Money Isn’t Everything

On Saturday I co-hosted with former Santa Monica Mayor Mike Feinstein a forum to discuss whether Santa Monica should relax the limitations on building height that it enacted in the ’80s. Because of limited seating at the venue (the restaurant Bizou Grill on Colorado Avenue, which deserves great praise) we couldn’t publicize the event widely, but about 70 interested community members turned out.

The discussion was good – serious talk about the pros and cons of building up. Frankly, it was hard to separate the issue of height from other issues relating to development and the future of downtown Santa Monica (at the moment, of course, there are three controversial tall hotel/condo developments pending), but as one participant told me later, there are benefits to isolating and focusing on one aspect of a complex problem.

I had many thoughts during the forum on what the issue of height is about, but also many on what height is not about, and in this post I’m going to write about some of the latter.

For one thing, height is not about density. As architect and urbanist Stefanos Polyzoides (who journeyed from Pasadena to give an outside-of-Santa-Monica perspective) pointed out, two of the densest cities in the world, Paris and Barcelona, have few buildings higher than six stories. More allowable height enables the shifting of development into different shapes (for good or ill), but how much development to allow is a separate decision.

Height is also not about money, and this works both ways.

Misti Kerns, the head of Santa Monica’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, reminded the group that more hotel development indisputably will aid our local economy and help the city balance its budget. It’s not indisputable, however, that hotel development depends on allowing taller buildings. More than a few hotels have been built here since the height restrictions were enacted 30 years ago, and the City Council has already voted to give priority in the planning process to hotel developments.

It’s true that the City faces deficits over the next few years, but none of the hotels now in the development pipeline could be opened in time to help with the current situation. Even if they could, does anyone believe that fundamental long-term planning decisions should be made one way or the other to solve an immediate budget issue?

But “money” arguments that the opponents of height make are also irrelevant. These take various forms, including (i) “the only reason to build is so that greedy developers can make money,” or (ii) “the only reason to build is so that rich people can live in luxury condos.”

As for developers’ profits, we live in a capitalistic society characterized by the profit motive and the importance of investment in assets, including real estate. If you want to see a city where developers stopped investing, take a look at Detroit, and unless you live in a building built by a nonprofit affordable housing developer, you either live on property that a developer subdivided and developed or in a building that one built.

Sure developers are out to make a buck, but then so are film producers and doctors and artists, but I don’t see anyone calling them greedy when they make a successful movie or build a good practice or sell a painting. Nor have I heard homeowners calling themselves greedy for feeling good when home values increase, or future retirees complaining when the investments in their 401k or pension plan increase in value.

As for the luxury condo argument, 31% of the land in Santa Monica is zoned single-family residential, and this being the Westside, we can assume that nearly every one of those houses is affordable to only the 10% (and a lot of it to only the 1%). We may not need social policies to get housing for rich people built, but don’t kid yourself that it isn’t part of what Santa Monica is. Besides that, it’s a good thing when rich people want to live in your downtown. It shows you’ve done something right.

And look: do you believe the opponents of the pending tall hotel/condo projects would like them any better if they had a mix of work-force and affordable family-oriented housing that perfectly meshed with Santa Monica’s needs? Or, heaven help us, what if someone wanted to build 120 affordable units at the Miramar instead of 120 condos? Would the Huntley Hotel accept 22 stories of that?

When we’re talking about height, let’s talk about height. I’m sure the aesthetic, communitarian, urbanism, and other real issues about it will give us plenty to argue over all by themselves.

Thanks for reading.