Things are more complicated in Santa Monica because, as former City Manager John Jalili said with pride shortly before he retired in 1999, the City is the biggest developer in the city.
And, to date, the City’s developments have been principally notable for their costs – financial and aesthetic.
Bunker on the Pier
The City’s $1 million buildings on the west end of Santa Monica Pier look like nothing so much as bunkers that fold in on themselves, like fists, rather than embracing the dazzling surround of the ocean and the fabled Southern California coast.
The City’s Third Street Promenade has brought commotion, chronic gridlock, chain stores and dinosaurs to downtown Santa Monica, while squeezing out unique local businesses.
No one knows what the City’s $15 million Transit Mall is, but everyone knows that it has exacerbated traffic snarls.
The City’s $70 million Public Safety building insults the landmark City Hall, looming like a fright factory in a once benign landscape.
The City’s $72 million new main library looks like a branch of L.A. County jail, and has room for a café, but very little room for new books.
The City’s new apartment complex now under construction at Main and Pacific is too large and too tall, an architectural bully on low-slung Main Street, and a dangerous precedent.
The City’s new parking structure on Fourth Street is too large for its site and too pretentious for a garage.
Recently, contradicting its often-stated devotion to “adaptive re-use,” the City demolished the old RAND buildings though they were architecturally and historically significant and had years of usefulness in them.
And now the City is about to undertake its largest project to date. The mind reels. Though it’s barely out of the box, doom is already written all over it.
At last night’s Council meeting, the City Council/Redevelopment Agency was scheduled to authorize the City Manager to negotiate an agreement with a developer design team and discuss “the community design process” for “The Village at the Civic Center.”
The City staff report recommended “the selection of The Related Companies of California (Related). …and the Agency’s commitment to working with them towards developing the Village site. This report also recommends that the City Council/Agency permit Related to explore with the community a building height that achieves the desired 325 residences in the Village and direct staff to identify a community engagement process for the design of the Village.”
Last June, the Council adopted a thoroughly misbegot Civic Center Specific Plan, which includes “the Village Special Use District (Village) which is bounded by Main Street, Ocean Avenue, Pico Boulevard, and the future extension of Olympic Drive from Main Street to Ocean Avenue. The Village plan provides for housing, commercial and open space elements… As delineated on the illustrative plan of the CCSP, the Village includes three undeveloped sites, a neighborhood green, pedestrian walkways (mews) and associated infrastructure.
“The Village is envisioned as an urban neighborhood containing mid-rise, mixed-use buildings that will be closely integrated with the adjacent open space and mews, the existing RAND corporation headquarters and the 1733 Ocean Avenue office building. The Village allows a maximum of 325 residences, and a maximum of 20,000 square feet of ground-floor, neighborhood-serving commercial uses. At least 160 of the residences shall be affordable to very-low and low-income households, with an emphasis on family housing. The Village also requires the inclusion of live-work units suitable for artists.”
According to the staff report, “The Related Companies of California, were selected as finalists from sixteen responses to a Request for Qualifications received and evaluated by a staff committee (Committee) comprised of representatives from the departments of Community and Cultural Services, Environmental and Public Works Management, Finance, Planning and Community Development, Resource Management, and the offices of the City Manager and the City Attorney. Consultants expert in urban design and architecture, and real estate economics, assisted the Committee in its evaluation of the proposals.”
The Request for Proposals “required an integrated design analysis articulating an interpretation of the urban context of the site, rather than a highly refined finished product, and recognition of the importance of surrounding landmarks.
“The Related proposal demonstrates an extensive analysis of the site’s design opportunities, including integration of the arts with architectural, environmental and urban design issues. For example, the means suggested for conserving and generating energy promises to be as much a subject of artistic expression in the public realm as part of the architectural expression of the buildings. The design concepts show a firm knowledge of pedestrian flows in the area and how to bring pedestrians into and through the site with an active ground floor contribution to street life. For example, while the edge of the development on the ground floor facing the park may be somewhat more passive since there will be no retail on the park side, this team proposes lively ‘double-sided, public pedestrian streets within the site to draw people from Ocean Avenue into and through the site, with the arts activating these ground floor spaces. Additionally, the Related design concepts provide for a meaningful integration of affordable and market-rate housing within each of the three sites, rather then separating the affordable housing from the market-rate housing. Finally, Related’s proposal provides a specific vision regarding sustainable design elements.
“Related was the only team to accept the stipulation in the RFP that the site will be conveyed to the developer via a long-term ground lease.”
During Council discussions of “The Village” last spring, a number of residents objected to its proposed height. According to the staff report, “While none of the financially feasible concepts proposed 325 residences within the fifty-six foot high limit, Related concluded that 325 residences could be accommodated on the Village site if a sixty-five foot height limit was allowed. Therefore, it is recommended that the Council/Agency permit the Related team to explore with the community, during the public process…how an additional nine feet of building height (for a total of 65 feet) may afford enough design flexibility to satisfy the competing objectives of maximizing the number and size of residences, maximizing open space and minimizing building height.”
An Architectural Ensemble
Turning to the design team itself, the staff report says “The ensemble of three architectural firms on the Related design team will assure a variety and unity of architectural responses for this large scale development. The design team also includes two landscape architects and two artists, enhancing the eventual richness of the Village site.”
Specifically, the design team consists of Moore Ruble Yudell Architects & Planners, Koning Eizenberg Architecture, Pugh + Scarpa Architecture, landscape architects Mia Lehrer + Associates and Hood Design, and public artists Catherine Wagner and Janet Zweig.
All three architectural firms are based in Santa Monica and all three have done work for the City. Partners in two of the firms – Hank Konig and Gwynne Pugh – are City Planning Commissioners.
Recipe for Trouble
Taken altogether, this is as neat a recipe for trouble as the City has ever devised. The Civic Center Specific Plan is fatally flawed, and “The Village” is among its principal flaws. It is in the wrong place. It is too large for its proposed site, and of course, it’s not “a village” at all. It’s a mixed use development, with some low cost units, and more market rate apartments and retail space, ensuring that the so-called Civic Center go commercial right out of the box.
Compounding the trouble, the notion – proposed by the Related Companies and accepted by the City staff – that these three very different architectural firms can collaborate happily on thus project – is, to put it as mildly as possible, unrealistic. If all three firms have a hand in all aspects of the development, mayhem is bound to ensue. If, on the other hand, each firm designs one of the three buildings, a kind of visual mayhem is virtually inevitable.
But this project has been mismanaged from the beginning. The Civic Center Specific Plan was undertaken for the wrong reasons, changed and changed again and should have been abandoned as a bad job long ago. The rationale for the Village was the need for more affordable housing, but more than half the units in this luxe location will be market rate, and will generate more traffic in an already congested area. And now we can look forward to the war of the architects.
A commercial developer who made as many mistakes as City Hall has made would be out of business by now, but City Hall rolls on and on – compounding its mistakes, diminishing our townscape – simply because it can.