Legend records that the dying Julius Caesar looks up to find his friend Brutus among his assassins. “Et tu, Brute?” (And you too, Brutus?) is his pathetic and much-quoted response. This tragic scene from the stage has nothing to do with land use politics in Santa Monica, of course - except for the smell of opportunism and something approaching betrayal of Santa Monica residents by their own city government.
Santa Monica officials have been rightly aghast at proposals by MaceRich
Company, the owner of the Santa Monica Place shopping mall, to build three high-rise towers, each 24 stories, on or near the site where the mall currently stands. This opportunistic proposal comes in response to MaceRich's offer to tear down its existing mall, designed by architect Frank Gehry in 1980. The mall is a klutzy building that even the architect may be pleased to demolish. The mall's removal would open the wildly successful Third Street Promenade to the city's wildly unsuccessful civic center.
In this happy scenario, the teeming foot traffic of the shopping street spills out into an area of public parks and civic buildings, including the handsome new headquarters of RAND Corporation, as well as the ugly and obsolete Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.
In exchange for the civic gesture of removing the Great Wall of Gehry and connecting the long-estranged Third Street and Civic Center, MaceRich wants a set of princely concessions, including the right to build not only the condominium towers but a pair of 40-foot-tall retail buildings on either side of Third Street. Some local residents have likened the proposed development to a canyon.
Yes, Santa Monica city council members have been aghast at the idea of the three towers, which would be five times taller than the current height limit of 56 feet. But do not rush to call MaceRich “greedy” or “grasping” or any of the other names that some people frequently attach to developers. You may need those words soon for another party - namely, the City of Santa Monica itself.
The city recently bought the former RAND site, which lies immediately north of the new campus, including some inestimably valuable land along Ocean Avenue with excellent ocean views (see CP&DR Public Development, June 2000). Seeking to maximize its public investment, the city wants to build one or two 12-story residential buildings along the avenue. These buildings would not be as tall as the proposed MaceRich buildings, being only two-and-a-half times taller than zoning allows.
Of the two proposals, the city's own proposal is arguably worse because it has a chance of actually getting built. The MaceRich proposal, in contrast, is a kind of bluff. California developers know their projects are going to get cut down to the bone, so their opening offer tends to be wildly oversized. (Developers seem to believe that if they were foolish enough to open talks with the city with a realistic proposal, they would walk out of City Council with blueprints for a bird house.)
The sudden spate of high-rise proposals is unusual in Santa Monica, which is one of the most regulated places in California. “On a scale of 1 to 10,” a land use lawyer once told me, “Santa Monica gets an 11.” The city has been rigorous, perhaps to a fault, about upholding design standards and limiting development, especially along the city's waterfront. The city, for example, has set a limit on new hotel rooms, and the last two hotels to open in Santa Monica have been rehabs of historic hotel buildings, so as to prevent any net increase in units.
If this kind of stringency can make lawyers tear out their hair in hanks, there are benefits, too. High-rise construction has been limited largely to a single street, Wilshire Boulevard, where it belongs, while the rest of the city, including the waterfront, remains no higher than four stories. As a result, Santa Monica has one of the most visible waterfronts of any city in Southern California.
The offensive nature of the MaceRich proposal is that tall buildings would block views not only from the north and south, but from the east, as well. However, those towers are unlikely to be built, at least at the proposed heights. Although the city towers are only half the height as MaceRich buildings, they are even more offensive because they would block views from even closer to the ocean. And although I have not conducted an audit of the Santa Monica city treasury, I suspect the city does not really need this real estate windfall. Santa Monica is tourist catnip, and local businesses disgorge plenty of tax increment, sales tax and hotel tax (and soon more, as the city has proposed lifting the existing hotel tax from 10% to 14%).
I respectfully - and seriously - propose the following: The City should negotiate with MaceRich, allowing the mall owner to build something like its desired density. But the development should be horizontal along the street in the form of row houses, rather than high-rise towers. To preserve MaceRich's square-footage, the city should redistribute that entitlement along Ocean Avenue, giving the developer a portion of the city's own property, if necessary. Both MaceRich and the city should limit residential construction to two-story townhouses, or four stories at the very most, with two-story units stacked atop one another. The townhouses would provide the city with the housing that it needs, while providing a pleasantly citified edge to Ocean Avenue.
The same solid wall of housing would benefit the new public space on the remainder of the Ocean Avenue acreage because a solid wall of built stuff is the best way of defining a park or plaza (vide “Urban Space” by Leon Krier). Inside the park, we can create a public garden or ball fields or cultural facilities or any other public use compatible with a heavily used public park. Nobody's ox is gored, especially not the public's.
MaceRich and the city can both a make a killing on the absurdly inflated prices that ocean-front condominiums can command nowadays. (I have seen loft units off of Third Street priced at $4 million.) Best of all, everybody's ocean view is preserved. And nobody would be able to write a Shakespearean tragedy about how the City of Santa Monica assassinated its own General Plan in the hope of making a couple of bucks. “Et tu, City Council?”