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SMa.r.t. Column: What Are They Thinking?

At the April 9 Santa Monica City Council meeting approval was given to order the staff to publish an RFP to developers for the demolition of Parking Lot #3 at 1318 Fourth Street and the design and construction of a new structure with over one hundred affordable housing units. Further, this new structure would also house a replacement to the Samoshel facility at 505 Olympic Boulevard, which I am told currently provides transitional housing for some 70 homeless adults as well as other forms of assistance. What a friend wrote in another publication exactly states my feeling and those of many others about this decision and I quote:

“Our City Council voted unanimously last session,
to tear down a parking structure on 4th Street
Downtown, one very convenient to so many 
places locals want to get to, and replace it
with housing for the homeless. Smack dab in 
middle of Downtown. Losing more of the already
shrinking parking, flooding the economically 
distressed area with the economically distressed
homeless. Make sense to you?”

I must assume that they are aware that this proposal will not be welcome by, among others, the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce, and certainly not by the Downtown Santa Monica Inc. and Santa Monica Travel and Tourism. 

The conspiratorial part of my nature believes that this is some sort of ploy to either   

  1. Cause the renegotiation of the Plaza in Santa Monica’s existing DA in order to secure more favorable terms for the City. What developer would invest hundreds of millions across from the shelter?
  2. Affect the EIR process such that the Urban Park which I and my colleagues and a majority of residents would support, and which we believe was one of the options the staff was to analyze, would certainly be negatively affected by the proximity of the shelter. 

Logically, if one were to build a residential development on this site it would be more cost effective to include a range of unit types, some at market rate as well as some smaller affordable units. If the Council really means to proceed with all affordable units, the median cost of such affordable housing in California is approximately $276,000. Say that the staff’s assumption that one could build 100 to 150 units, that would cost range would be $26,600,000 – $41,400,000. That cost doesn’t include the estimate of 4-5 million for the demolition of the existing concrete building and the remedial work to the soils to remove pollutants. As for the shelter, I detected in my reading of the staff report some hesitation on their part in a whole hearted endorsement of this plan  

Alternatively, I propose that the City keep the structure and use some of the money to seismically upgrade and renovate it, perhaps adding some street level commercial as they have done with some of their other structures. They could also use the money to invigorate the Third Street Promenade by promoting some low scale residential and neighborhood commercial. Zoning changes that would be required I believe could easily be made if the vitality of life of the promenade were the object. Those funds could also be used to purchase the old Post Office at Arizona and Fourth, converting it to a City Art Museum. The parking saved could allow for a reduction in the need for new parking below the urban park and its uses at the Fourth and Arizona location. 

Further, we do know that the City, as one of the largest land owners, has other more suitable sites that they might locate a homeless facility without the obvious onus to neighboring uses and with what I anticipate as a significant reduction in development costs, i.e. millions.   

In downtown, a portion of the bus yard at Colorado between Sixth and Seventh Streets could be developed into a homeless center. Elsewhere there are City properties adjacent to Bergamot and adjacent to the Santa Monica Airport. 

I believe and recommend that such a facility needs to be cutting edge and of necessity should be well served by transit, bus and train where possible. Such a facility should also have a staff that can treat the physical and psychological effects of homelessness. It should provide counseling for jobs and at least be a conduit for its residents to seek help from other agencies that handle such things as drug rehabilitation.      

As for accommodations, I envision that there will be a need for a progression of transitional housing from communal style living to small apartments for short and even more longterm usage. It will require a design that, if possible, responds to the particular emotional and economic disruption of which homelessness is just a symptom. As much as a building, or perhaps a grouping of buildings can, it should promote the transition back to normal living.  

This City and its administration has in the past taken bold actions in the face of environmental challenges. Let’s not now err on the side of what seems at first glance to be an easy and economical solution. It isn’t.  We have a complex problem that demands well thought out solutions. A mid-downtown location is not the solution.  

We also have the assets to handle the problem and still serve both the residents and the commercial interests alike. I challenge the Council to rethink this decision. We need to lead yet again.

Samuel Tolkin for SMa.r.t (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow) 

Thane Roberts, 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.  

For previous articles see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writings.

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