According to a recent story in Surf Santa Monica, “downtown Santa Monica has been undergoing a major makeover.”
Among the “nearly three dozen projects [listed in the story], which range from those in the planning process to those that only await a final inspection, “ are an $80 million Big Blue Bus maintenance facility, the $8.2 million “pedestrian and streetscape improvement project” on Second and Fourth Streets that was ground zero in the battle of the ficus trees, three rebuilt public parking structures, 15 new apartment buildings, the reconstruction of Santa Monica Place, the redevelopment of the Travel Lodge, the proposed conversion of the historic office tower at 710 Wilshire, and several commercial buildings that are in the planning stages
According io the story, the apartment “projects include three affordable housing developments totaling some 125 units – at 1241 5th Street, 1514 7th Street and 626 Broadway – and a 125-unit condominium building at 525 Broadway that is awaiting final approval by the Architectural Review Board (ARB).”
The story notes that the landmark office building will be converted into a 256-room hotel with a new wing that will contain 16 residential units, as well as hotel rooms.
The impetus for this latest revision was a 1996 City Council decision to give incentives to developers to build housing downtown. JSM Development (Craig Jones) has been the principal beneficiary of the City’s largesse.
JMS is now adding 10 new buildings to its completed projects and has another five in the works.
Downtown Santa Monica evolved naturally for its first 100 years. Things became obsolete and were replaced. New needs were met.
In the 1960s, with the arrival of the freeway (“20 minutes to downtown Los Angeles”), the pace picked up.
In the mid-1960s. a pedestrian mall was installed on Third Street. It was low-key, relaxed, lined with small locally owned businesses. There were nearly a dozen independent bookstores on and near the mall, including the legendary Midnight Special.
In 1973. the City Council voted to demolish the Santa Monica Pier, and replace it with an artificial island on which a convention center
would be built. But residents rallied, pot the question on the ballot, saved the pier, and dumped the offending Council members in
the next election.
In the late 1970s, the City razed the businesses on two downtown blocks to make room for Santa Monica Place.
Of course, the sleek, new, three-story, enclosed mall, its department stores and chain stores, literally and figuratively, left t he low-key old mall in the shade.
It was clear when the City replaced the simple mall with the high watt, frenzied Third Street Promenade, with its clubs and high end chain stores. that downtown Santa Monica had become means, not end, more a stage set than a place.
Third Street was the centerpiece of the “regional commercial hub” that City Hall was making in our midst.
These profound changes were conjured, not by residents, but by City Hall, the new Bayside District Corporation, a non-profit “public benefit” agency, imported “experts” and consultants, all of whom focused on maintaining the “competitive edge,” i.e., generating more revenue, rather than preserving and refining the iconic beach town character.
An “urban form” was imposed. Buildings got taller and denser, And there were more and more of them. Perfect, airy beach town streets like Sixth, south of Santa Monica Boulevard, became cold, bleak, urban canyons.
Downtown Santa Monica was becoming a perfect money mill.
Then, City Hall, its corps of so-called experts and consultants took another wrong turn – and decided to make downtown a “neighborhood” – enter JMS, as well as a romper room for tourists.
Of course, people have always lived downtown, and the people we know are not happy with its cranking up, the noise, the crowds, the traffic, and the replacement of unique local businesses with high end chain stores. In their view, the enlargement of the downtown “neighborhood” has been fractured, not improved.
By making more of downtown Santa Monica, City Hall has made less of it. And the worst is still to come. Even as the current “makeover” proceeds, a new specific plan is underway.
And the “new” downtown is a virtual prototype for the “activity centers,” “districts,” and “transit villages” proposed in the revised land use and circulation elements of the General Plan (LUCE).
Santa Monica is an iconic beach town. It should be celebrated, preserved and perfected. not endlessly, clumsily manhandled in the name of somebody’s idea of progress.