OpEd: SM.a.r.t: Money and Energy in Santa Monica

For years Santa Monica has been a willing participant in a variety of urban and civic experiments. These range from widespread rent control to sustainable buildings, to the comprehensive (and controversial) Land Use Circulation Element (LUCE) masterplan for much of the city.

Now the City is embarking on a new experiment: the new City Services building, to be constructed on a narrow lot behind City Hall. A 50,000 square-foot example of advanced building technology, the project intends to meet extremely tough environmental building standards. The plan is to make a building that will use solar electric panels to be self-sufficient in energy, collect and treat its own water for use and re-use, including the potential installation of a well, and composting toilets to convert waste to fertilizer. According to city staff, only 11 projects in the world can match the very challenging standards intended for this building.

news-smart-main12916The project represents a very advanced view of government projects and their purpose. Not only will the building be used to provide services to City Hall and local citizens, it will serve as an example of what can be accomplished by a city government that is driven by a particular vision of the future. It is a project colored, also, by optimism that technology will help solve our environmental problems, and by a sense that local government can set an example that will propel private industry to new heights of environmental sensitivity.

The project faces serious challenges. The building’s roof is not big enough to accommodate all the solar panels needed. The plan called for installation of additional panels on the existing City Hall building, but this ran into opposition from advocates of building preservation looking to protect the historic building. It appears to be unclear whether the well can provide the water needed. Will the health authorities allow the installation of the composting toilets included in the program? That is still uncertain.

The costs of the project have increased to new highs for municipal support buildings. The City expects the 50,000 square-foot building to cost nearly $85 million, or about $1,700 per square foot. Besides the building itself, the project includes deep changes to the way City Hall staff perform their jobs, with new methods of collaboration and teamwork, the use of large common spaces, and a highly-mobile staff using tablets and laptops working in many places throughout the building.

To be fair, not all the money will be spent on the new building. Considerable funds would be invested in modifying and upgrading the existing City Hall building. Money will be spent to improve fire safety, redesign office space in the existing building, new fire sprinklers, efficiency upgrades to the existing Heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems, new roofing that allows rainwater to be re-used, and many other items. Most of these are the result, at least in part, of the need to integrate the new building with the old, and combining them into an environmentally-efficient package.

City Hall currently rents 50,000 square feet of office space around the city, and the rents are constantly increasing. In 2013 the City spent about $2.4 million on leased office space. Moving staff from rented spaces to the new building, the thinking goes, will help reduce the cost of the project.

Are there better ways to spend the money? Perhaps a simpler, more conventional building could be built–still efficient, but without the cutting-edge experimental combinations we see in this project–thus releasing funds for other energy and water projects that could benefit the entire city and its residents.

Santa Monica’s new energy standards this coming year will help reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions. Future buildings will be much more efficient, for sure. But the bulk of the effort will fall on small projects, largely residential, such as single-family homes and small apartment and condominium buildings. Those will have some impact, but it will be limited due to their smaller scale and fewer number. While important, these new regulations will not make much of a dent in consumption by the city’s primary user- the large commercial sector. This is where the City’s efforts might be more productive.

The Public Services building is an interesting project, a fascinating experiment across different disciplines (including local government), and an exciting focus for any architect (such as this writer). But the solution to our city’s energy challenges will not come from “one-off” projects, a few single-family solar homes, and some small low-rise condominiums. The solution should come from a systemic, concerted effort on a much larger scale, because it is only through economies of scale that we can begin to address our real water and energy needs city-wide. This effort must include not only the residential sector, that currently shoulders much of the burden of the new regulations, but also the commercial enterprises that are the major consumers of our City’s resources.

We need a real energy and water independence master plan for the city, with an action plan that includes a timeline, cost analysis, allocation of resources and plan of execution. If this means pushing for an independent power utility and new sources of potable water, then let’s study and plan for that, and not confine much of our effort to expensive, limited-scope projects that look good and provide some improvement, but don’t solve our underlying challenges.


Daniel Jansenson, Architect, for SMa.r.t.

Thane Roberts AIA, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Armen Melkonians Civil & Environmental Engineer, Samuel Tolkin AIA, Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission




  1. We cannot continue building at the current rate with our limited water supplies. And while I applaud new solutions, I agree with SMart’s assessment of this project.

  2. So… the city spends $2.4 million on rent. Let’s say it keeps going up. To pay off the $85 million building with the savings, here’s what we’re looking at for the following rents:

    $3 million: 28 years
    $4 million: 21 years
    $5 million: 17 years

    And that’s assuming the burgeoning city staff doesn’t outgrow the new building in the next two decades.

    Environmental protection is a laudable goal, but the city has an abysmal track record allocating our tax money. So abysmal that one must ask what the real agenda is here. Who’s getting rich? After all, the city has thrown away $10 million on lawyers trying to rob us of our airport on behalf of land speculators and developers (not counting the $1 million they just handed out to a crony contractor to “study” the idea for a park that the city has no clearance to build), and another $6 million to build the WORST BUS STOPS IN HISTORY,

    Then there are the outrageous salaries, like the nearly $1 million the city will pay to its PR stooge Nelson Hernandez to smear our airport. Then there are abuses like this:

    Elaine M Polachek Asst City Manager 2015
    $309,954.00 + other pay & benefits = $440,661.00

    Many more: http://transparentcalifornia.com/salaries/santa-monica

    Is the city council telling us that our schools have all the money they could want? That the dangerous intersections all over the city have been fixed? That the homeless situation has been resolved?

  3. It is already over the budget. City Council vote to give contracor more money after just 6 months. This was done on the consent calander.

  4. The city already has a water independence master plan and is on schedule to achieve that goal by 2022 if I’m not mistaken. As for energy independence it would seem to make more sense to require/encourage/incentivize conservation and renewable energy sources for existing structures rather than creating a capital intensive municipal utility, especially at a time of declining demand.

  5. Daniel, excellent article and analysis. I am not sure if you have heard, but I have appealed the Planning Commission vote of approval for the City Services Building. The appeal is scheduled to be heard in front of the City Council on January 24th, 2017. I would appreciate your perspective if you can make it to the meeting. Anyone is welcome to speak at the City Council meeting. I am in complete agreement that the cost of this proposed building is exorbitant. As a point of reference, let us compare the presently proposed City Services Building project to the recently opened LEED Gold – African American History & Culture Museum on the National Mall in Washington DC. This new Smithsonian building is built at a very high quality and cost $270 million for 350,000 square feet. This works out to about $771 per square foot. The Santa Monica City Services Building, at its current $86 million budget and 50,000 square feet will cost more than twice as much at $1720 per square foot.

  6. Let’s not forget the 3 million plus dollars your city council spent fighting to close the airport on behalf a greedy real estate developers. They vow to keep spending until they get the land they want.

  7. Even though the author admits that $85 million also pays for a lot of changes and upgrades to City Hall he uses the total cost of both structures to come up with a cost of $1700 million per square foot for just the new building which is neither true nor fair. I would think that the actual cost for just the new building is available and should have been used. I have no idea what it is or whether it’s reasonable but if you simply assume that it’s probably closer to $65 million and that the actual savings in rent, heating and light, staff efficiency, etc. are on the order of what Mr. Scott suggested -$3-4 million a year – the building would pay for itself in 15-20 years which does not seem so unreasonable.

  8. @John Redmond

    Have you watched the video of the May 24th City Council meeting, Agenda Item 8A, City Services Building Schematic Design? It is stated that $8M of the $85M would go towards the necessary alterations and improvements of City Hall to accommodate this new structure.

    How many gallons of water does this project expect to consume each day? They want to build a well on site. I though I heard a goal of using no more than 223 gallons of water/day (1/4 of an acre foot of water annually). HMM… a well for that amount??
    For an estimated 250 on site employees according to this govtech.com article. http://www.govtech.com/fs/Santa-Monica-Plans-High-Tech-Super-Green-City-Services-Building.html

    What we are not told is what the cost would be to heat and cool this building. WE KNOW Air Conditioning will be installed. Ginsberg says so in her presentation. We do not know the costs of maintenance which are not factored in when doing simple calculations for leasing space v.s. owning space. Santa Monica’s temperature swings are the very reason the school district has approved a plan to add air conditioning at all sites. Studies of our historical temperatures and studies about the ability to learn (work) prove that productivity is greatly diminished when acceptable climate conditions are pushed beyond the limits. Estimate to accomplish this installation is nearly $30 million district-wide and will take place over several years.


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