Mayor Katz and Councilmembers,
The LUCE Strategy Framework is in many ways an impressive and at times visionary document which promises a new approach to development in Santa Monica which will yield public benefits sufficient to offset the changes in scale and ambiance, new auto trips, loss of historic structures and neighborhood character, displacement of existing residents and businesses and the other quality of life impacts generated by continuing to build bigger, taller and often.
However, we are doubtful, based on our recent experiences in Ocean Park with new projects on Main Street, that the LUCE will suffice to offset the negative consequences of new development, no matter how well intended the plan.
Consider the Boulangerie project on the west side of Main between Bicknell and Bay and the way it has disrupted the fabric of Main Street and contributed little to Ocean Park:
1. Height and mass: The building is way too tall and massive for Main Street and completely incongruous with its environment. Since the LUCE Framework speaks of heights up to 78 feet in the Bergamot Station Village and 68 feet on the city’s boulevards, we foresee more development inconsistent with residents’ oft-stated desire to preserve the beach town scale of Santa Monica.
2. Design: The Boulangerie building can at best be called design at its most banal and many of our neighbors have much harsher words to offer about its appearance. In fact, all of the recent projects on Main Street are uninspiring and none of them offer the artful combination of public open space, provocative architecture and pedestrian orientation afforded by Frank Gehry’s Edgemar complex. Compare these new buildings on Main with the much more engaging and stimulating design seen in new projects nearby on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice and one can reasonably conclude we’re doing something wrong in Santa Monica. We would prefer to maintain the historic character of Main Street, but if there will be new projects in the core of Ocean Park they should at least be better designed. The LUCE offers vague promises about “great design” but no concrete means to assure new development in Santa Monica will not be as dull and often ugly as it has been recently on Main, downtown and throughout the city. Unconvinced that City Hall has a workable plan to assure great design in new projects, we’d rather see small artless buildings than large artless buildings.
3. Public Benefits: In the many community meetings on the Boulangerie project, developer Howard Jacobs agreed to plant mature trees on the sidewalks around his building and City staff assured residents that a requirement to do so would be written into the project’s entitlements. Guess what? Tiny saplings were planted instead. LUCE promises all sort of public benefits, but we’ve seen too often that City Hall doesn’t monitor compliance with the terms of CUPs and development agreements and have no reason to believe it will successfully do so in discretionary approvals in the future. Why has the agreement not been enforced? What does this imply for future development agreements that the LUCE would enable?
4. Parking Solutions: Mr. Jacobs also made much of the fact that his building provided more parking than required by code so that the additional spaces could be made available to residents living on Bay and Bicknell who relied on scarce street parking and once again residents were promised such a shared parking arrangement would be written into the project’s approvals. Cut to the present: no parking has been offered to residents, even though the building’s retail occupancy is almost non-existent and many of its spaces are unutilized. If City Hall can’t even effectively manage a surplus of spaces in an overparked structure, how will it be able to implement shared parking, uncoupled parking, and the other more complex solutions LUCE proposes for our parking woes?
5. Transit Oriented Development: One of the selling points of the Boulangerie project was that its traffic impacts would be negligible because it was located on a transit corridor and its residents would take the bus rather than drive. Try hanging out one morning at the stop for the #1 and #8 buses in front of the Boulangerie – you won’t see any of the building’s residents hopping on the BBB to get to work. Instead, they’re all driving. The LUCE likewise promises minimal traffic impacts from denser development along bus routes. We don’t believe that even with higher gas prices a sufficient number of new residents in higher, denser buildings will use mass transit so long as the only option is a bus that moves as slowly in gridlock as a car. Sufficient time and money must be spent on significant mass transit improvements before land use is intensified.
6. Mixed Use Promotes Walkability: We would have very much liked to have the Boulangerie’s retail street frontage occupied by useful, neighborhood serving businesses to which we could walk. Instead, thus far the only tenant in the building is a beauty salon. Main Street is so overcrowded with nail and hair salons that its land use patterns promote car trips rather than reduce them, since these salons stay in business with a customer base which is not within walking distance. The LUCE promises auto trip reductions via neighborhood serving retail in mixed-use developments, but until such time as City Hall is prepared to require certain types of retail uses in new projects, an expanded commercial base will only yield greater congestion.
7. Adaptive Reuse: Perhaps the greatest shame of the Boulangerie is that when its predecessor building was demolished a mansard façade was removed, exposing tile signage of substantial aesthetic and historic merit from businesses of a bygone era. These tiles were torn down and hauled away with rest of the rubble. Imagine how much more artful the new building would have been if these old tiles had been adaptively reused and preserved in the new structure. And yet the LUCE places a great emphasize on new construction and too little focus on reuse and preservation of older residential and commercial buildings.
So based on our observations of the Boulangerie building on Main, we are skeptical that the LUCE can really deliver on its promises.
Consequently, we would prefer a LUCE which:
A. Paces development more slowly so that when good intentions yield bad results, corrections can be made.
B. Allows reduced heights and densities from the current draft Framework to preserve the scale of our city – this is the greatest public benefit the LUCE can offer.
C. Emphasizes adaptive reuse and preservation more than new construction.
D. Reduces traffic by implementation of Transportation Management Districts, improved mass transit, a bike path network and other tools which don’t require new development rather than assuming that mixed use projects on bus lines will do so when they haven’t in the past.
E. Promotes sustainability by leaving room for growth to future generations.
We urge you to revise the LUCE Strategy Framework to reflect these goals.
President, Ocean Park Association
on behalf of the OPA Board