For Poorer and for Richer

Two of my favorite Santa Monicans to argue or agree with are former mayors Denny Zane and Michael Feinstein. (But it’s better when they agree with you.) The two of them will always let you know exactly what they are thinking and back up their arguments with facts and/or honest perspectives, as well as deep historical and practical knowledge.

But I disagree with their opposition to including luxury condominiums in any towers that the City might allow to be built along Ocean Avenue, opposition they expressed in articles Jason Islas wrote recently for The Lookout.

There are good reasons to question the desirability of allowing new towers along Ocean Avenue (there are also good reasons to favor them), but I don’t include opposing high-end residences as one of them.

Both Zane and Feinstein argue that allowing tall buildings for the purpose of housing rich people would compromise Santa Monica’s character — in Feinstein’s words, “change our entire community standards,” or, in Zane’s, to do so would “transgress some pretty fundamental values.” But what values and standards? Rich people are part of Santa Monica and always have been. From the earliest days there were mansions along Ocean Avenue, and let’s not forget Marion Davies’ little place on the beach. Luxury homes and the people who live in them are part of the mix that makes up our special character.

Would Zane and Feinstein say that Santa Monica’s community standards are challenged because 31% of all the land in Santa Monica, comprising nearly 47% percent of all residentially zoned land, is zoned for single-family homes? While it’s true that back in the days when Santa Monica was a factory town workers and shopkeepers lived in and owned many of those houses, it’s been a long time since a truly middle-income family could buy a house here.

I suspect that many of the people who oppose building towers on Ocean enjoy the fact that so much of our city is lightly populated (as do I – cities shouldn’t be uniformly dense), but the fact is that a lot of Santa Monica, including some of the most beautiful parts leading up to Santa Monica Canyon and the Santa Monica Mountains, is already privatized (to use Feinstein’s word). Has this ruined the character of Santa Monica? I don’t think so.

Opposing high-end condos also begs the question of what might go in a tower that would be less objectionable. Land downtown is zoned commercial; personally, I would find it worse to allow more office towers (like the former GTE and “Café Casino” buildings), and offices would also generate more traffic than condos. Does anyone want to build high-rises with only affordable housing? That’s a strategy that progressives rejected a long time ago. And what’s wrong with mixing residences with hotels? That’s a tradition in cities all around the world.

All in all, it seems that if towers are going to be built, the best mix that could be proposed would be a combination of hotels, market rate condos and apartments (meaning luxury, yes, but there’s nothing stopping the City from trying to negotiate housing for a broader mix of incomes), affordable housing (which in a development agreement can be required to be built on-site or nearby), and public access to the views from the tops of the buildings.

Thanks for reading.

2 thoughts on “For Poorer and for Richer

  1. Thanks for writing on this issue. But you leave out the crucial factor of the heights here! What offends the egalitarian sensibility here isn’t that these are residences for the very wealthy, but that they are residences for the very wealthy high above everybody else in very prominent buildings. Partly it’s a conspicuous consumption issue: living in these high towers is a sign of extreme wealth, and the towers are seen from great distances, unlike mansions on San Vicente. But also the very fact of being spatially superior implies other sorts of superiority. To the egalitarian it adds insult to the injury of being wealthy in the first place, which good taste should attempt rather to elide than proclaim.

    There is language that’s begun to be used by the planners of ‘background buildings’ versus ‘opportunity sites.’ But one can indeed wonder whether in an egalitarian urban space it’s fitting for our monuments to be private residences.

    • David — there are so many signs of conspicuous consumption in our society that it seems odd to begin with the sumptuary laws here. Personally, I’m more offended by seeing one giant new estate in the hills than seeing a tower w/ 20 high-end condos, and given the animosity towards building affordable housing that is so common, it’s weird to me to hear mirror-image arguments about housing for the rich. It’s not like our society only has people right in the middle. And since north of Montana can’t expand its boundaries, we need to build high-end housing somewhere, or the unmet demand just raises the prices on houses all over the city, excluding the middle-class.

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