SMa.rt chronicle: The value of our boulevards
Below is a collection of earlier articles discussing the accelerating demise of our seaside environment, as well as the development community’s increasing control over city council and planning staff, and the redirection that we can take to right the ship!
Our boulevards and avenues provide the structural fabric, the decorative ribbons that bind our city to our downtown – an environment we stand to lose! Their importance to our city cannot be overstated. Our varied residential, commercial and industrial boulevards and avenues 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 thoroughfares with commercial property on either side is 565 acres or 2.5 times the area of our downtown area of 226 acres. With this area representing more than 10% of the overall size of our city, one can realize the importance of these paved streets barely lined with trees and their property in front.
What is the purpose and character of our boulevards? Buses and cars have degraded the bucolic nature of the boulevards by instead emphasizing traffic movement and providing easy access for police, fire and ambulance. The recent President of the Chamber of Commerce described our boulevards as “long lonely corridors and danger zones for pedestrians and cyclists”.
But in addition to being the gateways to our city, our boulevards serve a variety of roles ranging from mobility and economic opportunity to open space and social connection. With 20% of our boulevards developed with single-story buildings and asphalt parking lots, as well as 50% occupied solely by single-story development, our boulevards offer the most significant opportunity for low-rise housing and future business growth. They are the bridges that unite the community and the key to our city’s future!
And instead of the current rectangular high-rise buildings with uninspired in-line storefronts hugging narrow 7- to 12-foot-wide sidewalks, we can transform our boulevards into landscaped promenades with mixed-use commercial and residential villages with 2 and 3 terraced patio floors accommodation on commercial ground floor. Instead of traffic and cars parked 10 feet away, the storefronts would overlook sidewalks and winding courtyards with trees, landscaping, benches, fountains and bike racks. These mixed villages could create more than 10,000 homes in addition to the more than 4,000 existing homes currently vacant. But a 33% increase in population also means a 33% increase in infrastructure, two things that will never be needed compared to our 4% growth over the past 50 years! Unless, of course, we lose our collective spirit.
We need to reinvent our boulevards and develop policies that encourage creative development and appropriate open space in Santa Monica instead of economically motivated block building design. The pedestrian experience is as essential as the movement of vehicles. It’s also worth noting that Manhattan Beach has a height limit of 2 floors, Laguna Beach 3 and Santa Barbara 4! Why do we currently allow 6, 8 and 10 floors!!! 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 sustain and sustain our “seaside town” economically when our city government is simultaneously inundated with issue after issue and only dealing with planning issues piecemeal. We need to establish a commission that works with planning staff to explore ways to encourage mixed-use zoning, introduce quality into building design and reorient our boulevard environment.
With a substantial majority of buildings on the boulevards being single storey, increased economic incentives would allow either buyout or consolidation of multiple landowners within the block into a single development entity with the prospect of increased net income from 400-500% – more than offsetting 18-24 months of lost rental income during construction and rental. And if the city were to provide property tax and permit processing incentives, a good portion of the new units could provide below-market rents for housing needed by the workforce.
But everything has become “piecemeal” – development, decision-making, jumping from one event to another, from one crisis to another – an extremely expensive way of running a city. Our downtown continues to “canyonize” and our neighborhoods and boulevards fill with blocky buildings! Our mantra has been economic gain at the expense of residents and our environment. Will our council continue to listen to developers before residents? I realize there are many pressing needs – from homelessness to broadband and so on, but growth for growth’s sake isn’t planning, it’s chaos! We cannot continue to be a divided house, a divided city! We cannot continue to approve projects with 521 units in twelve buildings over 65 feet tall separated only by 20 to 30 feet of wind tunnels and shade, or the 130 foot high monster of a hotel over of 2 football pitches end to end. long end!
What is our vision for Santa Monica – the future of our boulevards, our neighborhoods, our downtown? Are we going to 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 waterfront character of winding sidewalks, landscaping, terraces and trellises instead of a city of blocky buildings with the staccato rhythm of cells of jail ! Let’s reorient the character of our boulevards and set ourselves the goal of doing 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 of this time for reflection to redo our retail and office landscape. Without destroying our single-family neighborhoods, we can also use tax and permit incentives to encourage the development of secondary suites on single-family properties. In addition, there is a significant amount of city-owned properties – large and small – BBB Yards, Bergamot, City Courtyards and various vacant lots where affordable two- and three-storey courtyard housing can be distributed over parts of these city-owned properties with no land costs and built at 2/3 the cost of six- and eight-story buildings.
Wake up Council and stop this sinking
It is truly unbelievable that some city council members feel 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. It’s not just a political difference between pro-development council members and a resident population that increasingly lives with higher taxes and more and more traffic. This is a very serious problem that we face – adding 25% more housing, 25% more population, 25% more infrastructure, 25% more traffic and, probably, 25% more taxes more. This will literally ruin Santa Monica. A former City Council majority that spent $40 million to $50 million more than necessary on a City Hall annex vanity project, a $40 million judgment on a staff lawsuit that could have been snuffed out in the egg years earlier, or $20 million plus the fight against the district-wide vote that probably would have removed some of them from office even sooner than it did, well that there are still remains to be removed at the next opportunity.
And why didn’t our former city council appeal this draconian fool’s errand when other cities 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 tenants’ rights to include residents’ rights.
This period of time provides us with an incredible opportunity to learn and take stock of where we are going and where we prefer to go. Please, City Council, for only $2 million plus, include these boulevards as just one part of a desperately needed master plan to avoid losing our seaside surroundings and character! We see streets with wide landscaped sidewalks, not tall buildings creating narrow canyons. We see the adaptive reuse of one- and two-story buildings interspersed with three- and four-story buildings. Instead of the alleys, we see a town center with arcades for local traders, to compensate for the coldness of the chain stores. We see “seaside”, not “urban”.
Santa Monica, there is no other choice – we must rid the city council of members who support this madness.
Ron Goldman FAIA
for SMart (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.