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SMa.r.t. Column: The Value of Our Boulevards

Following is a composite of past articles dealing with the accelerated demise of our beachfront environment together with the increasing control of the development community over City Council and Planning staff, and the re-direction we can take to right the ship!

Our boulevards and avenues, provide the structural fabric, the decorative ribbons that tie our city together with our downtown – an environment we are at risk of losing! Their importance in our city cannot be over-emphasized. Our boulevards and avenues of varying residential, commercial and industrial use from west to east include Montana, Wilshire, Santa Monica, Broadway, Colorado, Olympic, Pico, Ocean Park, Lincoln, and Main Street. The combined 13.75 miles of these 10 arteries together with the commercial property fronting on either side is 565 acres or 2.5 times larger than the area of our 226 acre downtown. With this area being more than 10% of the overall size of our city, one can realize the importance of these scarcely tree-lined asphalt streets and their frontage property.

What is the purpose and character of our boulevards? Buses and cars have degraded the bucolic nature of boulevards with emphasis instead on moving traffic and providing easy access for police, fire, and ambulance. The recent Chamber of Commerce president described our boulevards as “long, lonely corridors and pedestrian and bicycle danger zones.”

But in addition to being the gateways to our city, our boulevards provide a variety of roles from mobility and economic opportunity to open space and social connection. With 20% of our boulevards developed with one story buildings and asphalt parking lots, along with 50% occupied solely with one-story development, our boulevards offer the most significant opportunity for low-rise housing and future commercial growth. They are the bridges that tie the community together and are the key to our city’s future! 

And instead of the current high-rise rectangular box buildings with uninspired in-line storefronts hugging narrow 7-12 foot wide sidewalks, we can turn our boulevards into landscaped parkways with mixed-use commercial and residential villages with 2 and 3 stories of terraced patio housing over ground floor commercial. Instead of traffic and parked cars 10 feet away, storefronts would look onto meandering sidewalks and courtyards with trees, landscaping, benches, fountains, and bike racks. These mixed-use villages could create more than 10,000 units in addition to the over 4,000 existing units currently vacant. But a 33%population increase also means a 33% increase in infrastructure, both of which will never be needed when compared to our 4% growth in the last 50 years! Unless, of course, we lose our collective minds.

We must reimagine our boulevards and develop policies that incentivize creative development and open space appropriate to Santa Monica instead of economically motivated block building design. Pedestrian experience is as essential as vehicular movement. It’s also interesting to note that Manhattan Beach has a 2-story height limit, Laguna Beach 3, and Santa Barbara 4! Why are we currently allowing 6, 8 and 10 stories!!! Design is the difference between a good experience and a great one that engages your emotions and keeps you coming back!

So how can we economically maintain and support our “beach city” when our city government is concurrently inundated from problem to problem and addressing planning issues only in piecemeal fashion. We need to establish a commission that works with planning staff to study ways to encourage mixed-use zoning, introduce quality in building design, and re-direct our boulevard environment.

With a substantial majority of buildings on the boulevards being one-story, increased economic incentives would allow either the buying out or bringing multiple property owners within the block into a single development entity with the prospect of net income increasing 400-500% – more than making up for 18-24 months of lost rental income during construction and leasing. And if the city were to provide property tax and permit processing incentives, a healthy portion of the new units could provide below-market rents for needed workforce housing.

But everything has become “piecemeal” – development, decision making, jumping from one event to another, one crisis to another – an extremely costly way to run a city. Our downtown continues to “canyonize” and our neighborhoods and boulevards are filling with block buildings! Our mantra has been economic gain at the expense of residents and our environment. Will our council continue to listen to developers ahead of residents? I realize there are many pressing needs – from homeless to broadband, and on and on, but growth for growth’s sake alone is not planning, it’s chaos! We can’t continue to be a house divided, a city divided! We can’t continue to approve projects with 521 units in twelve 65+ ft high buildings only separated by 20-30 feet of wind tunnels and shade, or the 130 ft tall behemoth of a hotel in excess of 2 football fields end-to-end in length!

What is our vision for Santa Monica – the future of our boulevards, our neighborhoods, our downtown? Will we continue to have a “piecemeal” future or a “planned” future and turn this negative into a positive? Can we continue to be a low-rise city with a beachfront character of meandering sidewalks, landscaping, terraces and trellises instead of a city of block buildings with the staccato rhythm of prison cells! Let’s re-direct the character of our boulevards and set a goal to do so within the next 12 months!

The pandemic is redefining the country for a generation or more. Rather than this “one size fits all” mentality, let’s take advantage in this time of reflection to remake our retail and office landscape. Without destroying our single-family neighborhoods, we can also use tax and permit incentives to encourage developing Accessory Dwelling Units on single-family properties. Additionally, there is a substantial amount of city owned property – both large and small – BBB Yards, Bergamot, the municipal yards, and miscellaneous vacant lots where two and three-story affordable courtyard housing can be distributed on portions of these city owned properties with no land costs and built at 2/3rds the cost of six and eight-story buildings.

Wake up Council and stop this trainwreck

It is truly unbelievable that some members of the City Council feels so dependent on developer money that they will allow us to be led down a path of no return, lined with 6, 8, and 10-story buildings instead of trees and sunlight.  This is not just a political difference between pro-development councilmembers and a resident population who increasingly lives with higher taxes, and more and more traffic.  This is a very serious problem we’re facing – adding 25% more housing, 25% more population, 25% more infrastructure, 25% more traffic, and, likely, 25% more taxes. This will literally ruin Santa Monica. A past City Council majority that spent $40-50 million more than necessary on a city hall annex vanity project, $40 million judgement on a staff lawsuit that could have been nipped in the bud years earlier, or $20 million plus fighting district-wide voting which would likely have removed some of them from office even earlier than it did, though there are still remnants to be removed at the next opportunity.

And why didn’t our past City Council appeal this draconian fool’s errand when other cities have appealed and successfully reduced their housing obligation. We need government to act responsibly and creatively – we need to add two more seats to our new City Council – one that will expand renter’s rights to include residents’ rights.

This period of time presents us with an incredible opportunity to learn and take stock of where we’re headed and where we prefer to go.  Please City Council, for only $2+ million dollars, include these boulevards as only one part of a master plan desperately needed to avoid losing our beachfront environment and character! We see streets with wide landscaped sidewalks, not tall buildings creating narrow canyons.  We see adaptive re-use of one and two-story buildings interspersed with three and four-story buildings.  In place of alleys, we see a downtown with arcades for local merchants, to offset the coldness of chain stores.  We see “beachfront,” not “urban.”

Santa Monica, there is no choice – we must rid the City Council of the members who support this lunacy.

Ron Goldman FAIA

for S.M.art (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, AIR CRE.  For previous articles see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writings.

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