VI. The Fallacy of the Urban Form
Initially distracted by the plethora of “visions” in the “Strategic Framework” for the revision of the land use and circulation elements of the General Plan (LUCE), I have finally found its throughline — “urban form.”
In certain areas of Santa Monica, according to the “framework,”
“urban form” is lacking, in other areas it’s present and in still others it’s the goal.
But what is “urban form?” It’s so general as to be meaningless, and all the more ominous for it. New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia are all “urban,” but they’re wholly different in “form.”
The planners never define or explain what they mean by “urban form,” though it’s the basis of the LUCE revision.
Of course, Santa Monica isn’t “urban,” nor is it “suburban,” or “rural.” It’s a beach town, an anomaly, and that should be the basis for the revision. But, as we have learned the hard way, our planners and consultants don’t know what to do with anomalies – except overlook them. And as they are more at home with the theoretical than the actual, they have inevitably inclined toward urban form, which is a concept, not a fact, and as useless as silly putty. You can push it, pull it, poke it, stretch it, and compress it, but no matter what you do or how artfully you do it, you can’t make anything of value out of it.
In fact, the planners adopted the “urban form” in advance of the revision, applying ”urban design principles” in downtown Santa Monica.
Ignoring the classic scale that had prevailed for a century, they increased height and density limits, extended the eastern perimeter and turned easy streets, like Sixth, into brutal cement canyons. They spent $15 million on the “Transit Mall,” which has turned traffic congestion into gridlock. They turned up the volume on the Promenade. And they did it all in the name of “urban form.”
The Janss building at the south end of the Promenade is frequently cited by urban form enthusiasts on the staff and Council as a perfect example of the ways in which upper floor setbacks make tall, densely made buildings seem smaller. That’s wishful thinking of the delusional sort. The outsized building is simply too tall and too bulky, and, in fact, demonstrates that setback height and bulk do not make large buildings seem smaller and more compatible in this low-rise town, but merely insult to the eye and the townscape.
Though urban form has diminished downtown Santa Monica, LUCE would extend it to the boulevards and the various areas it designates as “activity centers” and “districts.”
At its inception what is now LUCE was called a “revision,” which is what the state mandates. Early on. the planners began calling it an “update,” which is, by no means, synonymous with ‘revision,” but what they are up to, as is made manifestly clear in the “framework,” is a radical redesign of Santa Monica, which needs revision, but does not need a redesign. Here and now, residents want this iconic beach town toned down, not tuned up. But if the City Council doesn’t assert its much-bruited authority – either on its own or driven by residents — and order the planners to dial their hopelessly wrong redesign down to a simple, workable revision, we and the beach town we love are in for a very bumpy ride.
Among other things, “the LUCE Vision” would “maintain character and enhance lifestyle.” In fact, judging by the copious illustrations, it would obliterate character, while reducing our very divergent lives to one suitable “lifestyle.”
Among the “Six Framework Elements” is “Urban Character and Form.” To that end, it would turn the area around Bergamot Station, which, according to the planners, already has too little open space, into an “eclectic creative arts and residential neighborhood” dominated by the “mixed use”
Among other things, a new tighter grid would be installed to increase “connectivity,” Bergemot would become a “transit village.” and height and density limits would be increased, permitting buildings to range up to 75 feet.
And so, an area with too little open space would, if the planners have their way, be loaded up with mixed use affordable, workforce and market rate housing of the tall sort, more sidewalks and streets, and Bergamot would become a “transit village.”
Bergamot was a rail station originally. When the trains stopped running, warehouses dominated. Then, in one of the first and best examples of ”adaptive reuse,” the old warehouses became sleek galleries. From then until now, Bergemot Station has been one of Los Angeles’s most celebrated gatherings of galleries and artists.
It is an appropriate location for a station on the proposed light rail line. But the planners’ desire to turn this unique arts enclave into “a transit village,” complete with a hotel, is another horrific example of their bizarre need to pit everything everywhere.
Do they imagine that people who’ve just taken the light rail from downtown L.A. to Bergamot will be too exhausted by the trip to go on to downtown Santa Monica and will check into Hotel Bergamot.
In fact, the imposition of “urban form” on one of our unique precincts would render it formless. because when you attempt to put everything everywhere you get chaos.
According to the “framework,” the planners want to impose “urban form,”aka everything, or chaos, all over our already traumatized townscape.
The plan for Memorial Park is quite as mad as the Bergamot plan, and another example of the planners’ drive to put everything everywhere. The park is one of our larger parks and one of the few with playing fields. Several years ago, the City bought the Fisher Lumber Company property, which occupied the rest of the park’s block.
It originally planned to locate a mixed use affordable housing project there, Later, it decided to expand the busy park. Now if LUCE prevails, the park will be play reduced to a supporting role.
The LUCE “vision” for it is: “A new neighborhood centered around a city park, a geographical and functional central park for Santa Monica within a new urban neighborhood focused around the proposed Midtown station on the Exposition light rail line.”
Currently, the planners note, “Poor urban form detracts from park.”
On the other hand, the creation of an entire new and taller neighborhood of mixed use affordable and workforce housing. a light rail station, underground parking, and a “joint development” with the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, could simply swallow the park — except that the City is now talking about extending the park over the freeway to the Pico Neighborhood.
The planners and some Council members like to think they’re very advanced when they speak of “urban form” and its primary element – “mixed use.”
But, in fact, the Godmother of “urban form” and its keynote, “mixed use,” Jane Jacobs developed the rationale in her 1961 classic, “The Death and Life of American Cities.”
Her book was, in part, a response to and critique of the “bigger is better” philosophy of New York’s “master builder” Robert Moses, who is generally credited with radically changing the face of New York City and state with massive public works projects.
Jacobs argued that the mega-projects were killing the city’s spirit, which abided in the city’s traditional neighborhoods that were dominated by apartment buildings whose ground floors were occupied by stores and shops (i.e., “urban form” and “mixed use”). In such neighborhoods, street life flourished.
The preservation of such neighborhoods, Jacobs argued, not massive projects like Moses’ Westside Highway that wiped out dozens of such neighborhoods, would sustain the city.
Jacobs’ book attracted a lot of attention and inspired a lot of planners, though some critics dismissed it as sentimental nonsense.
It’s a good book, well worth reading for its passionate defense of a particular kind of city life. But I think Jacobs would be outraged by the planners’ imposition of “urban form” on an iconic beach town, in spite of residents’ stated wish to retain its small scale and preserve its integrity.
Thoreau wrote a century before Jacobs, but one of his dictums is pertinent here:”Simplify, simplify.” And, of course. Rita Rudner is always pertinent: “You can’t have Everything. Where would you put it?” .
(Next: the Oz factor)