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THE FUTURE OF SANTA MONICA: Local Leaders Discuss the City’s Needs for the Future

The Mirror asked five civic leaders about their views on how Santa Monica has developed and is going to develop over the next 20 or 25 years.  Here is the first installment of responses from City Manager P. Lamont Ewell, City Councilmembers Ken Genser and Kevin McKeown, Architectural Review Board Chair Michael Folonis, and property attorney Chris Harding. 

 Santa Monica has always had the image of a small town with low-rise buildings. Do you see this model disappearing? And do we need curbs on height and density?

 Lamont Ewell: We’ve just started [talking] more and more with neighborhoods, and what we’re finding is that there seems to be a willingness to accept a little more height and density along the corridors in exchange for other amenities such as parks. What I think may happen is that you will see some additional height that will encourage setbacks so that you don’t feel like you’re running through a canyon, and that height will probably go along the lines of transportation corridors.

 Michael Folonis: I think we have very sensible standards currently in place. Can a city review this every five years, 15, 20 years? Yes, and in fact, we’re doing this right now. The Land Use Element is being reviewed by a lot of people with experience. And I think what will come out of that will be some fine-tuning of current densities and density bonuses.

We already have high-rise housing in this city. So does that mean we should have more? I would venture to say that we probably couldn’t handle it. And it’s not a good idea. It was just tried and failed miserably down at Santa Monica Place. High-rise housing works in some places, but I don’t think we’re a city where high-rise housing is going to work that well. I think our densities are probably as high as they’re going to get.

Ken Genser: My view of the direction we should be going in is that in most parts of the City we should be severely limiting the size of structures. They should not be allowed to be as tall as many of the buildings are now. I think the exception should be in downtown. I don’t think we should go very high, but that’s the place where we should direct growth.  There are a couple of reasons for that. 1) We concentrate it in one area so it doesn’t impact the residential neighborhoods the way growth on the boulevards would.  2) We start to develop the critical mass in one area so we can have a transit-friendly community. You need a certain amount of density to make transit work and if we put our density in one place where there will be transit hubs and people are able to walk to their destinations, it will be much easier.

Chris Harding: At this point we have severe controls on density that the City has adopted, that no project in the R2 Zone can exceed four units. That was adopted in October. And so what we’re seeing in the residential neighborhoods is not greater density per se. Building heights are severely restricted and what we’re seeing is a dramatic upscaling of the cost of housing with new expensive condominiums being built in residential neighborhoods.  People are knocking down more units than they’re building. They’re building fewer units but they’re very expensive units. The  [residential] population of Santa Monica is going down, not up. What we’ve seen of development has been more in the commercial and visitor-serving areas.

Kevin McKeown: The way the City has grown over time is that we have an exceptionally vibrant downtown, and at the same time we have managed to maintain relatively quiet, secluded residential neighborhoods. As we go through the land development process, we are listening to the community telling us they want to keep that structure of the quiet neighborhood. They have a concern that the continued commercial growth downtown and along other corridors in the City is beginning to impact the quality of life even in neighborhoods.

We now have some priorities in our zoning that will have the effect of changing the landscape in the sense of maintaining much of the landscape we have. One of the struggles we’re going to have is how to write zoning codes that will allow property owners the use of their property, at the same time recognizing the community’s overwhelming concern with unrestrained growth.

 What do we need to do to ease the flow of traffic in Santa Monica, both to and from the City and within the City?

 Ewell: What I see happening here in Santa Monica is that we’re not going to be able to build our way out of it as a number of other communities have tried to do.  What I think we’re going to have to do more and more of is continue to work with large employers and look at trip reductions and manage traffic through trying to create initiatives for people. We need to do a better job of encouraging ride-shares, take a look at off-site parking where [employers] can use shuttles to bring their employees in.  The City needs to continue working on public transportation.

 Folonis: We’ll tell developers that there are no parking requirements for these high-rise apartment buildings and condos: “You decide what you feel is appropriate.”  Why does New York work like it does? Because there is no parking! People take public transportation. Is that going to change [here] overnight? No. We have so many parking spaces that it’s incredible. We have to start to think of ways to discourage the automobile and encourage more public transportation. If it was more difficult to get from one end of town to another but there was an easier way of doing it outside an automobile, if it was a bus or other means of transportation that was reasonably priced and affordable, you would take it. I would take it.

 Genser: Is [traffic] out of control?  Probably not.  Is it getting frustrating? Yes. It’s never going to be like it was in the 1950s and early ’60s when you could zip around town and park directly in front of your destination. We need to severely limit the amount of cars on the street. What we can do is try not to make it worse, and I think the biggest culprit we have in generating traffic is commercial development. We need to limit the amount of commercial development we allow in the City in the future so that we do not exacerbate the problem of traffic congestion. We need to invest in transit options to give people the opportunity to use alternative forms of transportation.

 Harding: There is a huge gap between housing and jobs in Santa Monica. Our daytime population has increased dramatically in the number of people who come into Santa Monica to work but can’t live here because there isn’t housing for them. Santa Monica is going to have to take a very hard look at how it’s going to address work force housing needs.

The City needs to better balance land uses.  Regardless of how much development people want in the City, we need to talk about the type of uses we’re going to promote – more housing rather than commercial development. And do it in what are traditionally commercial areas of the City – especially the boulevards. I think the City is on the right path in promoting alternative transportation. Santa Monica should support Mayor Villaraigosa’s plan to put a subway down Wilshire and look at ways to get people out of their cars.

 McKeown: The first thing to do is decide whether traffic is a problem or a symptom. What we will need to do in Santa Monica either way is to figure out a series of solutions that create multi-modal [mobility] options. We built an environment where the car is necessary at times to carry out the daily tasks of life. Only if we give people options to the car will we begin to see fewer cars on the street.

The Expo Line is going to help a great deal, the subway to the sea could eventually help. In the long-term we’re going to have to have a cultural shift in Southern California. We have to figure out a way that the car will become an option and not a necessity in Santa Monica.

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