The most glaring problem I see with the proposed Downtown Community Plan (DCP) is that it has retained several locations referred to as opportunity sites. These sites represent increases in uses that we already have in sufficiency i.e. office, hotel, high end retail and unaffordable housing. More of these can only succeed in exacerbating our traffic problems and the strain on our infrastructure. They simply provide more benefit to developers and not the residents.
Perhaps the largest of these is the City owned property at 4th and Arizona, which I and many believe should be an open urban plaza not unlike those found in small- and medium-sized cities throughout the world. We know there is a proposed development agreement pending there. No definitive commitment has been offered in the proposed plan. This property is the seed from which the rest of our downtown, a renewed downtown, will develop and by which our city will be forever impacted, for better or worse. In that light, any development on this property other than an urban plaza should require voter approval. Other public lands used for fire or police services should be exempt from a public vote, although should not exceed the zoning requirements.
In order to maintain the lower scale, which has historically been the hallmark of much of downtown, I recommend that all new development should be limited to the allowable zoning heights of 45ft along Ocean Avenue and five stories maximum elsewhere. I am in accord with the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) proposal that any development over 50,000 sq. ft. should require a City Council vote of five rather than a simple majority.
The five story height should be predicated on designs that widen the pavement and/or increase public accessible open space at grade. Alternatively, significant setbacks of upper floors should also factor into consideration for a height increase. In this regard illustrations shown in the planning document don’t go far enough.
Projects that are remodels of existing developments or earthquake repair should, of course, be required to submit to Planning, Landmarks and/or Design Review, as well as the Department of Building and Safety and should be able to build back the square footage and footprint they have and that such projects should be expedited through the approval process.
To be sure there are elements of this plan that with some minor modification could be very acceptable to the residents. The inclusion of a public plaza, and vest pocket parks and paseos at various locations, will better serve the growing resident population of downtown. The plan should encourage developers to allow for more neighborhood commercial, small cafes, groceries, cleaners and the like on the streets or even at the alleys.
The City’s Mobility Plan needs a schedule of implementation for all of the modes outlined in the DCP. It should not only enhance movement downtown but provide access to downtown from all neighborhoods as well, with special attention to the needs of our older population.
Affordable housing, or the lack thereof, is another major issue which, needs to be addressed in the downtown plan, but not in the piecemeal and poorly administered way it has been by developers merely seeking the perks afforded them for questionable community benefits. Neither should these units be relegated to freeway adjacent properties. The DCP should consider the potential for some city land in or near downtown to be dedicated for this use. Do it right and we might yet earn the mantle of one of the most progressive small cities in the country.
The DCP should in its design section, at the minimum, allude to the necessity of all new buildings needing the solar access requirements of its neighbors for light as well as for electrical generating.
Lastly, I would have liked to see at the very least a mention of a contingency plan regarding the effects of climate change on the downtown’s Pacific Ocean border by for the projected 10’ rise in sea level by the end of this century. Perhaps we think we can kick the can down the road regarding this.
I am quite sure that my colleagues will in further articles comment on all aspects of the proposed DCP.
Samuel Tolkin, Architect
For SM.a.r.t: Thane Roberts AIA, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Ron Goldman FAIA, Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission.