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A New Years Glimpse Into Santa Monica’s Future: Will Developers or Residents Rule?

It’s a New Year, a make-or-break year for Santa Monica!! How much do you care about your city and it’s beachfront environment?? This future includes the development industry that now rules our state legislature, the governor, and our local Santa Monica governance – including our planning staff, planning commission, architectural review board, and the pro-development members of our city council! This article is the 1st of a 5 part series outlining the future of Santa Monica – a future dominated by our ever-growing corporate economy and it’s development industry.

In a developer’s world there are only dollars and cents (but not resident sense!) However, planning and building a city is far more than a sum total of individual buildings or the zoning of industries and labor. It is one of coexistence and true humanity. Density and mass don’t equate with quality of life, so why are we letting a handful of developers and their architects ruin the city we live in and love.

Will Santa Monica continue to draw tourists, young and old, the way Florence, Venice, Istanbul, or Ankara have for 500 years? No, not even for 50 years! Those cities live on with their cascading roofs and cultural spirit. Is it too late to save our downtown, turn our boulevards into parkways, or save our courtyard apartments surrounded by landscape? Let’s work together to say “NO”! What kind of environment will we leave our grandchildren?

Both California’s population (LA Times, December 20, 2021 – “California’s Population Continues to Decline”) and Santa Monica’s population have decreased. Yet, without objection, City Council let the state and the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) dictate the building of 8,900 additional units, representing a 20% plus increase in Santa Monica’s population over the next eight years! And this mandate provided the excuse for our city planning staff and council to approve adding significant height and density to our zoning code – both unnecessary even with this required density increase! These actions will fast track the loss of our 2, 3, and 4-story beachfront character and environment!!

LA Times newspaper headlines this past month described the beginning of a tsunami:

  • “NYC Developer Buys Eight Downtown Santa Monica Properties”
  • “WLA Development Will Bring 455 Units to Expo-Bundy Area”

There is also the 8 story building with 100 units under construction at Colorado and Lincoln. 

And the adjacent Von’s redevelopment of 280 units in 5 and 7 stories with parking for 354 cars – and possibly being increased to 8 stories!

And then there is the huge Gelson’s project at Lincoln and Ocean Park Blvd. with 521 units in 5 stories with a subterranean garage housing 880 parking spaces –  and not even requiring Planning Commission or Traffic Department review?!! And Water??

Urban design is a spatial plan involving the balance of social and economic, cultural and institutional, recreational, environmental and infrastructure considerations. But how does one live, work, and play in a beachfront town surrounded by a high density urban area? Building a city is not just a zoning plan with individual buildings, or the division of labor and specialization. And it’s certainly far more than our current narrow sidewalks leading to a series of intersections. There are broad approaches to the built environment – monumental & impersonal or humane? static or sculpted? stand alone or cloistered? flat or textured? There should be a change of tempo created by a sequence of spaces and a variety of buildings. Will Santa Monica’s future be monotonous and inhuman or can we protect our city’s efficiency along with its humanity? Just as a sculptor uses a chisel, we need to use our vision and creativity to translate these abstract concepts into tangible forms.

We’re quickly losing the spirit of our city – it’s up for grabs, we’re on a path to a different place. But we don’t need to be the “same as everywhere, one size fits all” architecture – we need to preserve our local flavor and spirit! Think of Santa Barbara’s enduring low-rise oceanside character,its population is the same as Santa Monica, but its planning and legal staff are half the number we employ!

And why then has our City Council allowed a handful of developers to ruin the city we live in and love? With the three new council members we expect more resident focus, but much damage has already been done and may be difficult to reverse. With water approaching a crisis around the world – whether it’s the Antarctic melting, rising sea levels, agriculture and wildlife hurting, or trees turning to tinder and fire – why are we not only allowing, but encouraging more density and development?? We have become a ship without a rudder!

It’s a new year and residents come first – not developers. We need a city staff, planning commission, architectural review board, and city council who understand this – and if not, they must go! But there is hope and trust that our new city manager along with the minority of forward-thinking council members have the ability and courage to help steer the council and staff in a positive direction.

The following four articles will illustrate the conundrum of our downtown, our boulevards, and our residential environments. Next week’s article will explore our downtown as a visual and energetic experience, engaging both residents and visitors. The following week will explore our boulevards and avenues as landscaped parkways benefitting residents as well as automobiles and developers. The 4th  article will describe our residential development within a restful landscape. And the final article in this series will outline steps we need to take as our situation has become a do-or-die confrontation. In addition to being overwhelmed, our city governance has little if any imagination. We have a split city council, a planning staff and an architectural review board with little imagination. Unfortunately this is more than a New Year’s diatribe, this is truly a make or break situation we find ourselves in. It’s time for residents and their neighborhood councils to step up, to get involved, and to take back their city. It’s now or never Santa Monica – are we up to it?!

Happy New Year and good luck Santa Monica!

Ron Goldman
Fellow, American Institute of Architects

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 M.B.A, CPA (Inactive), Michael Jolly, AIR-CRE.

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

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