Jennifer Wolch lives in Santa Monica, has a B.A. in Anthropology, an M.A. in Geography, and a doctorate in Urban Planning, is the author or co-author of a number of books, is a professor of Geography at USC and Director of the USC Center for Sustainable Cities, and she’s a member of both the Environmental Task Force and the Parks and Recreation Commission in Santa Monica.
Wolch’s succinct presentation to the Planning Commission on October 5 made more sense and contained more fresh, workable ideas than the hundreds of pages the City planners and their consultants have cranked out in the initial stages of the revision the land use and circulation elements of the General Plan.
In her presentation, Wolch spoke of the ways Santa Monica could incorporate concepts of sustainability into the revision by rethinking “the local economy and what it means for land use…Standard local economic approaches emphasize job development and associated tax revenue implications and often when a plan is done it is integrated into that kind of thinking.”
Such an approach, she said, can lead to “big box retail, auto malls, regional destinations, shopping malls and low-wage tourist related jobs. In Santa Monica, this could lead to the transformation of the City’s industrial district into housing and commercial development.”
In Wolch’s view, a sustainable local economy would be “one that produces locally many of the goods we need and want, minimizes water and energy use, provides living wage jobs with career ladders for local residents, utilizes waste product stocks for future goods, allows people to bike or walk to shop and work and produces minimal pollution.”
This local economy would, she said, include an “industrial district as a major resource for the development of cutting edge green industries powered by alternate energy sources such as solar energy. It would also create jobs to stem the tide of driving out people of modest means with minimal chances of upward mobility.”
Wolch said it’s vital that, in the course of revising the General Plan, the City also “thinks about how much and what kind of retail space is allowed in the downtown…if we make the wrong decisions, the City will risk killing neighborhood retail to which residents can walk or bike.”
In addition, Wolch discussed remaking what she called the “matrix” of the city, meaning the spaces between buildings such as alleys, parking lots and sidewalks that are usually paved. Changes “could lead to more sustainability and have public health benefits.” For example, “Greening” beach parking lots that are now paved would reduce ocean pollution and create more open space.
In this same line, she said that the City should “discourage super blocks that can’t be permeated by pedestrians, convert alleys to bike paths and permeable greenways, and createing shared streets to create more open space.”
Wolch then proposed that Santa Monica get “off the grid,” by designing developments to generate their own electricity, using recycled water to irrigate all types of landscaping, installing waterless urinals in non-residential buildings, doing more composting locally and establishing more City solar zones.
In revising the circulation element, Wolch said the emphasis should be on “access for people rather than cars,” by creating more small-scale retail facilities, more parks, more walking and bike paths, additional mass transit and paratransit options, and using less land for parking and more for recreation and culture. In addition, the City should place “transit-oriented, affordable residential development along commercial corridors and near the planned Expo light rail line with minimal parking requirements but with plenty of required open space, courtyards and green rooftops.”
Finally, Wolch suggested that the General Plan’s performance be monitored “with respect to its initial goals. To accomplish this, the City should have the research capacity to collect data and track outputs.”
About 20 years ago, a lethal kind of hubris overtook City Hall, and it set out, very quietly, to make itself rich and, very noisily, to make the city sustainable, and, ever since, Santa Monica has been engaged in a tug of war with itself. And it’s losing.
Rather than building the sort of local, sustainable economy that Wolch described, City Hall took what Wolch described as the “standard” tack, and went straight for the gold – creating a publicly funded $1 million a year marketing agency, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, establishing a new hotel district, turning downtown into a regional retail/entertainment hub, and opening the door to bigtime, high-end commercial development.
All that commercial commotion did make City Hall rich, and was the basis for its Triple A bond rating, at the expense of its residents. The new hotels rose like a wall between the ocean and downtown Santa Monica, big box retail outlets squeezed out dozens of local independent businesses and services, outsized high end office complexes overtook much of the light industrial district, displacing artists in all media as well as small factories, and cranking up land prices.
The regional commercial hub/tourist mecca City Hall made fostered low-wage, menial, tourist related jobs, set off a traffic explosion that led to chronic congestion downtown and spilled into once-serene neighborhoods, and encouraged the replacement of small, one and two-story apartment buildings and shops with rows of clumsy oversized mixed-use complexes.
Thus, while the City has made some real progress in such areas as recycling and water conservation, thanks in large measure to its residents’ efforts, it continues to bobble in other areas – such as boasting of its devotion to “adaptive reuse,” while simultaneously tearing down the historically and architecturally significant RAND buildings to make way for a new City Services building. Santa Monica is far less self-sufficient, far less livable and far more susceptible to the vagaries of bigtime tourism than it was before City Hall began loading it up 20 years ago.
And, thanks to all that, according to City Hall, the cost of living is rising faster than real household incomes.
Still, as the revision of the General Plan proceeds, City Hall continues to insist that we can have it all and that the cure for existing over-development is more development.
Not only is City Hall’s logic at least bizarre, but residents have made it clear that they do not want it all and, in fact, want less than is here now.
Specifically, they want the heat turned off, little or no growth, more parks and open space, less traffic, historic preservation and the restoration of this legendary beach town.
To this point, City Hall has shown no signs that it’s listening to the residents, but residents are aroused now, and they are savvier and more creative than City Hall, as the work of the Santa Monica Coalition and other groups and Wolch’s presentation demonstrate, and they have much more to lose.The fate of the city they love is at stake, and if they allow City Hall to have its way with this gorgeous place, they will have betrayed not only the five generations of residents who preceded them, but themselves, their friends and neighbors and their children.