By Steve Stajich
There can be a lot of disagreement about what to use as a measuring stick for over-development. Some might say you can only know it when you see it. I would argue that you know it when you can’t see something. Like the ocean or the sky when high-rise buildings begin to block the sun.
About two weeks before Christmas, I was cruising down Ocean Drive in the area between Colorado and Pico. I was suddenly taken with the fact that development in that area now causes you to have no idea where the ocean is, because that strip has become a canyon of tall buildings. On both sides of the street tall buildings dominate to the point that you could be anywhere at all, especially Miami. It chills one to think that Santa Monica’s long-time efforts to stop buildings that would have created a wall blocking views of the ocean for all except those who are in hotels on the beach has simply switched the battlefield to the east side of Ocean Boulevard.
This feeling of our city closing in on us, of artificial canyons being created in what we might call our ‘skyscape’, is unfortunately available at other locations in our city. Main Street closes in on you as you drive north toward the “Dogtown” area. All of the construction in the hospital and medical area around St. John’s is now looming over Santa Monica Boulevard. Waiting for a light on 4th Street before crossing the bridge traveling north into downtown, there’s the new train station and then you are consumed by downtown building height.
None of this is to say that a city shouldn’t look like a city but if in fact being near the Pacific Ocean is a valuable lasting resource to our city, especially as it pertains to tourism, we need to wonder aloud if we are shutting down the views that confirm that there is in fact an ocean out there.
When the park across from City Hall opened, one of its features was a kind of open air observation deck where one can walk up and look out over the ocean. But I’m citing the simple fact that a raised observation deck was needed to remind people where they were less than one block from the beach.
Consciousness about over-development rises up on an almost proposed project-to-project basis. Yet I’m guessing that the city fathers of Big Sur rarely argue at length over whether a five or ten story hotel or office complex should rise up on its breathtaking shores. We should have the same kind of awareness that if Santa Monica becomes more and more developed with taller and taller buildings, our essential charm and any quintessence we might have as an ocean side community will slowly drain away. And in its place these monuments to prosperity will continue to rise, denigrating one of our singular quality of life features here: That an ocean lays before us.
During the holiday season, I drove down 4th Street going south and must admit to enjoying the holiday decorations and lights. But it also felt as though that scene could have been anywhere. We’re never going to lose the solid build-up downtown between 4th and the beach, just as Marina del Rey will never tear down the beach construction it sought and obtained by making room for more waterfront property by creating more waterfront. Still, it can be more than a little disheartening to wait for a red light at Lincoln near Mindanao and turn your head to take in the high rise condos that give only the ocean-side tenants any view of the water.
In New York City the problem is similar but vertical rather than horizontal. The wealthy want a “view” and obtain it by living higher off the ground. Of course they don’t worry about earthquakes the same way we do here. And New York is now almost by definition a city about making money, especially since we’ve elevated one of its developers to the office of President. That’s not us.
A city is just that. It’s not a wooded area or farm country. The long protected wetland area in Playa Vista was greatly reduced to make room for condos and apartments that are variously ornamented on their exteriors to look like classic building facades. Grass covered spaces between the buildings and foot paths through the remaining wetland appealed to potential buyers as “lifestyle” accoutrements. But we’re never getting that area back to its natural and first position, at least not in our lifetimes. Santa Monica must remain vigilant if encroaching, sun-blocking and sky-filling canyons of development are going to prevent us from remembering that we are a bay city.