Opinion: I'm Worried About Santa Monica's Downtown Plan

Santa Monica resident Ellen Brennan calls on the community to protest a new plan for downtown she says is in "total opposition" to what residents want: low building heights and traffic that moves.

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This commentary is from Ellen Brennan, a Santa Monica resident and former chairwoman of the Pier Restoration Corporation. 

To quote a local reporter, “Residents are worried about the Downtown Process. Residents feel like the game is being played with loaded dice.”

I agree.

Neal Payton, consultant for Santa Monica's Downtown Specific Plan, has changed his approach. At his first workshop, he talked about turning Lincoln Boulevard into a row of six-story buildings and narrowing Wilshire Boulevard from Third Street to Ocean Avenue to creating a wider sidewalk by removing at least one lane of traffic.

On Dec. 5, at the third workshop to present the plan to the community, Payton did a 180 degree reversal. He did not talk about height and density and removing traffic lanes (although all his slides showed height and density). He talked about "benefits" and "gateways" and "interesting walking spaces."  

Unfortunately, we've been there, done that. In the 1990s,  none of the public parks and interesting walks built in the 90s remain. But talking about "benefits" took the focus off height and density, which is what the Downtown Specific Plan is actually about.  

Public parks

He talked about little parks that spring up unexpectedly. This is a recycled idea that came and went in the 90s. None of those little parks built in Santa Monica are now in existence. They were an urban planning fad. They were co-opted by adjacent businesses. Restaurants put more dining spaces in them, adjacent businesses ended up annexing them, or hi-jacking them or killing them.  

If you'd like to see a remnant of one of these little public parks, in Santa Monica, look behind 1250 4th St. Park your car and look through the padlocked wrought iron gate. For nine years, my office was in that building. The firm moved there in 1991, when the building was owned by Security Pacific Bank. Behind it was a lovely public park that featured seasonal flower beds, a small waterfall and pond, small flowering  trees, tables and chairs. I regularly took my lunch and a book and spent a quiet lunch hour there.

Then Security Pacific Bank was absorbed by Bank of America, who sold the building to Michael Milken. He removed plantings and substituted a row of cypress trees planted two feet apart. They've now grown as tall as the building and form an impenetrable barrier to the property, almost filling the space where the park existed. The gate to this "public park" is now padlocked seven days a week.

Look at the public park approved for the second floor of the McDonald's building at Second Street and Colorado. It was supposed to be a place where mothers could take their small children for a quiet moment in nature.

I went to see it on Dec 7. It’s now a private patio for a company called GK Films. The elevator no longer stops on the second floor. The stairs are blocked by doors that require keys to enter. I took the elevator to the 3rd floor and asked  the receptionist what happened to the public park on the  2nd floor. After a moment of confusion, I was led to a large window and allowed to look down on it. This public park has been hi-jacked by a private company. 

Cafe Casino, the popular French Bistro/Cafeteria at Arizona and Ocean,  had a lovely attached public park. As you approached from 2nd street,  you could walk beside a stream (fitted into a waist-high wall) that was home to beautiful golden koi—surrounded by tropical plantings. The Arizona and Ocean Avenue corner featured a park of seasonal flowering plants and walkways through-out. When Cafe Casino closed, the stream was filled in, the tropicals became mundane, and the park on the corner disappeared. Unless the city mandating the parks takes responsibility for their upkeep, these little parks disappear at the owners’ whim.

Walking spaces

Interesting walking spaces is also a recycled idea. For a while, the alleys downtown Santa Monica were called "courts" and were designed to be as interesting as the streets. A planning rule stated that buildings downtown could have no "back."  The rear of the building had to have pedestrian interest. But that idea soon passed and “courts”  reverted to loading spaces, parking spots and trash pick-ups. The interesting business entrances on the courts disappeared and walking through was once again discouraged.

The list of 10 amenities residents want now (as enumerated by Payton) is the exact same list of amenities residents wanted 20 years ago. But, the buildings that were  built within the grid of "amenities" were designed by developers whose goal was to maximize profits. Public amenities require upkeep and don’t enhance the bottom line. There is no enforcement of public benefits in Santa Monica.  (Remember that the City Council of Santa Monica allowed Saint John's Health Center to walk away from building the multi-million dollar parking structure, the public benefit that secured the development agreement). Since the developer, the planner and the city staff have the same goal—maximizing revenues—public benefits are nothing but the carrot dangled before the donkeys intended to keep their focus off the real game plan. They have no long term substance.

Wider sidewalks

The idea of widening sidewalks on Wilshire Boulevard is a short trip to disaster. Since you can't move buildings, creating wider sidewalks entails removing lanes of traffic. The consultant is clearly oblivious to the traffic pattern in downtown, which is seriously gridlocked. Traffic lanes have been removed from Broadway, Santa Monica Boulevard, and Fourth Street and those streets have become creeping parking lots that require sitting through several lights to move a single block.

Colorado is shortly to become an amputated street—with the light rail taking up much of its length, and a single traffic lane each way from Fouth to Ocean accompanied by wide sidewalks. This project is called the esplanade. When this is complete,  the only four-lane street in Santa Monica to access Ocean Avenue will be Wilshire. If they remove traffic lanes from Wilshire, they will have just created total gridlock that will affect every street in downtown. The gridlock that accompanies reduced traffic lanes will move to Wilshire.  And keep in mind that the articulated 720 rapid metro bus from Santa Monica to Downtown LA makes a sweeping turn at Wilshire and Ocean every 12 minutes throughout the day. The city may be monitoring traffic on Wilshire now,  but nobody has or can measure what will happen to Wilshire when Colorado is amputated as a traffic carrier.

Ocean Avenue is also presently gridlocked from Wilshire south. The city and developers want to  promote new, upgraded and larger hotels on Ocean Avenue. It appears that nobody is looking at the potential  traffic disaster being proposed. But, of course, developers don't care. They function as glorified carpet  baggers. They build, then they flip the project  (sell the project to a syndicator, who resells it to a hedge fund  or  turns the project into Limited Liability units  and markets them through brokerage firms). The developer gets his money out in short order and moves on to his next windfall project.  This is the development game all over the country. We get left with the gridlock, the density, the cost of upgrading services and sewer systems and infrastructure which requires more bond issues that raise our taxes.  

Payton is also suggesting that business on Fourth build “decks” in the street replacing parking spaces. In 1991, when my business moved to Santa Monica, traffic in downtown moved easily. Fifth Street was one way from the freeway northward. Fourth street had two lanes going both directions. There was no gridlock.

Under the title “Building the Transit Mall”, the city decided to engineer traffic downtown. Lanes of traffic were removed from Fourth from Broadway and Santa Monica Boulevard and parking was permitted on these streets. Present-day gridlock was the result.

Fourth has never been a walking street. At present it hosts few walkers. Yet the consultant declares that 13 foot sidewalks are not enough there as there are "too many walkers." (In a street that wants “more walkability, there are “too many walkers” on Fourth?)  He advocates  businesses should be allowed to build decks in parking spaces Fourth, which is seriously gridlocked presently  and will become worse once Colorado is amputated, and a large theater is built on Fourth (an environmental report declares the theater will cause more traffic). Into that depressing mix, this consultant is suggesting that businesses build decks out into the street to replace parking? Do you get the feeling that the inmates are running the asylum?

Towering heights

But the piece de resistance is called "opportunity sites."  Payton started his presentation by saying, "the [Land Use Circulation Element] is our bible".  He ended it by pushing an idea—that is nowhere in the LUCE—for "opportunity sites," where buildings of unlimited height will make the landscape “interesting” 

The only mention of an opportunity site in the LUCE is on page 2.4-7 where Lincoln and Broadway are so designated and a new grocery store is urged (to get rid of the Vons' parking lot at that site). This "opportunity site" has nothing to do with height. Payton’s  new creation is not in the LUCE.  

In speaking of “opportunity sites,” Payton referenced 100 Wilshire, the tallest building in town at 275 feet high. Every time he showed 100 Wilshire there was a chorus of "no" from the audience, getting louder each time. Finally he said, "Ah, come on, somebody must like it." He got one taker. But that message went in one ear and out the other. 

He then showed a schematic of Santa Monica with tall towers scattered around to create “interest." This was Payton at his most manipulative. He (and the city) know where developers want to build tall towers—at Ocean and Wilshire, at Ocean and Santa Monica and Ocean and Colorado—not scattered through out the city. These are already being discussed in the planning department. While Payton knows that, it’s not what he showed.

What residents want

He shows what residents don't want while talking about "benefits."  Some of us noticed that this whole plan is in total opposition to everything residents  of Santa Monica want—and the benefits are shop worn and already proved worthless.

Residents want a low skyline,  suburban density, traffic that moves. The city and the developers and the consultants are all too aware of this. That's why manipulative presentations like this one are the order of the day.

In the exercises after the Dec. 5 presentation, participants were sent to pre-assigned tables, designed to make sure you didn't sit with like-minded people. These tables were equally populated by members of the development community who overwhelmed the dialog with their smiling approval. The facilitator directed the group to a poster of photos on the table and asked participants to talk about  "gateways." At no time was there an opportunity for a discussion of the presentation and any negative comments about its contents, such as  "we reject your towers and vociferously oppose them, no matter what  you call them."

I understand that one of those tall towers is intended for the northeast corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Ocean. This would be disastrous.

Presently that space is a garden/parking lot. Its low horizon allows the length of Wilshire Boulevard to appear open to the sky and sun, and gives you the impression that you're driving toward the Ocean.

If a tall tower is built on that spot opposite the tallest tower in town (at 100 Wilshire) it will block the view of sky and sun and act like a Chinese wall, darkening Wilshire for its entire length in Santa Monica. To darken the length of our signature street is unthinkable and much more devastating than the gridlock that narrowing Wilshire would create, a disaster for the city. That present open view must be preserved.

If you don't want more gridlock in downtown, more streets that don't move,  a darker Wilshire, 275-foot tall towers on Ocean Avenue, a row of six-story buildings on Lincoln, then start now to frame your protest. And don't pull punches. Email, fax and hand deliver your protest letters. Save copies in case originals get lost. Don't stop until the city, the planners and the developers hear you. 

The downtown plan" goes to the Planning Commission for approval in early January.


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Brenda Barnes December 27, 2012 at 03:38 AM
I've seen lots of young people at hearings on these things talking about all the cool neighborhoods that are going to be created. All I can say is bye, Jean.
scott Seol March 04, 2013 at 01:33 PM
We have to make SM better. The current set up is not working and needs to be updated with smart plan. I ask for even more interesting projects with better transportation - not just metro but much better electric bus system.
D K Hatton March 16, 2013 at 02:57 PM
I haven't been in Santa Monica a long time and when I first came I attended several public meetings about city planning. I was dazzled by the skill of the presenters, but confused about what would be best for the city. Now after a bit, I can see that traffic is a serious problem. I do not have a car and walk and take trains and buses. As an aside, i marvel at the skill of the bus drivers who hundreds of times a day avoid hitting careless drivers who are more interested in texting and talking than driving. Isn't there a law here about texting and holding and talking on a cell? Why isn't it enforced? Any city has to grow naturally, or it will fail. While Santa Monica has much to offer in the way of location and beauty, I get the feeling it is being forced to grow. But all is change. Walk on 2nd Street between Santa Monica and Broadway and look down at the line for the Red Cars. Old timers here know that once southern California had a robust public transport system. See here if you don't know about it: http://www.usc.edu/libraries/archives/la/historic/redcars/. What happened to it? Famous business concerns colluded to get rid of it and to force people to buy cars. A cold-blooded economic decision was made. In the case of 2013 Santa Monica, as my wise old father always said...follow the money.
Brenda Barnes March 17, 2013 at 06:34 AM
It's great, DK, that already in a short time you see SM is being forced to grow for the money growth brings. The same kind of cold-blooded economic decisions are being made now as were made to get rid of the Red Cars, except now capital wants to bring transit back so capital can profit from it. The suburbs didn't work out for capital in the long run, after all. Too bad. We suckers will pay to fix their mistakes again and again, they think. I hope they are wrong. I hope the Internet has made it where we won't have to wait 30 years to find out what really happened. People like Ellen can tell us what they've seen, and you can link to explanations, and we will all get smarter than we were. BTW, the police had time to give me a ticket for an overdue registration but I see people texting and talking on phones driving in every block. We are being conned again, to keep paying for police who do the wrong things. I talked to a bus driver in his 20s a few weeks ago who had gone in for tests for chest pains. No wonder, with what drivers do lately. I honestly think LA drivers were the best anywhere. They were, that is, until cell phones and texting destroyed their concentration.
D K Hatton March 17, 2013 at 03:23 PM
America is all about making money and if America wasn’t the money-making model for the rest of the world, the country might not have a standard of living for some that is the envy of all. And, we all, no matter our economic situation, benefit from living in high end Santa Monica. It is the decisions made about how the next couple of decades unfold that seem questionable to me. I know lots of people think Santa Monica should stay a ‘sleepy little town’ but those days are likely gone. However, it doesn’t mean that every inch of space has to be built with look-alike apartments. Where are the jobs that are going to support the people who are going to live in these places? At the other end of the rail line? And, realistically, if any one of us had the opportunity to make a few million on a plot of land we never thought would be worth much, would any of us be able to say no? I’ve heard the stories about how the parking garages were built and the Third Street Promenade came about and how Santa Monica was, 25-30 years or so ago, a druggie town and people were actually afraid to come here. Well, somebody made good decisions and took a view of the future that changed the city for the good. Change itself is unavoidable, but if it seems likely that decisions are being made to make a lot of money at the expense of the area, then those decisions become questionable.


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