I’m still thinking about that big meeting a week ago Monday on downtown development.
When planning staffer Francie Stefan was describing, in remarks before the microphone was opened to the public, the process to write a specific plan for downtown she observed that there had been no office buildings constructed in downtown Santa Monica for 20 years.
When I heard that I thought to myself, it’s not only downtown, but there’s been little office development anywhere in Santa Monica since the Water Garden went up about 20 years ago. Since then the 194,000-square foot expansion of Lantana on Olympic Boulevard has been the only significant new office development. Yes, there have been rebuilds of existing buildings, such as with Agensys, but very little else.
Contrary to what everyone seems to believe, for 20 years there has been hardly any commercial development in Santa Monica and barely enough housing development to make a dent in the huge housing deficit on the entire Westside.
Sure, you see a lot of construction, but think about what it is — other than housing (with a little retail on the ground floors) the construction has been mostly to replace older buildings. There has been little net new commercial development.
The biggest private projects have been the new buildings for St. John’s and UCLA Santa Monica hospitals, but those mostly replaced buildings destroyed or damaged in the Northridge Earthquake. (In fact, when completed the new St. John’s will be smaller than what it was before the earthquake.) The re-do of Santa Monica Place was just that, a re-do. No large new hotels have been built since the Loew’s and Le Merigot — the new Shore Hotel on Ocean Avenue replaced (and expanded somewhat on) two old hotels. Apple replaced Borders. RAND replaced its old buildings with a new building of about the same size (300,000 square feet) — even though under the 1993 Civic Center Specific Plan the think tank could have built another 200,000.
There have also been public projects like the new public safety headquarters, and of course the biggest construction project in years is now underway — bringing the Expo line to Santa Monica.
To the extent that traffic congestion has increased at certain times and in certain directions over the past 10 years relates much more to economic growth over the entire 405 corridor than any purported “massive overdevelopment” in Santa Monica (although certainly the time and place of the congestion relates to the commuting pattern into the city).
City Council and planning staff have not sold the city to developers.
We all benefit from the overall thoughtful and careful approach to development that Santa Monica has had for 30 years. Sure, it could have been even more thoughtful and careful — if the 9 million square feet of office development approved in the ’80s had been split 50-50 between offices and housing, we’d all be better off. But we’re not going to fix that imbalance by preventing housing development now.
Fortunately, housing is where the development market is now in Santa Monica. The development agreement projects proposed not only for downtown but throughout the city are mainly for housing, including the condo developments associated with the hotel projects and the affordable housing tied to them. I know it is hard to persuade people of this, but new housing in Santa Monica has only a small impact, and possibly a net positive impact, on traffic congestion. Increasing the number of housing units by 10% (5,000 units) as the LUCE contemplates will not affect traffic significantly.
To solve transportation problems and make good use of our investments in transit, we need more housing near jobs. Council Member Kevin McKeown expressed this succinctly in yesterday’s Daily Press: “The number one antidote to the ‘commute and pollute’ problem is proximity. Putting worker-affordable housing near jobs makes the use of mass transit more likely, and in some cases can mean walking or biking to work.”
The housing market is a continuum that runs in Santa Monica from luxury condos to SROs for people who would otherwise be homeless: from Ocean Avenue condos to Step Up on Second, and everything in between. We need housing at all income levels, because at every point along the continuum housing is fungible: a shortage of housing will turn middle-class housing into upper-class housing and working-class housing into middle-class housing, and so on.
Put another way, if we want Santa Monica’s empty-nesters to sell their houses to the next generation of families, and if we want those empty-nesters to stay in Santa Monica, we need to build condos for them to buy or apartments for them to rent. It’s easy to say that the high-end market for housing will take care of itself, and certainly no one will go homeless directly if there isn’t a condo to buy at the Miramar or in the Frank Gehry tower, but developers can’t build any kind of housing unless they have permission to do so.
Thanks for reading. (By the way, you may not hear from me for a while — I’ll be on vacation until the beginning of June.)