Can Santa Monica save itself?

I ran into a little trouble, down in Bay City.

Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely

Thirty-five years ago, in the midst of a seemingly endless, inevitable downward spiral, Miami was the subject of a New York Times article titled, “Can Miami save itself?” It was a question anyone who had seen an episode of Miami Vice already was asking. Ferraris and espadrilles aside, the show made Florida’s biggest city look like a broiling, roiling hellhole. For anyone still unclear, the article’s subheading added, “A city beset by drugs and violence.” The mighty Dave Barry parodied the piece in one of the best efforts of his career, called, “Can New York save itself?” It’s more than worth seven minutes of your time; suffice it to say it includes sheep flying the Concorde.

The time has come to ask, can Santa Monica, California, save itself? (Hint: It too is beset by drugs and violence)

When I first returned to West Los Angeles some 10 years ago it was still the place I remembered from growing up here. A new office building or shopping mall here, an expanded school or other campus there, it was still home. I settled in Santa Monica, which like the L.A. area itself retained the delightful uniqueness and quirkiness I’d known all my life. When I still lived full-time in the Bay Area I would find whatever excuse I could to come to L.A. We always stayed in Santa Monica.

For most of its history Santa Monica was a place to which the euphemisms and aphorisms deployed by boosters in other cities with varying degrees of credibility actually applied, and in spades. It was one of those places that created clichés. It was lively, it was energetic. There was a thriving sense of community balanced with the essential mellowness of a beach town. You truly felt lucky to live in Santa Monica, and in many ways you were. As a visiting friend once remarked, “You live in a place millions of people save their money to visit on vacation.”

Or rather, I once lived in such a place.

Flash forward ten years and Santa Monica is a shell of its former self. Where once stood thriving mom and pop shops and small businesses, many of which had flourished over decades and even generations, are empty storefronts with For Lease signs, collecting dust instead of rent. The businesses that are surviving, that are hanging on, overwhelmingly are chains, franchises, and boutiques with deep-pocketed owners and investors.

Where once stood blocks of detached homes, modest duplexes and fourplexes, and – perish the thought! – open space, now stand row after row, block after block, street after street of indistinguishable, soulless, cheaply built yet overpriced wood frame apartments known derisively in the construction industry as “stack and packs.” Blindfold somebody and drop them in the middle of downtown Santa Monica and they could be in any one of a hundred U.S. cities these days. Walking along Broadway or Colorado Avenues can induce a sense of cognitive dissonance.

At the same time, the urban culture that made Santa Monica worth paying the premium is almost entirely gone. The summer music festivals, the art walks, the exhibitions at places like Bergamont Station, the theater series at the Broad. There were speaker series, lecture series, political events.

Here is this month’s calendar at the Broad Theater:

In perhaps an appropriate irony, it was at the Broad in 2018 that state senator Scott Weiner (D-San Francisco) promoted state legislation, much of which has become the law of the land, that incentivizes and even mandates the sort of dense, transit-oriented development that already had done so much harm to Santa Monica at the local level. More on that in a moment. The point is, all those sources of civic vibrancy are gone.

For three decades after its $100 million overhaul in the late 1980s Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade was one of the few tourist destinations in the country that actually attracted locals. Though most people think the it’s a traditional mall, in fact it’s a collection of independently owned properties and businesses, a vestige of its former life as a commercial street. For most of those thirty years the inevitable Apple Store and Nike Store were counterbalanced by mom and pop boutiques, restaurants, and miscellany.

I used to tell people about the wonderful, sometimes amazing musicians, street performers, and artists on the Promenade. On a random Wednesday afternoon in February there were more talented performers than the Saturday night headliners in most other cities. That’s what happens when you live in La La Land, a fringe benefit of enduring all the Botox. If you can watch and listen to this version of “Stand by Me,” filmed in part on the Promenade by a nonprofit called Playing for Change, without shedding several tears you are made of sterner stuff than me. To this day, hanging on my wall are two paintings I bought from a disabled street artist on the Promenade years ago. The man had spina bifida and was quadriplegic. With the help of his wife he painted with his nose, creating hauntingly beautiful abstract landscapes.

That’s all gone. As of January the Promenade had close to a 40% vacancy rate. Many of the spaces that are occupied are short-term or pop-up tenants, not anchor businesses there for the long haul. Today a walk down the Promenade is a walk through a post-apocalyptic waste: On any given day there are more homeless people than actual patrons, bodies littering the closed street as if an actual zombie apocalypse just rampaged through. You’ll see people urinating, defecating, vomiting, shooting up, passing out, having seizures, beating the hell out of each other. Now and again you’ll see a dead body. Assaults on the Promenade are monthly and often daily occurrences. According to one recent survey thee-quarters of workers on the Promenade don’t feel safe going to work anymore. That is, the ones who still have jobs.

This wasn’t so long ago, though it feels like a lifetime. Third Street Promenade c. 2017.

The Promenade is only the most visible evidence of Santa Monica’s decline. The signs elsewhere are everywhere, from the beach to the toniest streets north of Montana. Here and there are pockets of hope and resistance. Main Street is holding on, even as the city continues making radical changes to the roadway itself in an effort to deter people from driving to the neighborhood, encouraging buses and bikes instead. A small pocket of life soldiers on around Santa Monica College.

But those are the exceptions. While it’s true that the pandemic and economic shutdown decimated Santa Monica’s business community just like they did worldwide, COVID is far from the only factor, and it was not the decisive one as it was elsewhere. The mechanisms were well in motion long before SARS-CoV-2 was so much as a glimmer in the Wuhan lab’s petri dishes. The homeless didn’t arrive in March of 2020, they’ve been arriving for years and again in some cases decades, enticed equally by geography and weather as well as tolerance and relatively generous public benefits.

The pandemic didn’t shut down the music festivals. They were on the wane years before the pandemic, with city government offering varying excuses. The immensely popular Santa Monica Pier summer concert series was shuttered in in 2019, with officials citing overcrowding and litter on the beach. Then-city arts commissioner and current city councilman Phil Brock commented, “While we must share our Pier with the world, it must retain its local flavor.”

It was a perfect example of how Santa Monica got to this point. Like most global attractions, the people who live nearest the Santa Monica Pier typically visit the least. Contrary to the councilman’s assertion the concert series was one of the few things that actually did draw locals to the pier, by the thousands. The acts were diverse and organizers made a point of spotlighting up-and-coming artists, often from southern California. It was part of the local fabric, something people across the city anticipated. If you can conjure a better image of summer than people dancing on the beach among the palm trees to Snoop Dogg performing on the Santa Monica Pier at sunset in July, I’m all ears. On that sunset beach, drinking wine and dancing with strangers to the Bangles performing a 10-minute version of “Manic Monday” while the pier lights blink on in the background and the colors explode across the sky? I died and went to Gen X heaven a half dozen times between June and September every year (yes, the wine was illegal, but people didn’t get unruly and the police didn’t care as long as you weren’t a jerk about it — besides, they were listening to the music, too, and sometimes dancing along with everyone else).

Shutting down the concert series because it became too popular was like shutting down a farmers market because of all the pesky patrons. It was classic Santa Monica: Let a minor problem fester until it’s a crisis, then kill the whole thing, at the cost of a little more of the city’s soul. Be sure to blame other people.

The reason people live in Santa Monica, and pay for it….

Again, one of the biggest reasons people live in Santa Monica is because it’s a place where you can ride your bike 15 minutes over to City Hall and listen to a world class jazz performance on the green. You could dance with your neighbors and raise a glass with new friends. It’s all gone, except the cost of living. That’s the one thing that continues to increase apace as if nothing ever happened. What global pandemic? That’ll be $4,000 a month for your 750 square foot studio, thank you.

These are not inevitable outcomes. Santa Monica’s decline was not a foregone conclusion, it wasn’t preordained. The city’s many crises are the results of years and years of consciously bad decision making. Endless, unnecessary new stack and packs manifest political intent. Empty bike lanes and buses and libraries serving primarily as homeless shelters, these things do not have to be. Indeed, in one of the wealthiest enclaves in the wealthiest region in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation in human history, it takes real work and ideological fanaticism to destroy commerce and community. It also takes the death of local journalism: The Los Angeles Times won’t touch Santa Monica with a ten-foot pole.

‘The L.A. papers give it any play?’

Raymond Chandler, The Lady in the Lake

With the current city leadership more focused on woke emoting and virtue signaling, it may well be too late for Santa Monica. That’s not to be dramatic or maudlin, it’s simply stating facts. Consider: As of 2023 the city spends $45 million a year on homeless shelter and services. That works out to $55,000 per homeless person, the equivalent of annual tuition at Harvard University – yet the city hasn’t even been able to muster an emergency winter shelter site in the midst of the worst winter storms in 50 years. I personally documented conditions overnight during a storm in January for a nonprofit called The Santa Monica Coalition (full disclosure: I work with the Coalition). I drove around Santa Monica between 11pm and 4am over two nights. I saw hundreds of homeless people, many languishing in atrocious conditions. There was nary a city services van to be seen, not so much as a minivan distributing hot chocolate. Nor was there any police presence. Again, zombieland was an apt description.

That’s nothing less than a complete systemic breakdown. That is watching in real time as the gears of government grind to a halt under the weight of its own bureaucracy.

There no more music in Santa Monica. For that matter, how is it possible not just in Santa Monica but in Venice, and all up and down coastal Los Angeles County, the music has fallen silent? Entire genres were birthed here over the decades. The greatest musicians in the world came to Santa Monica, to Venice, to Malibu. Today, it seems all that’s left is the big mural of Jim Morrison next to the Venice Beach sign. This is the end, beautiful friend, indeed.

How is it possible? Simple: Like so many California cities, and an increasing number of cities and states nationally, Santa Monica’s leadership decided long ago that what’s more important than music, community, and commerce is social engineering on a grand scale. That probably sounds a bit conspiratorial, but the evidence is all around us. Every one of those new, soulless apartment buildings with builder quality fixtures manifests an ideology. It’s not a stretch at this point to describe Santa Monica as one of, if not the first “15-minute city” in the U.S.

In that way, Santa Monica is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to the future of American cities. Santa Monica began the process of densification almost 30 years ago. The stated policy was to create a city where cars are largely unnecessary, where environmental challenges are addressed by shifting from detached homes to those stack and packs, and where community is created rather than being allowed to evolve organically.

These are all conscious decisions. Unfortunately, it turns out that when you “Manhattanize” what used to be a mellow, relatively small beach city you destroy what made that beach city what it was. Santa Monica will never be Manhattan. When it comes to how people choose to live one size does not fit all. Santa Monica is Exhibit A for what happens when policymakers try.

People move to places like Santa Monica and places like Venice, Huntington Beach, Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, and Long Beach because they want that sense of space and even freedom they offer. I don’t mean political freedom but the old fashioned kind of freedom that you feel when you wake up on a Saturday morning in November, when the rest of the country is stuck inside during first rain or snow of the year, and walk in your flip flops down to the beach. It’s the kind of freedom you feel when your New Year’s Day walk with your family involves watching dolphins frolic in the glittering sapphire Pacific Ocean under a glittering diamond sun.

People don’t move to mellow beach communities to live on top of each other. They don’t live here to ride the bus everywhere. And people certainly don’t move to mellow beach communities to be confronted with the kind of urban decay that until a few years ago was associated with places like L.A.’s Skid Row.

Quick, what city are you in?

So. Has the Santa Monica experiment failed, once and for all? To be sure, people aren’t as eager to live here as they once were. Many downtown apartment buildings increasingly rely on Airbnb, VRBO, sub leases, short term leases, and other nontraditional ways of keeping warm bodies in their units. That fact alone has had an enormous impact on the city’s sense of community. When your neighbors perpetually cycle in and out, you no longer have neighbors. Worse, you’re always slightly, unconsciously, on guard. When you don’t know who’s going to be living next door from week to week it disrupts you and your family’s own sense of rhythm and routine.

Moreover, because Airbnb has been so catastrophically successful, traditional hotels continue to struggle. While numbers are hard to come by, the eye test says Santa Monica’s tourism has come nowhere near returning to normal levels. Traditionally, when you went on vacation you stayed in a hotel. You would have at least a couple of meals in the hotel restaurant, a couple of drinks in the hotel bar. You’d chat with the bartender and learn something about the place you’re visiting that you won’t find on Trip Advisor. You would meet fellow travelers and swap stories and suggestions. Those unplanned, fortuitous encounters were parts of the reason you went on vacation in the first place. You added some fresh faces in your life, hung out with some cool strangers for a few days, maybe returned home with some new friendships in your life. Moving tourists into neighborhoods to fill units that cannot be rented simultaneously begins severing the threads of community in the neighborhoods themselves, while decimating the traditional hospitality industry that long has been key to Santa Monica’s overall economic health and fundamentally altering (in my opinion mostly for the worse) the traditional vacation experience for visitors. It’s amazing how destructive it’s been.

Along the way Santa Monica has given away the proverbial farm to big developers, big land owners, and big landlords. Again, the theory three decades ago amounted to Reaganomics: Santa Monica was becoming an increasingly expensive to live, so the rational response was to flood supply with thousands of new units of new construction, hence the scores of new stack and packs.

Rational, anyway, in theory. Unfortunately, they’ve turned out to be some mighty expensive cheaply built stack and packs. After three decades of what amounts to trickle-down housing policy Santa Monica remains one of the 20 most expensive places to live in the country. Adjusting for inflation it’s actually more expensive in 2023 than in 1993, when city leadership set about flooding the zone. Compounding matters, because densification presupposes that supply cures all housing ills the city didn’t include nearly enough affordable and low income housing to keep up with demand.

These realities, these failures, haven’t stopped the city from doubling down. Between now and 2029 some 9,000 new units are planned, with many under construction and many recently completed. To be sure, state law plays a role here, with new housing mandates requiring that number of new units. Remember, though, Santa Monica has been at the forefront of the densification movement for decades, and current leadership is well on board with the mandates.

What, exactly, does that number mean? Consider: According to Census data, between 2000 and 2020 Santa Monica grew by 8,992 people, or 10.7%. If those 9,000 units become reality in the next seven years they will create enough housing for nearly 18,000 people (number of units multiplied by the city’s average of 1.99 people per unit according to Census data). That’s 19% population growth, nearly double the historic rate, in just over a third of the time. At a time when existing landlords are struggling to keep units occupied. At a time when California’s population overall has plateaued and even begun to shrink. Even if we were to assume that all those new units will be occupied by one person (an obviously unrealistic assumption) the city will still have to grow by as many people in seven years as it did over the previous two decades. Where are all those brand new Santa Monicans going to come from? Are these growth rates even remotely plausible? Of course they aren’t.

It becomes a mania, a form of madness.

Here’s a perfect illustration of the kind of bad, ideologically motivated decision that costs a neighborhood, well, its neighborhood. One of the few remaining historic buildings in Santa Monica is a depression era art deco former post office building. After the postal service moved out in 2017 it was occasionally used for art installations and local events. It’s been shuttered since COVID. Next door is an elementary school (next to that is Tom Hanks’s production offices, natch). Across the street are two relatively new apartment buildings, stack and packs between which was a plot of vacant land. Maybe half an acre.

Why build a park – Blackrock has shareholders to pay

It would have been ideal for some kind of mini park. For a relatively paltry sum there could have been some shade trees and flowers, a few picnic benches, maybe a play structure and a local vendor selling sandwiches and cold drinks. It would have become a place where neighbors could congregate, where parents could have gathered while waiting for school to let out. In conjunction with the historic building it would have sowed the seeds of real community.

So naturally Santa Monica sold it to a developer and now there are not two but three stack and packs on the block offering Airbnb and other short term rentals to cover their increasingly shaky cap rates.

Nor has Santa Monica’s density approach to transit fulfilled its many promises. We’ve written elsewhere and at great length about road diets and so-called “complete streets,” which swap traffic lanes and parking spaces for bike lanes and dedicated bus routes. Dozens of miles of (often dangerously confusing and poorly designed) bike lanes, dozens of new transit buses of all shapes and sizes, and a dozen miles of new light rail ending at the pier collectively have failed, spectacularly, to deliver the promised boon to local businesses, much less the sort of neighborhood and community cohesion that mass transit and active transit are promised to engender. Instead, those dozens of bike lanes stand empty even as winter storms power wash the green paint into storm drains that flow directly into Santa Monica Bay. Meanwhile on dozens of streets at rush hour cars back up for blocks or miles, squashed into one lane where there used to be two or three, burning extra gas and releasing extra CO2 and other emissions. You can sit in that traffic for a half an hour with nary a Schwinn passing by.

Buses and light rail are nearly as empty, with ridership plunging long before COVID. Six months (at least) into the post-COVID recovery ridership on Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus has not returned to pre-pandemic levels. Entire routes do little more than shuffle homeless people from one place to another all day until service ends and they disembark to sleep in the nearest park, or wherever they pass out. Fights are common on Santa Monica transit, occasionally turning violent. Like all public spaces these days you’ll see people urinating, defecating, shooting up and all the rest.

His eyes got distant. ‘Bay City, eh? You like it the hard way, don’t you, Marlowe?’

Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely

And still more: Ask any of the librarians and other staff at the Santa Monica Public Library their opinion of the light rail. Within a few months after it opened the library had become a de facto daytime homeless shelter, bathroom, shower, and bedroom. One librarian lamented that literally within days of the light rail opening homeless people had begun streaming into Santa Monica and inevitably ending up at the library. Not to put too fine a point on it, these days it’s often so odorous in the library that you cannot even remain inside for long. Forget sitting in quiet contemplation reading a book, forget trying to do any meaningful research or work. Definitely forget bringing the kids.

That’s how low Santa Monica has fallen: In a city of barely eight square miles and 91,000 residents, with an annual budget of $655 million, you can no longer safely take your kids to the library. Note that Santa Monica spends nearly three times as much per capita as the average of the 100 largest cities in the country. According to that Ballotpedia only Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and New York spend more.

No one wins in Santa Monica these days. Residents, workers, and visitors are under constant threat – and that’s not an exaggeration. Smash and grabs, break ins, assaults, violent attacks, vandalism, disturbances of every conceivable kind occur on a daily basis throughout the city. Scenes that 10 years ago would have made your jaw drop have become quotidian. There is something very amiss in the community where a man wetting himself in the middle of Wilshire Blvd. is just another Wednesday. Something is very amiss in a city where vagrants trashing small businesses and threatening workers is just another day on the job.

So, can Santa Monica save itself? The current crop of councilmembers and other city officials does not augur well. The fact that one of them came from the staff of the worst city councilman in the history of Los Angeles also does not augur well. Nor do the scenes on the city’s streets and in its public spaces every day augur well. It’s hard to overstate or to repeat enough when drug overdoses public defecation public masturbation, vandalism, assault, and even rape become your daily routine you may be beyond hope.

Santa Monica also doesn’t have nearly as deep or sturdy and economic foundation as a world city like New York. These days Santa Monica relies primarily on tech and tourism – the “TT’s” of the city’s economy if you will. And while tech is as good a bet as can be made in this economic moment, Santa Monica seems intent on committing tourism suicide.

Like New York in the 1970s and 80s, it’s worth the rest of the country’s attention to watch Santa Monica closely today. To come full circle, Santa Monica started 30 years ago with policies much of the rest of the country are just getting warmed up on. Leaders should study Bay City carefully and decide if this is truly the fate they want for their communities.

They may want to heed Philip Marlowe, who said, “If Bay City is a sample of how it works, I’ll take aspirin.”


4 thoughts on “Can Santa Monica save itself?

  1. Thank you! You made all excellent points. I personally believe many of our council members are on the take, and I can’t wait for them to be busted. How dare they ruin our city? How dare they not keep us safe? Being a victim of rape at the hands of a dangerous homeless guy on meth, who broke into my security alarmed apartment, I have such bad PTSD that I cannot work and I certainly have no desire to live here, but cannot afford to move. Thanks again Chris.


  2. The only hope for Santa Monica is municipal bankruptcy and/or getting federal funds for its social services cut by a DeSantis Administration or perhaps a second Trump Administration.


  3. The Ambrose Hotel in Santa Monica was my base on my first and so far only visit to the US. That was in 2013, so I guess I got there just in time before it all started rolling downhill.
    I don’t remember being aware of the homeless problem – not the way I became aware of it a couple of years later right here in Perth. There were beggars but only a few. Overall my impression was positive, and I still have hopes of returning to Santa Monica and the Ambrose. But those hopes are smaller and dimmer than they were.


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