WAYWARD COMMISSION MISSES THE MARK

Last week the Planning Commission voted to keep the two Activity Centers on Wilshire Boulevard as proposed in the LUCE.This decision was contrary to their own Staff Report that included several reasons for their removal: The proposed Centers would be Tier 3 (up to 65′) and out of scale with adjacent neighborhoods thereby negatively impacting the surrounding residents; The demise of the “Subway to the Sea” would eliminate transit stops at the Activity Centers making them only accessible by car creating ‘chokepoints” along Wilshire Blvd.; The Commercial Centers are not the only way to provide affordable housing along Wilshire since it would still be possible to achieve two levels of housing at Tier 2 (up to 47′) by other means.

In approving the retention of the two Activity Centers, the Planning Commission ignored their own staff’s recommendations as well as the community organizations that agreed with staff. Many of those present were left in disbelief. What were the “invisible forces” at play that might lead to such an unexpected result? The idea of putting a large commercial center (150 percent larger than Santa Monica Place) with parking for over two thousand cars at one of the busiest boulevards in the City seems illogical when the primary reason for its existence (Subway to the Sea) may never happen. As it stands, this Center will only be access-
ible by car and, as the staff point out, will create a major bottleneck at the eastern entrance to our City. The bifurcation of the Center by a large, active boulevard makes the concept of a unified Activity Center at this location or 14th Street even more dubious.

Centinela Activity Center

As architects and planners, we can think of many reasons why large Activity Centers are not the way to activate our boulevards with pedestrians. The first is that these Centers tend to be introverted rather than connected to the surrounding urban fabric. For example, Santa Monica Place closely resembles an Activity Center but does little to activate the surrounding streets. The places that are successful in creating a vibrant street life are usually linear with street-level businesses, restaurants, outdoor cafes etc. Some current examples in Santa Monica are the Third Street Promenade, Montana Avenue and Main Street in Ocean Park, all of which have narrower streets. All of these streets have been successful in creating an animated place to window shop, enjoy a meal or just go for a stroll.
The other ingredient for an interesting urban environment is the diversity and variety that comes with mixing old with new, upscale with funky to create a blend of styles and choices that appeal to a diverse population. This is more likely to occur along a street that evolves naturally than in a new commercial center with higher rents and the chain brands found in most malls. The proposed Activity Centers are more likely to resemble Santa Monica Place than a street like Abbot Kinney in Venice that was recently named by GQ as “the most happening block in the nation.” This street is primarily low-rise (1 to 2 stories) with an eclectic mix of shops and eateries. It’s a place where established businesses share the sidewalk with hip ‘start-
ups’ to create an environment where everyone can find something of interest or just pass the time people watch-
ing. This is a commercial street that coexists with residential neighborhoods in close proximity on both sides.
If one were to imagine a linear approach rather than an inward focused Activity Center, it might be a series of Neighborhood Improvement Districts (NID’s) along Wilshire- from Centinela to Lincoln Blvd. These NID’s would have incentives for landlords to develop their property in concert to create low- rise, neighborhood commercial districts with affordable housing above. Ideally, the spacing of the developments would keep them close to the maximum walking distance of a quarter mile. They could be developed with a combination of small grants and incentives for adaptive reuse. They could include new construction as well as renovation of the existing buildings to create a diverse, yet unified, neighborhood-shopping experience. The NID’s would require less parking, generate minimal traffic and be in scale with the surrounding communities. To improve their chances for success, it is recommended that specific standards as to tenant mix, housing and other criteria are put in place to help them achieve the NID objectives. There is no reason why this wouldn’t be possible on a smaller scale and in a more linear approach than the proposed Activity Centers.

Each District could share an emphasis on sidewalk cafes, interior courtyards, and other features to enhance the pedestrian experience. The tenant mix would also be controlled to some extent, as it was on the 3rd Street promenade, to insure that the types of stores were both synergistic and neighborhood serving. The short distance between the NID’s might eventually encourage pedestrians to walk from one to the next and incentivizing those in between to upgrade their own establishments to capture some of this new foot traffic. As suggested in the Staff Report, the upper stories would be affordable housing geared for families by providing enough bedrooms, balconies and access to ground level activities. These “eyes on the street” would help to create a safer urban environment.
In summary, the idea of decentralizing the proposed Activity Centers into several smaller neighborhood-serving Districts could achieve similar goals while minimizing the detrimental impacts on the surrounding neighborhoods. They could be accessed by foot as well as by car, reducing traffic and “bottlenecks.” The lower cost of smaller projects, along with adaptive reuse, could attract smaller, local businesses instead of the chains that populate the larger commercial projects. Ideally, it would enable the “mom and pop” businesses to remain while creating opportun-
ities for new businesses. The housing would be closer to street level where parents could monitor the street activity below and their children would have better access to adjacent parks and schools.

As these districts came into their own, and their unique character emerged, they could join the other vibrant, pedestrian streetscapes currently available across our City. This result would be far preferable that the negative impacts of two more large commercial complexes that would increase traffic and add little to the character and allure of our City.

Thane Roberts AIA for SMa.r.t.
Ron Goldman FAIA, Thane Roberts AIA, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Mario Fonda Bonardi AIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Samuel Tolkin AIA, Armen Melkonians Civil & Environmental Engineer, Phil Brock Chair, Parks & Recreation Commission. For previous articles, see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writings.

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A BAD CASE OF BEDLAM

In 2004, then-Director of Planning and Community Devel-opment Suzanne Frick said that the state-mandated revision of the General Plan was our Constitution, as it would determine our destiny for the next 20 years.

It was already four years behind schedule, and Frick’s statement sounded more like a threat than a promise.

Soon after her pronouncement, she decamped for Long Beach. Her successor, Eileen Fogerty, was demonstrably more interested in listening to and incorporating residents’ views in the revisions than Frick was, but she warned residents that there would have to be “trade-offs” and “deal-making,” and that “we will not succeed if we have winners and losers.”

City Staff initially dubbed the revisions of the land use and circulation elements “Shape the Future 2025” and “Motion by the Ocean,” but, as years passed and little happened, its moniker was reduced to LUCE (land use and circulation element), which didn’t bode well.Indeed, there was less and less motion by the ocean and more commotion every year..

At the initial workshops, meetings, hearings, in staff reports, in the two voluminous reports on the revision, and the extended rounds of “placemaking” what seemed to be critical points to residents were ignored by staff. Our alleged public servants had become entrepreneurs.

Santa Monica is not a theory or a concept, It’s not silly putty that can be endlessly pushed, pulled, poked and prodded, Nor is it an old suburb in need of a new look, a resort in need of a new identity, a “regional commercial hub” in need of more bling and bang, a “product” in need of branding or a money mill that isn’t making money.

In fact, Santa Monica was made generations ago, and made with care and art, and, as novelist William Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

Santa Monica is a masterpiece of a place — legendary, iconic, a 140 -year old beach town on the storied Southern California coast, made by a rich and various mix of people, ranging from the Latinos who were given a land grant by the Spanish government to Shirley Temple who was the most popu-
lar star in America when she was 10 years old to Raymond Chandler, who immortalized it as Bay City, a very corrupt town.

Though it was very small – eight square miles, it was the second most densely populated town in Southern California. In the rest of the state, there are, on average, 217 people per square mile. Here, in Santa Monica, there are more than 10,000 people per square mile. And the daily transient population is 300,000.

Santa Monica Place, the Third Street Promenade, the massive luxe office district, the “luxury hotels” on Ocean Avenue and the beach, the big, bulky new buildings on Main Street, the RAND behemoth, the bullies of apartment buildings on Sixth and Seventh Streets, the oversized “luxury condos” that have replaced more modest apartment buildings all over town, the gargantuan new buildings at St. John’s and Santa Monica-UCLA hospitals and some of the ugliest buildings in California (the City’s new parking structures) have all been piled on and jammed into the townscape in less than three decades.

The City and major business interests have inflated the town, while bruising its unique character, compromised its aesthetic integrity, thrown it out of balance and trigger-
ed virtually all the problems that now plague residents, but they have not subdued it, or its residents.

The lessons of thoughtless growth have been lost on City officials who continue to lobby for more growth, but residents’ devotion is deep and abiding, and Armen Melkonians’ Residocracy has given them the means to pre-
vail.

This gloriously idiosyncratic beach town was hijacked by City Hall because, it wanted to increase its revenue. And it has. For their part, residents got more traffic, more congestion and commotion, a 10 percent utility tax, more and higher fees, while losing many of their favorite local shops, stores, restaurants and services, and suffered a general dilution of their way of life.

The City shamelessly talks the sustainable city line, but everything in it seems to be expendable and disposable – except its salaries, which are more generous than any in the state.

Residents and their interests are allegedly represented in City Hall by the seven-member City Council. But for many years, four of the seven took campaign contributions from developers abandoned the of, by and for the people princi-
ple, and approved one dubious project after another.

The LUCE was approved five years ago, Its two major appli-cations are a new downtown specific plan, which has been on hold for a couple of years, and the zoning code revi-
sion, which was finally approved by the Planning Commiss-
ion several weeks ago. Among other things, the revisions are meant to determine what, if any, new developments are needed, what they should be and where they should go. Thirty-some proposals are in the pipeline now, major prop-
osals. The Planning Commission’s final revision reflects few of the residents’ objections, and City planners cont-
inue to court developers.

Santa Monica has changed more in the last 25 years than in the preceding 50 years – and not in a good way, but those changes pale when compared to the changes in size, scale, mass, density, location and function that are contained in the proposed zoning code revision.

The revisions will determine whether we preserve, refine and artfully elaborate on the beach town character that residents cherish, preserve what is here and worthy and remove what is unworthy, or unmake this gloriously idio-
syncratic town by compounding the mistakes that have been made in the last two decades.

What we have at the moment is a bad case of bedlam. But we also have a majority of four, which is quite capable of saying NO.

COUNCIL SESSION ON AIRPORT FUTURE IS PRODUCTIVE

Let me bring you up to date on what happened at the Tuesday March 24 Council Meeting regarding the airport issue. While the broader public has not opined on the minutia of strategies and options, including leasing terms, regarding what to do at the airport, what they have stated most clearly, both at the ballot box last November, and in surveys by CASMAT and others, amounts to a simple mandate to City Council as follows: “Deal with the airport issue for us as quickly as possible, and when you are done, repurpose the land freed up for park and recreational use”. Measured by this mandate, Tuesday night’s marathon Council session was another big step forward for the community:

1) Council instructed staff to begin work on the new 21-acre park the community, and in particular the Santa Monica Airport2Park Foundation (www.airport2park.org), asked for (per Measure LC). They instructed staff to have the 6-acre playing fields portion done within 2-3 years, and the 6-acre parkland aspect as soon as practical, even if not in its final form. This kind of rapid progress is unheard of. This action takes away the “you can’t trust ‘em on LC” argument pilots have foisted on us since the start of the D/LC campaign. I believe it may also have a chilling effect on our opponents’ morale as they see their territory being visibly seized and repurposed faster than they could ever have imagined. This Council move is directly respondent to measure LC. In voting for LC so resoundingly the public said “we want a park!”, Tuesday night Council gave them one and fast tracked it. In voting against D so resoundingly the public said “deal with the airport for us”, Tuesday night the Council did everything they could to do so, given current legal uncertainty.

2) Council reaffirmed their ongoing commitment to the arts and cultural uses on the non-aviation land by explicitly isolating its treatment from other parcels and offering the longer leases that those tenants need. At the same time, they mandated that all aviation uses of non-aviation land should stop. This too aligns exactly with community wishes. Moreover, this takes away the “they are out to kill the arts meme” aviation advocates used consistently in their measure D misinformation, and more recently as a result of the month-to-month everywhere movement which might inadvertently have had this effect. This entire issue has now been put to bed.

3) Council moved leases on the Western parcel to month-to-month, going against staff recommendations and giving a clear signal to all, that parcel may be taken back soon. Soon in this case likely means when we get back the determination on the appeal of City’s 2013 declarative release suit to clarify the City’s rights to decide the future of its own land. This decision may come down as soon as 2016. In the meantime however, we have moved the ball forwards and irreversibly, meaning that any later ensuing litigation triggered freeze of the status quo won’t be as disastrous as if it happened now (which might have happened had Council moved clumsily).

4) Council gave leases on the 1948 parcel up to 3 years, but required they include a clause whereby should the airport facilities wholly or partially close, takers of those leases would have no recourse and their lease would end. This action will attract new non-aviation tenants into the airport to replace weaker aviation tenants that might chose to leave. It will be at least 3 years before the 48 parcel is resolved, so 3-year lease terms on this parcel is actually a non-issue. Going month-to-month on the 48 parcel simply encourages aviation tenants to stay on and likely aggravate the status quo, since we’d be unable to find more attractive low impact tenants to replace them. Council instructed staff to raise all leases on the Western and 48 parcels to market rate, to end all sub-leasing windfalls, and to explore utilizing a leasing agent and management company to directly handle all leases – all prudent moves.

5) Council created a multi-faceted approach which is entirely rational, justifiable, and will make a difficult if not impossible target for aviation lobby litigation, but which moves things in the direction the community wants. I’m sure that the aviation lobby was watching closely Tuesday night with intent to sue at any misstep, no doubt they’ve been working on this since they lost in November. I saw no misstep, and Council did not do any of the things the aviation lobby expected. Instead they did something else, taking back non-aviation land for LC-compliant parks (this is land the FAA gave up all rights to over 30 years ago), they gave longer leases where it would not make any difference (the 48 parcel), they took just the Western parcel month-to-month, and they took all aviation parcel rates to market rate while treating the non-aviation land (which contains virtually all the uses the public has said it ‘likes’ about the airport) separately. I believe this approach will get us all where we want to be much faster and safer than others they might have taken.

All in all, Council deftly crafted a resolution that modified staff’s proposals to give the community as much as is possible and prudent at this time, while sending strong and critically important messages of support for LC, arts and cultural uses, and for their firm intent to move this issue towards a final resolution that meets community needs. The only casualty in all this, as Kevin McKeown pointed out, may be Typhoon’s request for a 10 year lease, but this is unavoidable since Typhoon is on the 48 parcel and so can’t be treated differently from others on that parcel without triggering litigation.

John Fairweather

Chair – Campaign for Local Control of Santa Monica Airport Land (CLCSMAL – www.ItsOurLand.org)
Founder – Community Against Santa Monica Airport Traffic (CASMAT – www.CASMAT.org)
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O’CONNOR’S LOYALTY TO DEVELOPERS PERSISTS

The Santa Monica Daily Press is reporting that “New plans for the site of arguably the most controversial Santa Monica development in recent years include reoccupation and an addition, totaling 203,816 square feet of office space, according to documents filed with City Hall earlier this month.

“Hines, the Texas-based developer whose larger project included nearly 375,000 square feet of office space but also 427 apartments and $32 million in community benefits, is no longer involved with the property.

“The Hines project was approved in a 4-3 Council vote that was later overturned by a successful referendum from residents who feared the project was too big and would create too much additional traffic.

“Lincoln Property Company, based in Los Angeles, is now acting as the developer and CSHV Pen Factory owns the land.
“Unlike the Hines project, which exceeded City Hall’s land-use limits and therefore needed approval from City Council, the Pen Factory project can proceed relatively uninhibited because it stays within the code.

“The project can be approved through an administrative approval, which is a code compliance check by staff, then would only need to be reviewed by the ARB (for design review),” said city planner Jing Yeo.

“The Architectural Review Board (ARB) won’t be able to negotiate for additional community benefits.

“It looks like the scenario where someone rehabs the existing building and hires some designers to make it a desirable workplace — but all internal to the site — is coming to fruition,” said Council member Pam O’Connor, who supported the Hines project. “No public amenities would be provided and the former industrial site will become more like a gated suburban office campus …except for the two good things — it will be next to a rail station and will provide jobs.”

“O’Connor said that commercial developers likely won’t want or need to add housing for decades.

“Just sad that this opportunity to also provide housing and create a mixed use walkable community — in a time of a housing affordability, and availability crisis — has been lost,” she said.”

O’Connor’s affection for commercial developments is legendary. The Santa Monica Transparency Project found that O’Connor has accepted 31 allegedly illegal campaign contributions from developers or their associates.

As a Council member and mayor, O’Connor led the Council in rejecting virtually all appeals by The Landmarks Commission or other entities and approving thoroughly dubious projects.
When residents voted to reject the Hines project, O’Connor abstained rather voting to rescind the Council approval — unlike her Council colleagues who voted to rescind it. .

The longtime Council member’s loyalty to developers’ com-
mercial projects is absolute, but, of course, she continues to take an oath after every election to serve residents fully and well, not developers.