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SMa.r.t. Column: Santa Monica City Council – Planners, Politicians, or Developers?

Santa Monica – a progressive city 20 years ago, a chaotic city today! A city that is struggling for its identity and life is a titanic struggle for the heart and soul of our city. And a city council that prizes development over planning. Are we to be a city of gardens, recreation, and the arts, with courtyard housing and boulevards as linear parks, or will our neighborhoods canonize and fill with block buildings as our downtown has?

I seriously question whether our city council even can understand what’s happening to our city. It’s discouraging to realize we have an entire city council that makes decisions contrary to good urban planning & design. A city is a balance between where people live and where they work, and this balance in Santa Monica is up for grabs.

It’s truly unbelievable that our city council next Tuesday is voting to increase existing heights from 1, 2, & 3 story development on the four neighborhood boulevards and avenues to 5 stories. Replacing 1, 2, & 3 stories with 5 stories is very visible in the transformation of Lincoln Boulevard. It’s stunning to realize city council is considering changing neighborhood commercial into the density, character, and height of downtown boulevards –affecting demand on public transportation, school safety, parking, and other social, ecological, and economic systems.

Our City Council is flying blind! They show a remarkable inability to control development and our environment with piecemeal planning at every level – jumping from one event to another, one crisis to another – an extraordinarily 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 serves Wall Street investors, has become a cash cow for developers, and listens to tourists ahead of residents. This tradeoff for increased height, density, traffic and safety is a bargain with the devil!

Financially, the city is teetering towards bankruptcy – financially and environmentally struggling because of costly and wasteful “piecemeal” decision-making and budgeting.
To mention a few…..

  • $.5m for a backroom stairwell mural in city hall
  • $2.3m for a restroom facility in Clover Park
  • $145m for a 50,000 sq ft city hall expansion ($3,000/sq ft – unbelievable!!)
  • $8m for a public relations consultant !!

On a larger scale, “piecemeal” (and stupid) is the conversion of 185 of the Santa Monica Airport’s 215 acres to a park abutting and accessible from both Santa Monica and Los Angeles, to LA’s immense benefit. Would it make any sense to at least consider relocating the 8.5 acre Big Blue Bus yard at the edge of Santa Monica’s downtown 1.75 miles west to the 185 acre airport and/or the city’s 16.5 acre waste management yard 1 mile west to the airport. This would allow two wonderfully located sites for a park, a school, a cultural venue, etc., to be central and useful to all Santa Monica residents! 

Concerning increased mass and density on our four residential boulevards and avenues, this unchecked greed will further hasten the wreckage of our city. Density and mass don’t equate with quality of life. And where’s the infrastructure to support this, i.e., schools, water, power, etc. Changing 3 stories to 5 stories will affect traffic safety near schools, pedestrian & bicycle routes, parking, and other services? This suggestion falls somewhere between IGNORANCE and LUNACY! And the financial cost of this “piecemeal planning” is astounding. If the state dictates it, they should pay for it!

However, proper planning would suggest that redevelopment of these 4 streets with primarily 1 story existing buildings and asphalt covered parking lots into 2 stories of terrace housing over 1 story of commercial could provide the required 8,000 units alone – if at all even necessary – instead of walls of 5 story cell-blocks. And the return on investment would be every bit as attractive when you consider less construction cost & time, less bank financing in addition to possible tax incentives and reduced permit processing time! And with shifting affordable housing to city-owned property, the Developer would be way ahead! Piecemeal planning doesn’t include all the components of an urban environment – it is strictly economic gain at the expense of the residents and the environment.

So what is a master planning process in contrast to our current “piecemeal planning” process. Master planning is a system driven process including social systems, ecological systems, economic systems, etc. in contrast to simply adopting 5 story boulevards & avenues at next Tuesday’s council meeting, and authorizing a 185 acre regional park at next month’s council meeting with the cost to be determined in an unspecified process and time. Instead, we need a plan for our grandchildren which allows the city to be developed in a visionary and coherent way – not the random environment by West & East coast developers.

City Council, you need to understand the value of data driven planning as well as the attraction and success of our low-rise courtyard buildings and their pedestrian character – not more 5 story prison blocks, You also need to understand that LUCE is a general plan, not a master plan, with no teeth, and whose primary principal is to “maintain the character of Santa Monica.”

Since our founding 149 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 master plan gives us data driven information that will lead to solutions to reduce our city budget in a productive and economic way. We are currently spending “millions” in piecemeal projects that mostly lead us nowhere, while a master plan can be completed in 2-3 years at a cost of +/- $3 million (3/4% of our yearly city budget over the next 3 years).
We need a plan for growth, but not growth for growth’s sake! A master plan is needed to find the right balance between the built and natural environment, balancing sustainable development is and where it should occur. This year’s budget will determine our city’s future – a piecemeal or master-planned future.

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 surrounding population? Can we maintain our vision, culture, scale, and character in face of development interests? If ever we needed a clear and comprehensive master plan, this is the time City Council!

In summary, do we want the chaos of “piecemeal development” or the comfort of a master plan? Until we understand the absolute necessity of a master plan providing for growth along with the economic health, the city will continue to slip away – and at an increasing pace! In essence, we’re trying to be a seafront city, without a master plan for a rudder. City Council, we need creativity now – not stupidity! Put SM residents back at the center – not NY developers! We can still maintain our small scale beachfront atmosphere, our urban form, our cultural and historic resources while still allowing for growth and staying economically healthy. “Quality of life and environment” is more iconic than “piecemeal planning and naiveness.”

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. Can we maintain our community’s vision, scale, culture, and character – or will this continue to be a developer’s 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 
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 & Planning Commissioner, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA & Planning Commissioner, Michael Jolly, AIR-CRE.

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

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