (which is now not only the dominant structure in the Civic Center but has radically altered it), broken ground for the new Civic Center parking structure, requested proposals from design-build teams for The Village, a 325-unit housing development, and ordered the demolition of the back portion of City Hall, all of which are elements in the Civic Center Specific Plan, but the Plan itself has yet to be approved, except in concept, by either the Planning Commission or the City Council.
And though the City has been tinkering with the plan for more than a decade – adding and subtracting elements – it has yet to tell us how much time it will take to construct the largest municipal development in history or how much it will cost – in addition to the $150 million-plus it has already cost.
The only costs the City has admitted to thus far are contained in the Plan’s EIR, which reports that its construction would have “immitigable significant” impacts on traffic, air quality, and circulation.
The parts of the plan are as subject to change as the plan as a whole.
Having arbitrarily included the redevelopment of Santa Monica Place in the Civic Center Specific Plan a while ago, City planners are now saying that perhaps it should be separated from the plan.
The City boasts of its devotion to “adaptive reuse” and historic preservation, but rather than refitting and adapting the back section of City Hall and/or the old RAND buildings, which are architecturally and historically significant, to, in the City’s words, “meet the operational and space needs of City government,” the City is planning to demolish the back section of City Hall and the RAND buildings, and build a new “City Services” building.
According to the City, “The building is envisioned as a distinctive civic structure that provides a dynamic northern anchor and terminus to Main Street, and strong spatial definition to the (town) Square. Just as the existing City Hall conveys a strong civic identity befitting of the 1930s, the City Services Building will express the progressive, creative and artistic character of modern-day Santa Monica.”
Based on the City’s recent architectural adventures – the Public Safety facility, the new Main Public Library and the new Civic Center parking structure – the evidence is overwhelming that the proposed City Services Building will be over-priced, overblown and an insult to City Hall.
The revised plan calls for the end of Main Street as we know it. Again, in the City’s words, “The (City Services) building location spans the Main Street corridor, incorporating a major portal that maintains views and public pedestrian access along this key axis between the Civic Center and the downtown.”
To put it more clearly, the City proposes ending Main Street at Olympic Drive, turning the existing bridge across the freeway into a pedestrian walkway, and constructing a new street that would connect the truncated Main Street to Second Street via a new bridge across the freeway. The cost of this utterly indefensible, frivolous and massive alteration – in dollars, time and disruption – is literally immeasurable.
The plan boasts that it creates “open space,” but, in fact, there would be considerably less open space in the “new” Civic Center than there is in the existing Civic Center, and, because the City does not believe that people know what to do in open space, what open space there is would inevitably be over-organized.
In its various documents, over the years, the City has described the existing Civic Center area as “historically isolated,” “a barrier,” “barrier-like,” “relatively inaccessible” and “under-utilized” as if it were talking about an ice floe or a remote mountain, or a vacuum that must be filled. At any cost.
In fact the Civic Center area has always been a kind of pause, an oasis, the calm eye at the center of a commercial storm. Whether one is going into or fleeing from the maelstrom of downtown Santa Monica, one enjoys the respite — the openness, clarity and serenity of that long Main Street block. Yes, one inevitably thinks, as he or she moves through that calm precinct with its distinctive buildings — the Civic Auditorium, the courthouse, the old RAND buildings and City Hall — “this is fine.”
In the same way, whether emerging from Ocean Park on Fourth Street at Pico, or coming off the 10 Freeway onto Fourth, one cherishes the long view across the Civic Center to the ocean. The light is always good there.
RAND’s great white bunker, the sinister public safety facility and the rising parking structure have already diminished this gorgeous prospect. Adding all the new buildings prescribed in the Civic Center Plan would obliterate it.
The City sees it differently. In its view, this gorgeous prospect is deeply flawed – being “underutilized” and “isolated,” and therefore must be loaded up with buildings and plugged directly in to the downtown commotion.
Does anyone who knows and loves Santa Monica really believe we will benefit from burying that wide open prospect under a cadre of buildings?
One of the densest cities in Southern California, Santa Monica has long suffered from a shortage of open space. Now, for no good reason, the City wants to fill up what is arguably its largest remaining parcel of public open space. If it’s going to be anything but what it is now, it should be a park. No new buildings, a few new trees and flowers and some turf. Period.
Tonight the City will present the latest heavily revised version of the Civic Center Specific Plan to the Planning Commission for its approval.
If the Commission approves it, the City will then present it to the Council for its approval.In recent years, the Commission has been consistently wiser and far less susceptible to the City staff show than the City Council. We hope it is in good form tonight and rejects this misbegot plan.