PROFESSIONAL BUILDING’S FUTURE IS UNCERTAIN
As far as I know, I’m the only person in Santa Monica who doesn’t like the plans for the addition to the Professional Building on the southeast corner of Wilshire and Seventh Street.
It’s old, ornate and very graceful, the tallest building in the area. There are shops on the first floor, offices on the upper floors. It rules the intersection, which it shares with a 7-11, a corner of Reed Park, and a non-descript two-story rectangular building that the late Herb Katz jazzed up with an ersatz, but decent Streamline Moderne façade some years ago, It rules not because it’s taller than the other buildings, or more beautiful, though it is, but because it’s magnificent.
The building is straight out of a Raymond Chandler novel — a bit worn, shabby, but still wholly present, and mildly, wonderfully sinister. It has character of the moody sort. And it’s a true professional building. I love that about it – especially as professional buildings in Santa Monica are being crowded out by the amateur variety. It’s also a City landmark.
I have always believed that if its owners were truly savvy, they would leave the exterior intact, remove all but the bearing walls from the interior, scrub it back to stone, and then outfit it with large, distinctive, airy offices and studios. It would be an overnight sensation, an instant legend, the building in which everyone wanted to be. The owner would profit, the new tenants would prosper, and those of us who simply love looking at it would be grateful.
Unfortunately, either the owner believed that bigger is better, or more lucrative, or grander, and so the owner and architect Howard Laks, and City staff and the Landmarks Commission and now the Planning Commission have spent years fiddling with what should remain a grand landmark, but seems to be on its way to becoming merely grandiose.
Rationalizing all the way, they’re preparing to turn this beloved professional building into a very large hotel — 55 rooms in the original building and 285 in a new building that they plan on wrapping around the original building. There will also be a bar and pool on the roof, and a large underground parking structure.
The new building consists of a series of plump cylinders that are not as tall as the original building, but, in the architect’s renderings, seem to reduce its height and increase its girth. In the renderings, the original building looks exactly like what it will become — a star that has been reduced to an extra.
But disturbed as I am about the diminution of this singular building, I am equally disturbed by a bizarre turn that swamped the aesthetic discussion at a lengthy Planning Commission hearing on Wednesday night.
The City proposed including a living wage ($10.64/$11.81 an hour) in the development agreement that would put neither the proposed new hotel nor existing hotels at a “competitive disadvantage.” All of a sudden, speakers were talking, not about the design, but the living wage. Everybody, including the President of the Chamber of Commerce, wanted the hotel, but no one wanted the living wage – except some hotel workers.
Several local business owners claimed that requiring a living wage for hourly workers in the proposed hotel would wreak havoc on local hotels and other businesses. The chair of the Chamber of Commerce, a car dealer, said the Chamber objected to the City’s including salary standards in development agreements (DA).
All of the Planning Commissioners were surprised to find the living wage addressed in the draft DA, and some of them were disturbed that the community at large had not been informed of this new wrinkle in the DA process and had not had an opportunity to discuss it.
The wage issue is not new. For as long as there have been businesses, business owners and their employees have debated it. The City put a City-wide living wage ordinance on the ballot some years ago, but it was clobbered by hotel owners and other businesses who spent about $1 million to kill it. Since then, after extended and vigorous struggles, workers at four local hotels have formed unions.
Several hotel workers spoke eloquently Wednesday night on behalf of the living wage, explaining that it enabled them to live here and raise their children here rather than having to commute long distances every day. In the view of the City, the more workers who live here rather than having to endure the daily commute, the healthier and more stable and complete the town is, but, thanks to the tourism and technology booms, the cost of living in Santa Monica is higher than it is in most of Southern California. Here and now, the daily transient population of our town is over 300,000 – more than three times the permanent population.
The City of L.A. runs “maids” buses out Sunset — one or two in the morning east to west, one or two west to east in the afternoon, dropping off and picking up maids in Beverly Glen, Westwood, Bel Air and the Palisades. To my knowledge, no one has been crass enough to say out loud that the Expo light rail will bring hourly wage workers into Santa Monica in the morning and take them home in the afternoon, thus freeing the hotels from any obligation to pay their hourly workers a real living wage, and the City from building more than the minimum quantity of affordable housing required by the state.
Clearly, a City-wide forum on the issue of fair wages is long overdue. Hotel operators eager to cash in on the boom are lining up in the Planning office. A Convention & Visitors Bureau representative was at the Planning meeting Wednesday to plump for the proposed hotel. But, if, as hotels and other tourist-driven businesses allege, they can only make money by exploiting some or all of their employees, then they shouldn’t be in business, and the City shouldn’t be cheering them on.
We have danced around the issue for too long. It’s time to face it, and resolve it – but not at a Planning Commission meeting.