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Santa Monica’s Downtown Design Dilemma: Letter To The Editor:

Editor’s Note: This is an open letter by “Architects & Engineers for Responsible Planning.” Their names are published at the end of the letter.

The developments now under consideration with the Santa Monica City Council will irreparably alter the face of our city.  Council members are faced with a huge responsibility and hopefully will understand that greed and density are not synonymous with quality of life.  And publicly, fueled by our “democracy of gratification,” of buying and selling, too many of us have relinquished our interest in “community” in favor of “consumerism.”  We are unanchored.  We need to balance our values between GNP and GNB – between production of product and profit and production of beauty.

Another byproduct of this consumerism is industrial waste. How do we balance this need for greed with a healthy environment?  Santa Monica is attracting pollution at an alarming rate. We are already living with traffic-polluted streets and toxic high density developments. Like the imperceptibility of climate change, we de-humanize our environment one building at a time.  Are we afraid of prolonged intimacy with our sense of place? We need to make decisions based on human cultural and biological needs, instead of only looking at economic profit – and the paradox is that good environment is good economics. So few developers and city managers understand this.

The character of a city is embodied in its architecture and open space.  Change and destruction of the traditional are too often the order of the day.  How do we adapt? Asheville, Charleston, and Savannah are communities that have realized substantial growth in the past two decades, but have held onto their iconic history and sense of place. All these downtowns, similar in area to Santa Monica, are flourishing, with creative open space, pedestrian activity and adaptive re-use.

If you don’t want to travel that far to experience successful town planning, just go to Pasadena and experience passageways and arcades filled with people and small shops – walkways exclusively for pedestrians, not automobiles.  Rather than high rise, the city is replete with restaurants opening to street-side patios, passageways with café seating and florist shops, or twenty-foot-wide skylit shopping arcades where development covers multiple lots. Pasadena sees the importance of green areas even WITHIN its developments. As blades of grass or roots of trees can grow in the narrowest of spaces between boulders, landscape can certainly flourish alongside our streets, buildings, and cars.

Is anxiety over tax revenues worth architectural mediocrity?  What and why are we erasing what we have and love?  Our urge is to undo things, that our tinkering will make it better.  Are ocean breezes, blue skies, and sunshine flooding the pedestrian at street level, to be lost in the shadows of ever taller buildings? The real issue is what we can do to improve on the vibrant community we have created – to add the new without taking away from the old in Santa Monica.

The city manager, planning staff and the Council need to wake up!  Downtown shouldn’t be about increased height and density. It should be about a pedestrian-friendly environment with open space, adaptive re-use, and better building design. It should be about wider sidewalks, passageways, arcades, green space between buildings and sidewalks, and variation in building heights and stepbacks. Santa Monica’s image as we know it is melting away. We are building barricades when we should be constructing altars. In 10 years, will our city consist of massive building fronts, one similar design to another, whose seams are stitched and hemmed together with cars? Over-development is slowly covering the downtown like a cataract, and leaving at best, only a blurred vision of our wonderful beach and ocean community.

Architecturally we seem to have lost the ability to tell winners from losers as we are confronted with still more oversized projects. An example of this massiveness is the development that would take the place of Fred Segal on 5th Street. It’s an oversized, robotic design without wider sidewalks or any open space connecting public and private realms, the largest downtown project to date!  It contains a six-story building which could easily be 70-75 feet but is bloated to the 84-foot maximum, with 250 apartments and 640 cars on four subterranean levels. And this will replace a humane, open shopping oasis – how sad!

Life is one of balance – tipping and tilting, gaining and losing – unending rock and roll. If this rampant rush of development is allowed to proceed, Santa Monica will lose its balance. City Council, we hope you realize the reckless course we’re on and will slow this development steamroller, not just downtown, but throughout the city.

With this corporate, consumer economy, we have lost our ability to say no, enough! City Council, we beg you to step into another way of seeing – keeping our values while adapting to change. Our overall quality of life is what’s iconic. Le Corbusier said “the fate of cities is decided in the town hall!!” W. Somerset Maugham put it this way: “It’s a funny thing about life; if you refuse to accept anything but the best, you very often get it.”  You have signed on by putting yourself in this decision making role and the ability to stop this destructive behavior is in your hands.

Ron Goldman FAIA, architect

Bob Taylor AIA, architect

Dan Jansenson, architect

Thane Roberts AIA, architect

Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, architect

Armen Melkonians, civil & environmental engineer

Phil Brock, Chairman, Santa Monica Parks & Recreation

in Opinion
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