Santa Monica has traditionally been a colorful mixed bag. Since 1875, our city has been the breath of fresh air for the Los Angeles area. It is the ultimate seaside escape for millions of people each year. Through the last century it was a working class city, occupied by small duplexes and triplexes, with a great deal of economic and racial diversity. Our town also had a wealthy, homegrown business community that held great sway politically. Residents devoted their lives to their neighborhoods, their neighbors and building a better Santa Monica. Flush with local banks, hospitals, industry and retailers these businesspeople cared about our community. The climate has changed. The industrial past gave way to office complexes, the local retailers gave way to national chains, the banks and hospitals are conglomerates and our small businesses are becoming dinosaurs.
Our streets downtown and thoroughfares throughout our city become impassable on most days. On streets designed for horse and buggies, we now pack in nine million tourists, almost 150,000 workforce members and 95,000 residents. Crime increases in the double digits are being recorded in downtown Santa Monica, our homeless population has increased by 26 percent, and our 8.3 square miles is bulging at the seams. Our neighborhoods have seen an uptick in home invasion robberies and crimes of opportunity in the past month and residents are seeking answers. How many patrol cars are consistently in our neighborhoods…patrolling? The SMPD’s major response is always first-rate. But has the need to constantly funnel tourists and workers into downtown drawn needed resources away from our residential neighborhoods?
Our Chamber of Commerce is designed to encourage business development. Shouldn’t they be concerned at the same time with creating a livable city for all of our residents? Won’t businesses prosper if we remain a beachfront, casual town, a proverbial breathing space for Los Angeles? The appeal of Santa Monica has always been its distinct difference to Los Angeles, not its similarities. The low-rise, slightly funky feel of our town was its appeal. Flip-flops, not penny loafers, Hawaiian shirts, a drink or two at the Galley or Chez Jay have always made the day for residents and for visitors. In fact, the tech start-ups that planted their business flag in our city moved here precisely because it’s not L.A. Their employees want a low-rise comfortable community, not one overflowing with people and structural density…that fresh air I talked about earlier. The Chamber now pushes increased height for downtown. Chamber emails about the plan soon to reach the City Council dais read, “The Chamber has very serious concerns with the plan…the draft plan actually decreases height limits in parts of the downtown.” Wait, that’s a bad thing? Our Chamber used to represent hundreds of small mom and pop businesses in our city. Many of those are being pushed out by higher rents. Incessantly seeking more growth, our Chamber seems to be in need of a constant growth fix and bent on destroying the qualities that make Santa Monica such a desirable place.
Let’s talk about this plan that the Chamber attacks. The Downtown “Community” Plan is about to be reviewed by our City Council. Remember that it took 142 years for development to get to the current 12 million square feet in our newly expanded downtown. Would we want to add 25 percent more square footage to it over the next 12 years? Are we building for the needs of our residents or for our nine million tourists? The plan that goes to the City Council potentially adds 2,500 residential units and 3 million square feet of new development by 2030. You think downtown is crowded now – just wait. And, there are no new parks, no public spaces proposed. Yes, we’ll keep cramming in taller and denser buildings, but no areas for respite for residents or visitors…in our beachside town. It can take a half hour now to traverse the north-south corridor on 2nd, 4th Streets or Ocean Ave. Auto/pedestrian and car collisions are out of hand, major retailers are closing on Wilshire Boulevard, and crowds of tourists are everywhere. Is downtown Santa Monica better off now than it was just a few years ago? Will it be better in 12 years with all of the allowed construction?
Let’s talk green space for a minute. No, not the green space that is proposed on the upper floor outcroppings of the 12-story, 357,000-square-foot “Plaza at Santa Monica.” This “Plaza” would occupy 4th and 5th Streets from Arizona south towards Santa Monica Boulevard. The City owns this land parcel and is considering 12 stories of offices, a hotel and a smidgen of housing on this site. This development will be on the public’s land smack dab in the geographical center of downtown. I suggest an alternative: A Central Park.
The Plaza at Santa Monica puzzle has only one solution – don’t build it. Instead create a true plaza in our downtown’s heart, a park that will stand the test of time. Trees, grass, seating, an outdoor café…perhaps a mirror of water like the iconic Miroir d’eau in Bordeaux, France, that would become our ice skating rink in winter. Imagine the parking lots on Arizona replaced by simple green parkland, perhaps a bit of low-rise housing, no underground parking/no additional congestion. Almost every town has a town square. We deserve one. This is our city’s only chance. No more tall buildings or office space downtown. Say yes to open space.
I believe our neighborhoods lose as downtown mushrooms in size and gobbles up the city’s attention. Funneling resources to service the bigger downtown that the Chamber seeks is a mistake. We’re not supposed to look, feel and act like every other city. We should want to stand apart. We’re in danger of losing what the aircraft workers and early bankers of the last century loved about our special place. We are the ocean breeze, sandy shores and a comfortable place to hang your hat, not a teeming metropolis that has to blend in.
I’ve always been proud that we are not Los Angeles. I hope you are as well.
Phil Brock for SMa.r.t.
Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow: Thane Roberts AIA, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Ron Goldman FAIA, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Planning Commissioner, Phil Brock, Arts Commissioner