The recent zoom presentation of the proposed development at Ocean Park Blvd & Lincoln Blvd., often referred to as “the Gelson Development”, brought back memories of past projects that I studied in planning classes while at home. Berkeley School of Architecture all those years ago. (Go bears). And one project in particular came to mind, the Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis.
In the early 1950s, around the same time that the Gelson site was classified as flat, as it still is today and not on a false slope which disappeared 70 years ago, the project of Pruit-Igoe housing, much larger, was designed and developed in St . Louis. Although the scale is different, there are similarities to Gelson’s project worth exploring.
At the time, Pruitt-Igoe and other similar projects were the result of the Federal Housing Act of 1949 and postwar national urban renewal plans. Considered, at the time, cutting-edge urban planning, the projects aimed to replace dilapidated poor neighborhoods described as overcrowded slums. The projects aimed to provide low- and middle-income families with affordable apartments with large, park-like open spaces for play and recreation around the buildings. At the Pruitt-Igoe site, the previously existing low-rise neighborhood was razed and 33 buildings, of exactly 11 floors each, totaling 2,870 apartments, were constructed.
What’s interesting, looking closely at Pruitt-Igoe and Gelson, is that Pruitt-Igoe’s notorious and failed St. Louis project actually offered more open space per unit than Gelson’s design, and was two times less dense than Gelson’s which crammed 10 buildings of exactly 5 stories each with 521 mostly upscale apartments on the site. Although I only use raw numbers, they are also applied to each project. So let’s see what it looks like when certain numbers are calculated and compared.
Part of the failure and disgrace that was Pruitt-Igoe’s fate was because Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 finally outlawed segregation and some families that had moved into Pruitt-Igoe began to move. Funding apparently began to dwindle, proper maintenance began to be limited, and buildings and land rapidly deteriorated into dangerous vertical slums. As too often happens, poverty gave rise to crime, gangs and drugs, and within 10 years of completion Pruitt-Igoe was dilapidated and unsafe, and the buildings were evacuated and boarded up. By the early 1970s, just 15 years after the project’s completion, the residents of the project had been evicted and the demolition of all structures had begun. A planning lesson that should have been learned seems like a lesson lost in time.
I’m not suggesting that what happened with Pruitt-Igoe will happen here on Gelson’s site, but I do point out that Gelson’s project is also a government-sponsored project, in the sense that the developer responds and benefits from state government “bounties” that overrule local height and zoning density regulations. The state bonus comes from including only 53 restricted low-income apartments, which is only 10% of the 521 total, leaving 90% as premium units at market rate. While Pruitt-Igoe was government funded and specifically designed and intended to address a housing affordability issue and rebuild an urban slum to provide housing for low income families, this project appears to display the need for affordability . Kind of economic segregation by design, and the only thing that hasn’t been done here yet, as we’ve seen on other projects, was to relocate low-income units.
The development of the Gelson site, as a bonus quasi-government project, has bonus development rights that allow the number of units at market rates to be increased by 50% without providing additional affordable units over what would be required for basic development permitted by city zoning. A government donation to a private developer and its investors. Not a bad deal I guess for developer ROI. As bad as it turned out, Pruitt-Igoe was built with the premise that it would help solve a shortage of affordable housing and provide a lower income level of society with a head start and a healthy and planned environment. more open.
Is it ironic that the unfounded cry that there is a “housing shortage” is used to justify a project such as that proposed at Gelson? There are, according to the California Department of Finance, approximately 4,500+ vacant units in Santa Monica, along with a declining state population. Add to that SCAG (So Cal Assoc. of Governments) ordered, and the law is implemented in our general plan housing element, currently being updated, that Santa Monica must provide suitable sites by 2028 for 8895 additional housing units, 70% of which MUST be for low-income people. Yet here we see a 521 unit project, with a 50% state bonus above our zoning allowance for height and density, being “blessed” with only 10% low income units . 468 high-end, market-rate units on a densely compacted site, with 880 cars designed to enter and exit the site in a bus-only lane on a major high-traffic thoroughfare to a freeway a mile away, and without traffic study or mandatory EIR.
Prutt-Igoe was designed to eliminate a slum and provide a hoped-for boost to accessibility by providing a more livable environment. This project appears to be designed to provide maximum return on investment to its investors, but will also undoubtedly have a devastating negative impact on two adjacent well-established, non-slum, family-oriented neighborhoods. As proposed, the project removes the only full-service supermarket for these two neighborhoods, as well as several neighborhoods serving commercial outlets, inflicting additional inconvenience on these two adjacent communities. And reinforcing the idea that car use should be reduced, there are 816 bike racks with, perhaps, the unlikely idea that the bikes are going to be ridden in a distant market and a week’s worth of food for the family will be taken home.
Or, with the inclusion of almost 900 parking spaces, is it a recognition that adding over 1000 residents to the site, plus sales people and visitors, that the private car will indeed continue to be with us for many years to come, but with the negative result of the potential addition of +/- 2,000 more car trips per day to an already overloaded boulevard and intersection. Since there is a dedicated bus lane, but no bike lane, on Lincoln, the bike parking lot is meant as “eye candy” to appease the few people who think the car is dead. (Hint: In 1980, when I was working with the community on redesigning what was then a depressed Main Street after the POP fire, parking was an issue, but at the suggestion to increase public parking, l idea was pushed back with the argument that “the car will be dead by the year 2000”! How did it work 42 years later? Not so well, it seems?).
In summary, the promoters’ decision to use state bonuses, which is not compulsory, results in a project more than twice as dense, almost twice as high as locally authorized, with only a quarter of open area per structure and 25% more units per floor than that social/environmental disaster that was Pruitt-Igoe. Up to 25-30% of the project could be used for retail on the ground floor and the community would not have to lose the only large market and other neighborhood services, but the development team instead opted to shrink the retail serving district from what currently exists while cramming +/- 900,000 square feet of structures and over 1,000 additional people onto an imaginary sloped site.
Additionally, there does not appear to be, in the design drawings seen so far, other than a rooftop pool adjacent to Lincoln Blvd. sidewalk, any outdoor social or play area reserved for children or any other person. And the stated rationale, said on zoom, that children can play on a fire department mandatory access driveway and turn around is shameful. Presumably a ‘playground’ in hopes that a fire truck or EMS ambulance will never have to show up and chase the kids away before they can deal with the emergency they need to fix . And when it comes to water, sewer and other infrastructure issues…that’s another column.
That said, unless it is determined that Gelson’s project is not in strict compliance with all applicable local and state regulations governing such development, the project will receive the bonuses that virtually double anything that would have otherwise been approvable by city zoning. , and without public participation or review by the planning commission or city council. And a design that could be discussed does not take into account socially conscious planning and environmental sensitivity in exchange for greater density seems to be in the hands of the developer and his team, without any source of appeal by the very disgruntled 90%+/- residents who spoke out against the project on a Zoom presentation required for developers two weeks ago.
So what can be done about it besides pointing out the project’s many obvious shortcomings? Well, in the immediate term, a careful review of all applicable requirements should be checked, including the identification and resolution of any conflicting code sections or regulations that may be applied favorably to the project, but to the detriment of the public. In the longer term, this situation exists largely because of the recent past and some remaining members of the Development Board who need to be replaced, so the next election will be critical even if it does not put the brakes on this project. And this also applies to state offices.
Bob Taylor, AIA
Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Future
Ron Goldman, FAIA Architect; Dan Jansenson, Architect, Building and Fire-Life Safety Commissioner; Robert H. Taylor, AIA Architect; Thane Roberts, architect; Mario Fonda – Bonardi, Architect AIA Commissioner for urban planning; Sam Tolkin, architect; Marc Verville, MBA, CPA-inactive; Michel Jolly ARECRE
For previous articles, see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writing