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SMa.r.t. Column: The City of Santa Monica Monica – “Progressive” in 1989, “Chaotic” in 2021

The STATE of our CITY

Are we to be a city of gardens, recreation, the arts, with courtyard housing and boulevards as linear parks. Can we turn our boulevards into parkways or will our downtown continue to canyonize and our neighborhoods fill with block buildings?

Our City Council is flying blind – everything is piecemeal, jumping from one event to another, one crisis to another – an extremely frenetic and costly way to run a city. Whatever the problem du jour – homeless, affordable housing, crime, public restrooms, regulating robots, etc., our underlying mantra has been economic gain at the expense of residents and our environment. Santa Monica is serving Wall Street investors, has become a cash cow for developers, and listens to tourists ahead of residents.  This tradeoff of “community benefits” for increased height, density, and traffic is a bargain with the devil! 

So what is our vision for Santa Monica – the future for our neighborhoods, boulevards, commercial and cultural centers, our open space and recreation. Are we to remain a low to midrise beachfront community for both our residents and the surrounding population? Can we maintain our vision, culture, scale, and character in the face of development interests? If ever we needed a clear and comprehensive master plan, this is the time City Council!

What is a MASTER PLAN?

Since our founding 147 years ago in 1874, Santa Monica has never had a master plan – the need for a master plan should be front and center!! The money wasted on “piecemeal” forays and assessments is staggering! So what is a comprehensive, strategic master plan?

  • It’s a digital platform that quickly sees connection between problems and possibilities
  • a data-driven analysis based on facts, numbers, and trends of all the complex elements that define a viable community
  • it will create alternative, realistic paths forward while giving attention to the needs of residents and our natural surroundings
  • it’s about optimizing costs and environmental benefits across systems of buildings, transportation, energy, water, ecology and biodiversity, and the management thereof
  • it will look at our urban form – the fabric of boulevards connecting oceanfront and residential, commercial, healthcare, institutional and cultural districts and establish goals, policies and programs
  • it will measure the demographics, economics, and environmental impacts with alternative studies to manage growth
  • a master plan will define the parameters for the right balance between the built and natural environments
  • it will identify the “carrying capacity” for water, transportation, existing schools and libraries
  • it will take into account city services – police, fire, sanitation, transit, education and recreation – and even Uber!
  • it is a plan that will outline sustainable development goals and nature-based solutions
  • it will combine the intensity of development with the location of public facilities and open space, and in turn direct the course of growth and development in our city
  • and in the process, will give us alternative ways to maintain the scale and character of Santa Monica

A master plan gives us data driven information that would lead to solutions that would help reduce our city budget in a meaningful, economic, and productive way. We are currently spending “millions” in piecemeal projects that mostly lead us nowhere! 

A master plan stems from and builds on the existing form of the city. In Santa Monica, our 6 boulevards and 4 avenues represent more than 7% of our city and their importance cannot be overstated. Although overloaded with traffic, they provide the structure that ties our city together. They are the gateways to, and provide the framework for, our city – the bridges to a creative and sustainable future.

Downtown is under siege and it will take time to restore the Promenade and Santa Monica Place which are currently 40% vacant! Mom & Pop stores can no longer afford the rents that corporate business is willing to pay.

And the public may be unaware that the future of single-family neighborhoods is currently in the hands of Sacramento which is threatening to turn our single family homes and residential neighborhoods into mass housing, allowing up to 10 units per lot with no provision for affordable low-income housing or design criteria – just another one of a thousand reasons we need a master plan.

Our housing element is currently being updated, but should be part of a master plan linked to our managed growth, not Sacramento’s dictate! There are currently over 4,000 vacant housing units in the city. The State, and Santa Monica’s, population is on a downward trend, and when coupled with potential re-purposing of vacant commercial retail and office space for residential, along with ADU’s – where is the justification to eliminate single family R1 zoning. Moreover, where is the water, and the rest of the necessary additional infrastructure required to develop and re-develop these properties? We simply don’t have enough water! Yes, it can be imported, but not without substantial cost and energy to pipe and transport – the cost of which is borne by the residents, not the developers! 

The housing issue is clearly an “affordable” issue, not a “quantity” issue. The city’s combining “inclusionary” and market rate housing has been largely ineffective and has only increased rents and gentrification for market rate units. Instead, using public-owned property would be an alternative with $0 land cost, lower construction cost, less bank financing, permit costs, and lower tax rates – reducing overall costs 35-40%.

ZONING: harmful or creative

An over-developed city is not what the Land Use Circulation element (LUCE) promised or what residents want. Our zoning code with its Development Agreement provision allows excessive development without resident input and results in backroom deals. In our current environment, the push to add density and height in order to increase “inclusionary”, so called affordable, units is absolutely wrong. Our housing “crisis” is one of economic inequality and affordability. Deregulation of size, height, and density is also wrong. Upzoning will only further increase costs and gentrify our community, and again, where will required increase in infrastructure come from?

Laguna Beach and Manhattan Beach have 3-story height limits. Santa Barbara limits its skyline to 4-stories. These heights are not only feasible, but necessary if we are to avoid trading environmental quality for buildings on steroids. We need to maintain and appreciate the low to mid-rise character and environmental quality of our beachfront community. 

Good design is good economics!! It’s time to stop making bargains with the developers. Why upzone when the existing zoning capacity allows for substantial controlled growth and when we’re in a period of declining population? 

In Conclusion/or just the Beginning? 

The State and City is focused on increasing housing densification, while not dealing with an affordable housing program that is in disarray, and the money being wasted on “piecemeal planning” – one crisis at a time – is staggering.

I realize there are many needs, many of which are in conflict – from homeless to broadband, access to emergency response and on and on! If there was ever a time that Santa Monica needed a master plan – this is that time!! The areas undergoing change – Promenade, Santa Monica Place, big-box retail, residential neighborhoods, etc. – represent a sizeable opportunity. Every decision needs to explain how it helps existing residents – better yet, every decision needs to adhere to a new master plan!!! In the absence of a master plan, no initiative should go forward.

We need to PLAN FOR GROWTH, not growth for growth’s sake! A master plan is needed to find the right balance between the built and natural environment, to tell us how much development is sustainable and where it should take place! It will cost in the range of $2.5-3m and take 1.5-2 years to complete. This year’s budget will determine our city’s future – a piecemeal future or a master-planned future.

Every city needs to pursue its highest and best interest – what is ours? Please City Council – step up to the plate, be responsible, prioritize the relatively small budget for the City’s first master plan and allow yourselves to sleep at night. Again I ask, can we maintain our community’s vision, scale, culture, and character – or will this continue to be a developers’ city? City Council, we have so much to gain and yet so much to lose. This is our need, this is your chance – don’t blow it!

Ron Goldman FAIA 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, Michael Jolly, AIRCRE

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

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