January 28, 2023 Breaking News, Latest News, and Videos

SMa.r.t. Column: The Plaza at Santa Monica’s Groundhog Day (Part 1)

SMa.r.t. group’s note: The proposed Plaza at Santa Monica, a massive project at 5th and Arizona, is coming up for approval after generating controversy and opposition by many residents for four years. This article, by our colleague Thane Roberts, was originally written some four years ago and its main critique–that the project is too big, too unfriendly to the environment, and located in the wrong place–remains on point.

Yogi Berra’s legendary words–“It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again”–were echoing in the ears of residents in the wee hours four years ago when the City Council instructed staff to move forward with an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for The Plaza at Santa Monica project. As a concession to the many opposed, the EIR was to base its primary findings on a then–15% reduced version of The Plaza. This was to be achieved with a 50% reduction in the office component and consideration of alternative uses for the 30,000 SF that would be freed up by its removal. It was, frankly, pathetic to watch the Council beg for ‘scraps’ as the Developer threatened to reduce the last vestiges of community benefits if they were denied their height for ocean views at their high-end hotel. It was a sad charade. Today we might be headed toward a similar event, as the project nears final review and approval.

Insanity was once defined as doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result. Once again, our City Council has embarked on a misadventure that will likely end the same way as before with the Hines Project- a major waste of funds and time for all parties concerned, especially the developers. The Hines project, when compared to The Plaza, makes it look like the ‘poster child’ for responsible development. Although Hines was larger, its FAR (average lot coverage) was only 2.5 while the new Plaza will be 3.2 or 28 % denser. The maximum height of the Hines project was 81’ while the Plaza will max out at 128’- getting close to twice the height. The Plaza will have only 48 housing units vs. 497 at Hines- 10 times more. The Plaza will have nearly the same area as Santa Monica Place Shopping Center but on a site that is one-third the size. The list goes on.

“The Plaza is almost twice the ideal 1⁄4 mile walking distance to transit. It will be generating car trips in the densest part of our City, an area that is already incredibly congested. There couldn’t be a worse place to put such a large development.”

Thane Roberts, Architect, for SMa.r.t.

Both projects were allowed reduced parking requirements. But since the Plaza is in Downtown, where the demand for parking is 2 to 3 times greater, this will be a bigger problem than it would have been at Hines. Hines was on the outskirts of our City in close proximity to the Expo Line where the demand for parking is less and mass transit was adjacent. Initial estimates show that both projects would produce thousands of car trips. Of course, the impact of these trips in the center of downtown will be much worse than it would have been on Olympic, in an industrial area, at the edge of our City. The Plaza is almost twice the ideal ¼ mile walking distance to transit. It will be generating car trips in the densest part of our City, an area that is already incredibly congested. There couldn’t be a worse place to put such a large development. Since the project is already “under parked”, it will have NO additional spaces for the daily visitors or adjacent businesses both of which require more downtown parking.

“The Plaza” is a misnomer. This project’s “plazas” are on four different levels- grade, 18’ above grade, 58’ above grade and 98’ above grade. Can anyone name another successful “plaza” that is on 4 different levels, with 98’ between the bottom and top levels? Most plazas are square or rectangular to accommodate a wider range of activities. Are there other small, triangular plazas that can be cited as examples of successful outdoor spaces? The top two ‘plazas’ are directly adjacent to the office and hotel uses that will look out onto them. They have been designated as “private/public” and, due to their location and privacy issues, will likely be used by the public only on rare occasions, if at all. The second level plaza 18’ above the street will be accessed by a spiral stair and elevator. This will further diminish its public access except, perhaps, for programmed events. It is likely that the only “plaza” that will get any significant public use will be the one at street level. Its modest size, smaller than many residential lots, hardly justifies the project’s moniker- The Plaza at Santa Monica.

Next week: is this project sustainable? Stay tuned.

Thane Roberts, Architect, for SMa.r.t.

Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow: Thane Roberts, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Building and Fire Life-Safety Commission, Ron Goldman FAIA, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Planning Commissioner, Phil Brock, Arts Commissioner

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