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SMa.r.t. Column: The Future of Our City Is At Stake

On 2003, we embarked on the LUCE (Land Use Circulation Element) – a planning process outlining the future of our city. It took time and a lot of residential input before completing in 2010. Quoting the LUCE:

“The LUCE is a conservation plan.”

“Santa Monica has sought to maintain and perpetuate its small beachfront town character.”

“The intent is for the City to be generally a low scale community.”

“Concern is with the loss of character-defining buildings, particularly courtyard buildings” – which are representative of Santa Monica’s DNA!

“High density housing in the LUCE is 3-4 story multi-family with 30 ft and 40 ft height limits.”

“New boulevard use will emphasize mixed local serving ground floor commercial uses with 2-3 floors of residential above.”

“Paramount is the need to enhance pedestrian, bike, and small shuttle connections from the neighborhoods to retail services and the boulevards.”

“Throughout the City, open space will increase in size and quality?”

The desire of the community as noted above was to “achieve a balance between the human and the natural community” – a beachfront city, not an urban city, one that preserves its human scale and family life. 

Were these principles followed? Why are we going through a planning process that creates enormous negative impacts in our city? Unfortunately toward the end of the LUCE process, the development community along with a few of Santa Monica’s development friendly legal practitioners inserted the concept of Development Agreements which allows significant height increases, reduced parking, and increased density most often resulting in banal design, etc. – all in exchange for marginal contributions to the city budget or housing affordability. The Planning Commission and City Council have allowed developers to push beyond the limits of the LUCE with D.A.’s (Development Agreements) providing them and their corporate backers with substantially greater economic returns. This has resulted in our beachfront community rapidly losing its human scale and our quality of life!

To underline the inherent hypocrisy imbedded in the process, in March, 2008 Ted Winterer, then president of the Ocean Park Association and now a two-time City Councilmember, wrote an article in a local paper entitled “It’s hard to trust City Hall on development” – opining on how to “slow down the continuing over-development of our city!” Was he successful – hardly?! Today we face an uncertain future with a build to the max City Council including Mr. Winterer who has done a 180 degree about face regarding development. (With full disclosure, I am an architect who can speak from both sides, having developed 20 residential and commercial projects.)

So are we on a road to “nowhere”? How will this fast changing and diminishing quality of life affect our city? What will its future be? Just another piece of a larger metropolis. Recently the City Council finished constructing a 50,000 sq ft city hall annex at twice the cost of comparable municipal buildings. It then spent over $25 million fighting district elections and residents’ effort combatting the enormous benefit of development contributions to “friendly” incumbent re-election campaigns! In the time of Covid-19 shutdowns the City Council has pushed us to financial chaos with its “build more, tax more” approach. These unnecessary expenditures are coupled with huge pension obligations, crushing traffic, rising crime, homelessness and a reduced quality of life. Why would anyone even consider voting for these 5 incumbents?? And consider that four were actually appointed, not elected, to their first terms!

Santa Monica is currently built on a system of who you know and the greatest return on investment. But why does our City Council want a dense beachfront city? Have we lost our humanity? The council overspends on construction projects and pension obligations, and then becomes dependent on sales and property taxes and hotels and tourism. And increasing density has put an enormous strain on our infrastructure – from roads and water to police and fire personnel and equipment, and more. A philosophy of “more, more, more” instead of living within our means. Do we really want a city of elevators, narrow corridors and hand sanitizers instead of sunlight and blue skies. A city where everything looks similar – banal block apartment and office buildings with narrow or non-existent balconies. We need a new vision for our city instead of building more projects with still more staff all based on an addiction to tourism. Why are we pushing for more density – it’s idiotic, especially with an economic fallout that’s likely to last for five years or more. We need to be a city of “adaptive reuse” replacing our current mantra of “demolish and higher” – a beachfront town, not a downtown urban city.

We are currently in chaos – and not just financially. The rioting of May 30 represented a failure of leadership – indicative of the past eight years. Peaceful protesters were overtaken by looters and arsonists. We proved to be a soft target that day. We weren’t ready for war, it was just another sunny afternoon in Santa Monica. And once again our city management was missing in action. That day was indicative of our city’s increasing crime rate, with Santa Monica statistics putting us down as the 257th safest city in California. 

But the real tragedy is the process that allows this to happen. Developers are first and foremost about themselves and council members need to understand this. They need to stop approving significant changes which are presented as minor ones – and then are approved because developers are their biggest source of election funds. We need to live within the environment we found and not continue to manipulate it.

With the wheels of the City starting to come off, what can we do to not only maintain, but regain our beachfront environment. Instead of following, the LUCE, we have a piecemeal planning process, with piecemeal D.A.’s, with all their piecemeal, pervasive problems. 

This Council has created a financial nightmare, and Covid-19, with its economic and social unrest has shed light on our city’s internal failures. And then there’s Terry O’Day who shamefully suggests suspending long established community oversight regulations to “immediately stem the Covid losses.” The way our Council acquiesces to the development community resulting in the demise of our beachfront city is unbelievable. We don’t need Miramar Hotels that look like cruise ships or a Hampton Inn that resembles the plain rectangular boxes delivered from Amazon or Walmart. We have a Council that has the unique ability of demonstrating financial irresponsibility combined with a lack of transparency. We cannot continue to rely on development and taxes! We need to stop manipulating our environment and instead just living with it and in it?

This is all to say we need a clean slate of candidates who are not beholden to the development community. Just as we can’t afford four more years of existing Washington politics, we can ill-afford this Council. There are answers, but not by renewing this Council! We need to remember the people who got us into this mess are not the ones to get us out!! We need a Council willing to honor the LUCE which we, the residents, spent seven years drafting, but which very little is adhered to. We need a new City Council who will maintain the soul and beauty of our community.

BOTTOM LINE – WE NEED BROCK, FONDA-BONARDI, DE LA TORRE, AND PARRA FOR OUR CITY COUNCIL!!!!

Ron Goldman 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, Marc Verville, CPA (inactive), Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission. For previous articles see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writings.

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