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The Future of Santa Monica – Part 3:: 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 third and final 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.

What steps should be taken to preserve Santa Monica’s history through architecture and vintage buildings?

Ewell: I think we have a very active and highly regarded historic preservation group who really do a great job of making sure we maintain our legacy and the history that’s brought us to this point. And I think you’re going to continue to see that type of protection. That’s going to be combined with some of the more modern-type buildings, and I think there will be that eclectic look that has helped to define Santa Monica.

Folonis: I think we’re doing a great job. I’ve been involved with, and I’m a new board member of, the Santa Monica Conservancy [which] has been working very hard in developing ideas and ways to preserve historic buildings. In addition, I think the Landmarks Commission has been doing a phenomenal job.

I think the survey is desperately in need of being updated and the City is in the process of doing this. It’s a matter of funding and making sure the funds are there so that they can do a thorough survey of all the buildings, parks and trees.

Genser: I’ve been an advocate of the need for strong protection of our historic resources. We’ve come a long way. I think we have a very good Landmarks Commission and it’s just having the will to do it in terms of preserving the things that are worth preserving. I think there’s a lot more that we need to protect. Future development needs to respect the historic scale.

Harding: There’s been a dramatic expansion of people’s consciousness about historic preservation. The City’s interest has [become] probably the biggest change in the City’s regulatory practices for the past decade. I think it’s here to stay and I think we will see an ongoing strong City interest in preservation-type issues.

I’m also seeing some refinements in how the City has gone about doing preservation and the flexibility shown in working with property owners who own historically significant and potentially significant properties. We’re working on one right now – it’s the one on Ocean Avenue with the two landmarked buildings that will be incorporated into a new hotel project. I think that, while there’s been a lot of back and forth and disagreements, on the whole there has been a pretty cooperative relationship between the property owner and the City, finding an approach that will preserve the existing buildings and make sure the property is economically viable at the same time. I think we’re going to see more and more creativity shown in integrating historic buildings into newer projects.

McKeown: The built history of Santa Monica is not disposable. Market forces have tried to make it disposable and it’s true that in many cases, as the land costs of Santa Monica have skyrocketed, the opportunities for market rate condos and more intense uses have occurred. That is, we have allowed the loss of the heritage that we now look back on with regret.

What we have to start looking at in Santa Monica is what all the great cities of Europe have been known to do for centuries: adaptive re-use. When the use for a particular building shifts, you don’t need to tear the building down if you built it solidly in the first place. You merely adapt the use and retain the historic aspects of the building. Besides retaining the wonderful old buildings, we have to make sure that anything we build in Santa Monica in the future is worth saving.

How do you see Santa Monica visually 20 or 25 years from now?

Ewell: I see a City that has perhaps increased in some density but again, in those corridors where this community finds it acceptable; a higher level of public transit being used by people coming from the outside into our city and our residents using it more and more. I still believe that we will find the right balance of ensuring that we have the vibrant economy without over-commercializing our community so you’ll see some incremental changes where you’ll see some density, but that will be more employment-based so that we can live and work in the same community. I think Santa Monica is well-positioned to enjoy another two decades of a good quality of life.

Folonis: I think that if you looked at the last 25 years, there was concern about what buildings looked like but I think there’s a greater concern even today. That’s going to continue because the City is setting higher and higher standards.

We’re going to have better buildings than we’ve had in the past, better designed buildings, more sustainable, more responsive to climate and the environment than in the past. I think you’re going to see fewer buildings focused on stylistic issues versus buildings that are more focused on design issues related to context, climate, technology. More developers and architects are moving toward photovoltaic systems.

Genser: Unless we change our development standards, it’s not going to undo what’s been done over the last number of years. The larger buildings and the look of the City is not going to change dramatically in 20 or 25 years. What I hope our standards will do will make it such that any new development is very low-scale and unobtrusive. I would hope that the look will not change very much. If there is a change it’s going to be a change of what’s not happening as opposed to what does happen.

Harding: I think the City has a lot of choice in that. It has a strong and diverse economy that the City has the ability to guide in the future, more so than many cities have. It will depend in large part on the choices that the City makes in the next several years as part of its general plan and its ability to attract new infrastructure, light rail and a subway on Wilshire. If you go back to about 1980 and you see the choices that were made as part of the general plan process – those choices mattered a lot in terms of how the City looks. The Promenade didn’t just happen – the City played kind of a catalyst role on the Promenade. The development along the Olympic Corridor didn’t happen – it was planned. The hotel development was planned. In some cases we got more than we bargained for, but in terms of the overall direction of the City in the past 25 years, I think the City had a lot to say about that. And I tend to think that will be true in the next 20 years or so. If we want to have a better balancing of housing and jobs we can probably get there. But it means developing land use regulations that will encourage housing.

McKeown: Our community clearly wants to attain a highly livable neighborhood and believes that the retention of neighborhood, a sense of place, affordability and a walkable community is going to be the priority in our planning. This will come out in the Land Use and Circulation Elements. The difficult question is going to be: will we accommodate those things that must change? State law says that a certain amount of housing must be built by communities. We have to be wise in where we allow that housing to happen.

The size and density of Santa Monica are not going to change in great ways. But the thoughtful co-location of housing, retail shops, that has to change if we’re going to maintain our lifestyle.

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