Whenever you hear the term “smart growth,” you’d do well to suspect you’re being scammed. The term was coined by people who intended to create reasonable, partial solutions to air pollution by bringing people and resident-serving businesses together, eliminating the need for car trips. The concept has been hi-jacked by the development community who now preach it for reasons far from its original intent.
The religious fervor the development community brings to their pumping for “smart growth,” is the result of its becoming a politically correct synonym for “big profits.” In the current “smart growth” scenario, cars are seen as monsters sucking the life out of the air, and the developers are the saviors. They stand ready to pack more people into taller buildings with more units. They’re given “density bonuses” for including commercial spaces on the ground floor of these taller, denser buildings. That commercial space (according to the original smart growth concept) was intended for resident-serving businesses, allowing residents to conduct their lives without having to drive to grocery stores, cleaners, barbershops, etc, justifying the density because the mix (more people – closer businesses) would cut down the need for car trips. Smart growth was originally intended to help people out of total dependence on cars.
Here in Santa Monica, the taller, denser buildings have been and are being built. You can see them if you drive down Fifth and Sixth and Seventh Streets between Santa Monica Boulevard and Colorado.
However, the commercial spaces in these “mixed use” buildings have been leased to professional entities such as design studios, architects, chiropractors, and multimedia companies. The resident-serving businesses have not materialized, even though the developers, flying under the flag of smart growth, have been granted the incentives intended to produce them.
We’re getting height and density without the promised payoff.
According to Santa Monica’s zoning ordinances, an owner of a building that houses commercial space is required to provide a certain number of parking spaces for users and customers of the business involved. It has recently been discovered that the parking spaces required by commercial spaces in the new mixed use “smart growth” buildings are all located behind closed parking garage gates, operated by card key or clicker. None of the code-required parking spaces In the new buildings on Fifth and Sixth and Seventh Streets are accessible by the users, clients or customers of these businesses. Consequently, these businesses are generating more demand for the limited parking in the area.
Where were our Planning Department and Building and Safety Department when these got built? Aren’t they charged with catching code violations like this? The principal developer in the area is now complaining about the empty parking spaces he’s being required to build, and is starting to plump for elimination of parking requirements in his buildings. (That’s the developers’ version of “smart growth”).
Those preaching smart growth have solved no problems. They’ve made parking, traffic and congestion worse instead of better, and they’ve received financial benefits for doing so. They’ll likely hype “smart growth” through the entire land use process and it will serve us well if we begin to understand exactly what it means. It means higher profits for developers, larger development fees for the planning department. and greater tax revenues for’ the Redevelopment Agency. It means taller buildings completely out of harmony with this beach community. It means density, congestion, height, and ugliness and devotees purposefully making traffic worse. Unless you value profit or dogma over quality of life, today’s brand of smart growth is no longer a solution to anything. You’d do well to be very suspicious when you hear it used.
Smart growth was yesterday’s partial solution to air pollution from automobiles. But today the technology has been perfected to make cars run on electricity, on a combination of fuel and electricity, on ethanol, and, believe it or not, on fuel made from vegetables. A number of Santa Monica residents owned and loved electric cars before they were recalled and destroyed.
There’s a film about who killed the California electric car that’s been picked up by Sony for distribution and should be out soon. Clean cars are on the way to becoming an answer to air pollution. We already know taller, denser buildings are not. Neither is the developers’ version of “smart growth” no matter how often it’s extolled.
Ellen Brennan is a 10 year Santa Monica resident. She has chaired South Beach Neighborhood Association, is chair of the PRC, speaks often on development issues, and cares deeply about preserving our wonderful beach town.