Thousands of cars inch along Santa Monica’s Olympic Blvd each day. Lanes separated by a center median that was, at one time, Red Car train tracks, have a heavy traffic load that for hours allows cars to crawl in and out of our city. The 18th Street Art Center, Crossroads School, Tacos Por Favor, The Arts at Bergamot, The Water Garden, Memorial Park, New Roads School, The Pen Factory, Gandara Park, Snyder Diamond, and the Metro Repair Yard are among the anchors to this boulevard. Cars, cars, everywhere, yet you rarely see a pedestrian walking down Olympic. It often seems that the 1982 song “Walking in LA” by Missing Persons should be playing as permanent background music on this thoroughfare.
It’s indicative of Olympic’s industrial past that very few residents ever consider walking along this street. Its environment has changed, as should our aspirations for this vital boulevard in Santa Monica. Rather than another spoke on our giant wheel of tourism, Olympic is for us. Schools, parks, and businesses exist for residents. Places to play, learn and socialize all co-exist on Olympic, linked together, with only a few omissions. Even though Olympic borders our Arts District, there is no real connection between the street and the adjacent arts scene. There is also no attempt to tie our parks together with a walking path that would promote our residents’ wellness.
More than 40 percent of Santa Monica’s residents have a career in some aspect of the Arts. Let’s think about pairing wellness with a greater appreciation for local art, in the form of a walking trail to activate Olympic – a simple, effective way to combine our love of the arts, our need to be outdoors and resurrection of a barren boulevard. Other cities have created havens for walking while appreciating art and culture in the middle of dense urban settings and have made the areas more beautiful in the process. We can accomplish this in Santa Monica too! Santa Monica Blvd as it travels through Beverly Hills and West Hollywood has walking paths and vibrant collections of public art, which serve as enrichment for both pedestrians and drivers. Beverly Hills’ Burton Way has added Art Pads for changeable art displays. From its starting point in Manhattan Beach, Veterans Parkway becomes a vibrant, peaceful greenbelt as it passes through three South Bay cities as one of the great urban walking paths in LA County. Each area formerly accommodated train tracks and was adaptively reused to become a meandering urban park trail.
Santa Monica has two such center medians that were both vital train connectors to that once faraway destination of Los Angeles, San Vicente, and Olympic. Both have the same South African Coral Trees, yet only one can boast of multitudes of runners and walkers. It’s time for that to change. Let’s imagine the Olympic Boulevard center median with a walkway of decomposed granite or wood chips stretching for 1.9 miles from Centinela to 11th Street. Vibrant public art created by local artists would line the median, adding life to the street while reinforcing the arts enclaves at Bergamot and the 18th Street Art Center. Taking this new Art Trail through Bergamot by adding a short extender, would allow walkers to stroll through a rich collection of galleries and return to the trail via Stewart. Walkers would be able to “find” the relatively hidden public art at the former Agensys building and explore a thriving arts scene, a partnership that the Santa Monica Arts Commission is striving to create with the art galleries and theatre that already exist at Bergamot.
The benefits to “us” are tremendous. Seniors would have an inspirational, safe walking trail through our city. Students would traverse the path on their way to SMC from the Memorial Park EXPO station, and residents of the Pico and Mid City Neighborhoods would have a wonderful greenway lined with public art they could view close up. You might characterize this new Art Trail or Santa Monica’s own outdoor Art Museum. With an emphasis on local permanent and rotating art exhibits, this route would be enjoyable, educational and a way of instilling pride in the artworks created by our community’s talented artists. Samohi Hall of Fame Member and world-class artist, Laddie John Dill, only has one of his extraordinary pieces in Santa Monica and that 14-foot high metal sculpture is now in storage. It sat for years at 100 Wilshire. Why shouldn’t we be able to view Laddie’s work on Olympic Blvd as part of our new Art Trail?
Santa Monica Community & Cultural Services Division oversees our City parks (we have too few) and our City’s cultural arts (a paucity of displayed public art). The same department could create a city park from the Olympic center median and line it with exceptional artistic displays to enrich the visual experience of both drivers and pedestrians. Yes, we’ll need improvements to street lighting and other small changes. The obstacles, though, are relatively few and the rewards great. The Santa Monica Art Foundation, Recreation & Parks Commission and Arts Commission will have their work cut out for them, but that’s what “juices” our volunteer Commissioners. I know because I’ve been a volunteer Commissioner in Santa Monica for the past 15 years.
How do we jumpstart this project? It’s relatively easy. I’ll give you one example. A pending development agreement includes a new museum on Ocean Avenue in the middle of our chaotic downtown. Transform that “community benefit”, which is now pegged for a 50,000 sq. foot building, and use the same amount of developer investment to create our city’s new Olympic Art Trail. Bergamot and the Ocean Avenue development are controlled by the same developer. It’s a win-win situation. We get an open-sky outdoor museum on Olympic, and we exchange stucco and concrete for green space in the potentially overbuilt parcel on Ocean Avenue. It’s high time that our town is recognized as a city of the arts, not just a city for tourists.
By Phil Brock for SMart (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)
Thane Roberts AIA, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Architect, Dan Jansenson, Architect, Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi, AIA, Planning Commissioner, Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission.