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Santa Monica: Population 85,000 Plus Two

By Frank Gruber

Something over a year ago I wrote about how I was surprised to see a billboard on Lincoln Boulevard advertising apartments for rent in a new building in downtown Santa Monica. The developer was offering a month's free rent, a sure sign that after decades of a short supply of apartments, there was now competition for tenants. ("WHAT I SAY: Zoned Out," July 29, 2002)

My most loyal reader, who happens to be my father, was in Italy but he called me to ask me to find out just what those apartments were going for.

To cut a long story short, this past Thursday night I picked up my parents at LAX and next month they are moving into a new apartment on Sixth Street.

They gave up their apartment in Philadelphia, and now are Santa Monica's and California's latest immigrants.

It's interesting to see big social movements in little pieces. My father is the sixth of seven siblings from Akron, Ohio, to move to the west coast. My mother is the second of three from Texas.

My parents represent two of the six million new Southern Californians, most of them to be born here, who will be looking for houses and apartments in the next 25 years.

They also represent two of the people continuing to exit Philadelphia, which has lost about 40 percent of its population in a few decades.

My parents haven't only removed themselves from Philadelphia, but also a lot of economic activity. They paid rent there and bought groceries, went to movies and concerts and paid for cable television. Although they are, knock on wood, in reasonably good health, between doctor visits and prescriptions, they are not insignificant contributors to the health care sector of the economy.

Or rather, Medicare and the health plan my father's employer in Philadelphia funded do most of the contributing.

You can see that the shift of these two retired people represents a significant shift of economic activity from Pennsylvania's account to California's, and why for all the problems of growth, people are more prosperous where economies grow than where they don't.

* * *

My parents are excited about moving to downtown Santa Monica. As in Center City Philadelphia, where they lived before, they don't expect to need a car, because they can walk to a supermarket (once the strike is over), the library, movies, etc., and take the bus nearly everywhere else.

The City Council Tuesday night and the Planning Commission and the Architectural Review Board in joint session Wednesday night will take a look at the latest iteration of planning staff's and ROMA Design Group's ideas for new design standards for downtown.

A few weeks ago, the Planning Commission and ARB had their first joint session to discuss the proposals. ("Proposed Downtown Design Standards Get Mixed Reviews," Sept. 16, 2003)

After that meeting, I wrote about the recent history of why the City is again taking a look at downtown standards. Although that history is dubious, the planners have come up with some good ideas. ("WHAT I SAY: What Becomes A Neighborhood Most," Sept. 15, 2003)

There is a fair amount of misconception floating around about what the proposals are, and it's best to begin a discussion of them by considering what the City is not doing.

The City is not changing what can be built downtown, or how much of it. Zoning and "floor area ratios" are not on the table, although the planners are looking at the parking requirements that go along with the amount of development that the current zoning permits.

Nor are the planners considering changes to the City's ordinance relating to preservation of landmarks and other historical buildings. The Santa Monica Conservancy -- doing its job, I guess -- has used this review of design standards to raise the issue of preserving what is historical downtown. If the Conservancy wants to strengthen the current preservation laws, however, that would entail a separate process.

Nor are the planners proposing anything that would affect traffic. Part of their proposal is to widen sidewalks on Sixth and Seventh Streets to make these streets more neighborhood-friendly. This is an excellent idea, particularly if the property owners pay for it, but, as is typical, the no growth element, including obdurate members of the ARB and Planning Commission, have said that narrowing Sixth and Seventh would lead to more traffic congestion.

This won't happen for several reasons. The increased width of the sidewalks would come from removing center left turn lanes on Sixth and Seventh that are hardly used. The streets have little traffic now and because these streets don't go anywhere they are never going to have much traffic no matter how much the area develops.

In fact, traffic patterns downtown are a good example of how the layout of streets and highways does more to create traffic congestion than development. The only north-south streets in the area that have any traffic problems are Fourth and Lincoln, because these are the streets that connect with and cross the freeway. They serve all the people who live north of downtown going to the freeway, and all the people from elsewhere who come to downtown.

A minuscule amount of downtown traffic comes from people who live downtown, and that will be the case even if these streets are built out.

The most intriguing aspect of ROMA's proposals is to try to encourage better design and the use of higher quality materials by enticing developers to switch from wood frame and stucco construction to more expensive techniques. ROMA's idea is that if developers can build higher, another story or two, to heights that require steel construction, they will do so and spread out their development in airier buildings with bigger courtyards.

ROMA proposes to encourage more common open space -- courtyards -- by reducing requirements for private open space and to make steel construction affordable to developers by reducing parking requirements. The cost of underground parking currently represents half the cost of construction. Much of the parking is unnecessary, particularly the requirements for guest and customer parking.

It would make most sense to have developers determine how much parking they need to market their apartments, and separate the cost of parking from the rents they charge for apartments. This would lower the cost of housing for people -- my parents, for instance -- who don't own cars. The City can restrict street parking downtown in a way to dissuade residents from parking overnight on the street.

The ideas are good, but the planners have yet to show how the City can require that developers invest their savings from having less parking to build into better and more beautiful construction.

As for the private open space, I interviewed my parents and they would not want to give up their balcony. Speaking as someone who often walks downtown, I like the look the balconies, with their potted plants and tables and chairs, give to the street.

It will be interesting to see how the City Council reacts when it takes a sneak peak at the proposals Tuesday night. It is most unusual for the council to look at plans at this stage. It was, however, encouraging to hear Kevin McKeown, the Council liaison at the first Planning Commission/ARB meeting and normally an anti-urbanist, expressed an open mind about hot button issues such as building height and parking.

* * *

I've been talking and writing the same line about downtown for years now, so I don't expect having parents who are tenants of the biggest developer downtown will affect what I write, except to the extent their personal experiences alter or support my views.

Nor do I expect that the fact that that developer advertises on my page will influence me either. However, since The Lookout can always use more advertising revenue, I encourage anyone and everyone to advertise on this page who believes that by doing so they will influence my opinions.

The City Council will consider the new proposals for downtown at its meeting Tuesday, October 28, 2003, in City Council Chambers.

The Planning Commission and the Architectural Review Board will have their joint meeting, at 7:00 p.m., on Wednesday, October 29, 2003, also in City Council Chambers.

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