By Frank Gruber
June 15, 2009 --
I spent half of last week in Denver at the annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism. I had a wonderful time and learned a lot. There was only one disappointment. On Saturday I took a walk outside the conference hotel to (i) see a bit of Denver and (ii) find a diner so that I could eat a Denver omelet in Denver.
Denver was great (more on that later), but the omelet, which I ate at restaurant in a charming hotel near the Denver's beautiful Union Station, was terrible.
I am happy that there is nothing called a "Santa Monica omelet" that visitors could be disappointed about.
The upshot of my three days rubbing elbows with New Urbanists is that more than ever I believe that Santa Monica is a prototype of a "post-sprawl city" deserving of study and emulation.
Consider the facts. Although Santa Monica was founded with the idea that it would be an independent city and rival to Los Angeles, in the mid-20th century it filled out as part of an early burst of sprawl. Single-family homes dotted the landscape at about six to an acre, and although, in the manner of the Los Angeles region, many of the people who lived in the houses worked in local factories, Santa Monica's growth was fundamentally Los Angeles sprawling, and the city became part of a horizontal metropolis.
As the region's growth accelerated, Santa Monica quickly passed into the stage that urbanists call "inner-ring suburb," and in no time much of the first wave of development densified, as apartments, some of them cheap "dingbats," were thrown up in the '40s, '50s and '60s. By the '60s Santa Monica had achieved a population level (augmented by many children of the Baby Boom) that has remained about the same ever since: about 85,000.
Then, as happens with inner-ring suburbs, things went into decline. Regional malls sapped the retail strength of downtown Santa Monica. The blue-collar job-base shrunk, most dramatically when Douglas Aircraft closed its Santa Monica plant. Those apartments, and a lot of old houses, started to look shabby. (When I moved into Ocean Park in 1983, I estimated that on average there was an abandoned house on each block.) The Dogtown skateboarders called Santa Monica, "where the debris hits the sea."
Pause for present-day perspective: this is just what urbanists are seeing all over American today, not only in inner-ring suburbs, but also in recently built exurbs where the foreclosure crisis is devastating.
But -- trumpets -- we all know what happened. Santa Monica became . . . Santa Monica! Of course, along the way it became "Soviet Monica," or the "Peoples Republic of Santa Monica," but at some point it became the location for several zipcodes among those with the highest real estate values in California.
I'll tell you one fact about Santa Monica that knocks urbanists out when I tell it to them: that 70 percent of Santa Monicans are renters. What blows them over is that this puts the lie to one of the most common real estate myths: that prices for single-family houses are hurt if there are apartments nearby. When they visit me in Ocean Park, they can't believe that people spend (or used to spend -- we'll see what happens in the future) millions of dollars for houses next to 50-year old apartment buildings built on stilts over parking spaces.
This is important for another reason; as I learned at the CNU in Denver, regardless of economic issues, demographic shifts mean that a lot fewer Americans are going to want to live in single-family houses and many more will want to live in apartments or condos in urban areas.
Over the next 20 years the Baby Boomers, the largest generation in American history, are retiring and moving into condos and apartments, and the Millennials, the second largest generation, will be growing up and moving into their first apartments. More housing markets are going to look like Santa Monica's.
So what was Santa Monica's secret? Honestly, I can guess, but I don't know. That's why we need all those urbanists to come and study us.
(While I was at the CNU conference, I covered it for Huffington Post. If you want more details, here are links to the articles: "New Urbanism: Very Misunderstood" and "Report from the Denver New Urbanism Congress, Part 2"
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