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SMa.r.t. Column: Which Santa Monica Do You Prefer to Live & Work In?

Santa Monica’s Governance  Last I heard, we are a country “by the people and for the people.” But Santa Monica operates on a different premise.  Our City Council is under the influence of developers, not the residents. They treat our residential tax dollars like monopoly money – nearly bankrupting us while holding onto power.  As a result, our beautiful beach town is quickly losing its special innate character.  What the City Council and staff are implementing has little if any benefit to the residents!  Is this the city you want to live in?  

Defining a City  So how do you build and maintain a beautiful, enduring city.  Each city has its unique and distinctive character.  Its sense of place is its most important aspect.  A sense of place creates a feeling of home.  Urban design in medieval cities was considered an art form.  Urbanism was not a bureaucratic or economic process, but creating a legacy of beautiful places and experiences essential to a community’s durability.  Urbanism is also about freedom and mingling.  Should every city feel the same and look the same?

Current Planning  In this era of explosive growth, we are fast removing beauty from our urban areas.  When cities start to fail due to overcrowding and infrastructural stress, how do we bring this deterioration under control?  Should our city be governed by a City Council that abuses or outright neglects both our codes and our residents instead of protecting our legacy of beauty?  Will the renaissance come after this Covid plague?  If you had a chance to replan your city, what would come to mind?  Is it proper to legislate good design?  We have a challenge to combine matters of code, density, institutions, infrastructure, culture, etc., all contributing to our urban fabric.                       

The Effect on Santa Monica  Instead of protecting this legacy of beauty, we have a City Council and Planning Commission that believes density is a solution to our problem.  “Our state is suffering from a housing crisis and Santa Monica is committed to being part of the solution,” said Mayor McKeown in approving an emergency Interim Zoning Ordinance on March 10, 2020.  But frankly, you have to be out to lunch to be pushing for more housing.  Housing increases come with substantial increases in infrastructure, and guess who pays when new projects are built and water is needed – the residents!  In addition, there is zero talent guiding our economic policies.  Santa Monica has a problem with spending, not with revenue.  We need to live within our means – looking into the future while maintaining the past.  

Santa Monica’s Future  So what is our future, how do we preserve our DNA, our culture and our natural environment?  We don’tneed to just recover, we need to make our city better.  Density along with necessary increase in infrastructure is not the answer.  And there is no good urbanism without good architecture, essential to a city’s durability. How do you maintain our beachfront environment when we are morphing from classical cities to dystopian wastelands of freeways, highrises, and sprawl?  If we were really addressing climate change – with the Council living up to its stated concern about sustainability – all new buildings would be net zero which would inherently limit these buildings to three stories – so no more highrise in Santa Monica – done, end of conversation!  And architecture needs to be tied to place and culture – we don’t need facadism.  Winston Churchill said, “we shape the building and then the building shapes us.”  And philosopher Alain de Botton later wrote that “bad architecture is a frozen mistake writ large.”  

This is not the time to be adding more office density. “Adaptive reuse” will be the norm instead of “demolish and build higher,” with vacant offices, hotels, big box retail, shopping centers, supermarkets and their parking lots – the implications are staggering!  Due to e-commerce, we will have all the building area we need to satisfy housing demand – it all just needs to be repurposed!  And this space is primarily on commercial corridors with transit and bike lanes!  And streets without taller buildings provide a better walking environment with more trees, sunlight, and cooler temperatures.  Instead of living in faceless mid-rise boxes, we need neighborhoods and communities for families – 2, 3, & 4 stories, not 6, 7 & 8.  And Accessory Dwelling Units that can increase density without hurting neighborhood character.

It is predicted only 25% of shopping malls will survive.  Wouldn’t Santa Monica Place make an interesting residential community mixed in with small businesses.  Wouldn’t the Promenade become alive again with surrounding alleys that connect to parking becoming landscaped arcades.  How do we look at Santa Monica Place, Bergamot, the Promenade, Santa Monica Airport in the future?

And our neglected infrastructure (delayed street repairs, updating water treatment plants, etc.) pension debt, community needs (increased crime, homelessness, etc.) along with our significant revenue reduction (40% projected) should be more than enough reason to replace this City Council on November 3rd!  It’s critical the Santa Monica community wake up to this potentially very dark future if the incumbents are re-elected!

A Summary of Concern  More of our residents need to understand what is happening in our city.  Piecemeal development is leading us to the brink of turmoil if not extinction!  Catastrophes can unfold gradually, and when you have continuous growth in a finite system such as our 8.4 square mile city limits, this gradual growth can lead to just such a long-term catastrophe.  Long-term planning often means sacrificing present concerns.  Realizing this need for growth coupled with the uncertainty in our health, economic, and social systems makes this city election even more critical. 

And Santa Monica’s failure of leadership was never more evident than on May 31st.  With protesters peacefully demonstrating, looters were prepared and organized – our city was not!  With unqualified people in leadership roles this is a glaring example of our Councils’ inability to govern.

We have a City Council who demonstrates fiscal irresponsibility combined with a significant lack of transparency.  Residents filed a lawsuit to stop the massive “Plaza at Santa Monica” in the heart of our downtown.  And last week Council approved the Miramar – a 10 story, 900 foot long cruise ship about to dock in our downtown – three football fields long and twice the size of the Santa Monica Place shopping center.  And still another lawsuit where the Council spent over $25 million denying the community’s right to district voting which would have provided more neighborhood representation.

Recently Santa Monica Forward, a group founded and supported by the development community and substantial donors to the incumbent Council, shamefully submitted a report to the city outlining policies for financial stability in this Covid 19 pandemic by accelerating the approval process for “projects with high revenue potential,” enacting emergency code provisions increasing building height and volume, substantially reducing public review, reducing or omitting required parking, selling city-owned properties to developers, with residents to pay for supporting water, power, emergency equipment, etc., etc.  It reads like a developer’s fantasy – but it’s not, it’s our reality.  We need a Council that represents the people of our city – not the developers who exploit it.

We need to stop relying on development and taxes – rejecting the philosophy of “more, more, more.”  The failure of our City Council leadership is plain and simple, and this Council who got us into this mess are not the ones to get us out – we need a new Council!

This election will be Santa Monica’s most consequential in decades.  Let’s turn this election into an opportunity!  We need to preserve our beachfront community with its low scale and natural environment and live within our means!  To avoid the collapse of our community – we need to vote in a new Council, to BUILD BACK BETTER, to vote for NEW LEADERSHIP!

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, Marc Verville, CPA (inactive).  For previous articles see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writings

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