Less Is More. And Vital
It was architect Mies van der Rohe who famously said “Less is more” and “God is in the details” decades ago, and every time we read another staff report on the revision of the land use and circulation elements of the General Plan, we wish he were here.
Over the last several months, the City planners have held a number of community workshops on the revision of the land use and circulation elements of the General Plan.
The good news is that Planning and Community Development Director Eileen Fogarty who came to Santa Monica last fall, seems genuinely interested in residents’ views. The bad news is that City Hall’s preference for more over less still dominates.
Santa Monica has long been an exemplary beach town. The ocean and the beach are the main thing. the shaping force, and the town compliments them brilliantly, being low-rise and small scale, easy-going, thoroughly idiosyncratic, and intricate.
Mies would have been crazy about Santa Monica because it demonstrates that less is not just more, it’s everything.
But about two decades ago, City Hall’s obsession with more led to the piling on and jamming in of too many outsized, clumsy buildings as it labored to turn this exemplary beach town into a “regional commercial hub” and tourist mecca.
In addition to fouling the townscape, that drive has triggered virtually all the roblems that now plague residents — from chronic traffic congestion to a measurable decline in our previously idyllic way of life.
At every workshop and in every survey, residents said they wanted their beach town restored, which requires subtracting from, not adding to the townscape.
Unfortunately, like most planners, our planners don’t do subtraction, and so they have developed a total of 37 “principles” — .12 “Residential Neighborhood Principles,” 5 “Placemaking Principles,” 6 “Walkable Community Principles,”5 “Urban Design Principles for Mixed-Use Neighborhoods,” and 9 ”Parking and Transportation Principles.”
At Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, the planners will ask the Council to endorse” these ”principles” and incorporate them into the revision. But, in planning, as in virtually everything else, the City has focused more on the means than the end, and the “Neighborhood Conservation and Placemaking Principles for the Land Use and
Circulation Elements” are long on means, short on ends. As bad, there are far too many of them, they describe parts, not the whole, and they have about as much rigor as a fistful of Hallmark cards.
According to the staff report, “…focusing on neighborhood character, the workshops identified principles to conserve and enhance the character of neighborhoods. The principles range from the need to respect the existing housing stock to establishing a quality, landscaped streetscape to minimizing the impact of the automobile to assuring that buildings are well designed and compatible in size and scale with the neighborhood while having appropriate transitions in scale and height for compatibility with the neighborhood. Of equal importance was the need for quality pedestrian connections and addressing shuttle transit and creative solutions to parking concerns.
“To achieve the outcomes that the community is requesting, the City should be focusing less on the processing of building permits and more on creating great places for the City. The Placemaking workshops centered on ensuring that future change will enhance and contribute to the community rather than negatively impact it.”
“Creating great places for the City?” In fact, the City is a great place…with some major problems and some bad patches. Shouldn’t the planners’ focus be solving the problems and excising the bad patches? Well, no, according to the planners.
The report says, “Placemaking involves enhancements both on the public right-of-way and in the private realm. A variety of desirable land uses and gathering places can be combined with public investments in infrastructure and transportation to improve access and enhance mobility. Specific tools such as the strategic placement of parking, use of landscaping, wider sidewalks and breaking up blocks using paseos and plazas can also be used to achieve the desired pedestrian environment.”
Have the planners seen our residential neighborhoods? Each has its own unique character, its own assets, and its own problems. The late director Howard Hawks once said that, in the movies of his era, New York City signified Hell and Connecticut was heaven. North of Montana is Santa Monica’s “heaven,” yet it has no parks, and is now beset by through traffic and has become a parking lot for Montana Avenue businesses.
The neighborhood between Montana and Wilshire, west of 21st Street, is
our densest neighborhood, being comprised almost entirely of apartment buildings, including some fine old structures. Montana and Wilshire shoppers park there, and too many graceful, reasonably priced apartments have been demolished to make room for pretentious, clumsy condos.
Ocean Park west of Lincoln, is perhaps the pluperfect Santa Monica neighborhood. The multiple attractions of Main Street, the undulating topography, tree-lined streets, mix of fine old apartment buildings, garden apartments and distinctive houses whose architecture ranges from Victorian to Craftsman to modern, parks and small corner stores here and there make it a splendid place to live. But Fourth Street, Main Street and Nielsen Way are now all clogged with traffic almost all the time
Certain streets east of Lincoln – Ocean Park Boulevard, 20th Street north of
Ocean Park have an unusual number of unusual small apartment buildings and garden apartments.
The report continues, “Neighborhood conservation involves preserving the scale and character of existing housing, , enhancing street landscaping and promoting walkability, whereby the pedestrian is given parity with the automobile…”
Easy to say, but hard to do – especially since the neighborhoods are as different as North of Montana, Wilshire/Montana and Ocean Park, and, like the City itself, they are all full to overflowing.
What’s needed here are a few basic principles. i.e., the restoration and preservation of our residential neighborhoods is paramount, along with very specific plans for each neigh-borhood.
One of the flimsier report assertions is “Good architectural design with quality materials should be assured,” but who defines “good?” Certainly not the City, which has abysmally bad taste. Not only has it not built one good building in decades, it recently celebrated the opening of what must be the ugliest building in California – the Fourth Street parking structure. Not Developers, based on their works to date. Not home owners. Houses on virtually any block range from brilliant to pleasant to monstrous. Do the planners envision a Czar of “Good?”
According to the report. “… workshops shared a common purpose, to create a shared vision of a future Santa Monica through the LUCE process…Santa Monica has choices. It is a desirable place and should expect the very best…(they should) begin to define the City – How it should evolve, look and function…”
In fact, we had “the very best” until City Hall began “growing” it. Now our principal task is to restore and preserve “the very best.”
And our town was defined a long ago. It’s a beach town and that’s how it should “evolve, look and function.”
The report then politely notes Santa Monica’s dirty big secret: “A range of transportation enhancements was also discussed, with a broad consensus that multiple modes to enhance mobility should be embraced. A safe network of bicycle routes is needed. Increased transit to move more people in an efficient manner is desired, and small shuttle buses to link the eighborhoods to the boulevards should be considered. Parking districts and other shared parking options should be explored. There was broad support for shielding on-site parking from view either underground or behind street-front destrian friendly uses. In order to facilitate vehicle movement, traffic signals should be synchronized city-wide.”
The most visible and intractable effect of the City’s aggressive economic policies of the last two decades has been traffic. Our population has emained constant at about 85,000, but the daily population nearly quadruples — to 300.000, and grows to half-a-million on weekends, according to the City. Today, just going across town any day at almost any hour is a Rhine battle. And even if the City manages to take all the steps outlined in the report and get all of us out of our cars, there would still be 216.000 cars in our streets daily and 416,000 on Saturdays and Sundays.
The only sure way to cut traffic back to a workable level is to drastically reduce transient traffic and the only way to do that is drastically slow what City Hall likes to call “the engine that drives the local economy,” i.e., “regional commerce” and tourism. To put it another way, the only way to make Santa Monica more attractive to residents is to make it less attractive to visitors.
On its face, it seems to be a thoroughly whichy thicket. But, in fact, while such a move would reduce City Hall revenue, it wouldn’t have much of an impact on residents. 69 percent of working residents don’t work in Santa Monica, but they spend most of the money they make here. They also pay a variety of taxes, fees and service charges here. They are major players in the local economy, but the City has traditionally been content to simply take their money and run with it.
Now, even as the planners work on the General Plan revision, the City is planning to make Santa Monica Pier and the Third Street Promenade more “competitive,” i.e. to attract more people. The City now allocates $2.4 million a year to the Convention and Visitors Bureau – to attract more people. It Has undertaken a “branding campaign” – to attract more people. It’s planning to spend over $100 million on new parking structures – to attract more people.
The staff report calls for the Council to “endorse” the principles so that “they may be incorporated into the LUCE and adapted appropriately to respond to the needs of residential, commercial and mixed-use districts. Additionally, given…the community desire to obtain community benefits and improve the quality of projects under consideration prior to adoption of the LUCE, staff plans to explore options with the City Council for applying the Principles during discretionary project review phases.”
If the Council does endorse the principles, they and we will simply continue to run in place, as we have been doing for some time.
Santa Monica is 137 years old. It is perfectly located on the fabled Southern California coast. It is very small: 8 square miles. Its population has hovered at about 85,000 for decades. It is 46 times more densely populated than the rest of California.It is built out. It is an exemplary and Irreplaceable beach town, and it is literally choking on its own success.
The mandated revision of the land use and circulation elements of the General Plan is probably residents’ last best shot at restoring, preserving and refining this iconic beach town.
To do that, we must recognize that less is not simply more, but vital here and now, and that the whole is only as sound as its details, put all existing projects on hold until the revision is complete, establish new and more rigorous standards for new developments, as well as limits on the number and kind of developments, preserve all existing open space, remake the boulevards and major north-south thoroughfares to serve residents rather than swamping residential neighborhoods, and develop new housing policies to preserve existing housing rather than building new housing.
But none of these changes will be workable or effective unless City Hall replaces the conventional economic development policies that are literally choking our town with modest, but imaginative policies that will restore this masterpiece of a place, eather than killing it.
The hour is late. The need is urgent. Everything is at stake.