A Tale of Two Cities

From Glendale to Santa Monica

In late 2020, Kelsi Maree Borland talked with me about planning and development in Glendale and Santa Monica, the two cities where I worked between 2005 and 2020. My perspective from inside City Hall resulted in four short articles published with Globe St:

Our full conversation, condensed into these articles, follows:

How have Glendale and Santa Monica experienced similar phases of growth?

Both Glendale and Santa Monica were incorporated a little over a hundred years ago as independent cities from Los Angeles, and generally followed similar growth patterns up until the 1980s. Both cities were connected to downtown Los Angeles via streetcar, and the streetcar routes helped establish the basic business districts we still see today. Both cities had a regional airport that originated as airfields for aircraft manufacturers – Santa Monica’s still operates as a local airport, but Glendale’s was long ago closed and developed as an industrial park, which is now largely occupied by various Disney business divisions. Large regional hospitals and associated medical businesses are located in both Glendale and Santa Monica. Both cities built an enclosed shopping mall on the edge of their respective downtowns in the 1970s. But the somewhat parallel history of Glendale and Santa Monica largely diverges in the 1980s when Santa Monica started to leverage its position on the beach to promote tourism, opened the now-famous Third Street Promenade and began converting old industrial lands on the east of the city into office space. Since then, Santa Monica has become a regional and international tourist destination as well as a hub for entertainment and tech businesses. Glendale does not have the advantage of a beachfront, but in the 80s it became a popular entre from Armenian immigrants, and their presence as a cultural, social, business and ultimately political force made Glendale a far more cosmopolitan city than it had been prior to then. In many ways, Glendale is today a more diverse city than Santa Monica, which has become less affordable over the years. As a result, while development politics in Santa Monica are largely defined by a no-versus-pro-growth polarity, in Glendale development issues are often colored by cultural meanings that stretch back hundreds of years.

Why are these two markets good to compare and contrast?

The two cities have somewhat similar-sized downtowns, both with a pro-housing zoning policy for the downtown. So residential development within the two downtowns is reasonably similar in scale and density. Both cities are experiencing significant housing demand and struggling to meet production expectations – although both cities maintain a good track record of sponsoring affordable housing developments. The commercial corridors that radiate from the respective downtowns are likewise relatively similar in scale, function and development patterns. So the basic urban pattern and overall development strategy between the two cities is actually quite comparable.

However, the two cities have a very different body politic and municipal operation. Owing to its beachside location, Santa Monica has a far more robust tourism industry, and has relied upon this almost never-ending revenue stream to sponsor a wide range for pioneering projects and policies. Santa Monica prides itself on being an innovative leader, on topics ranging from bike lanes, sustainability initiatives, AirBnB regulations, minimum wage, and a commitment to first-class urban design.

Glendale has been content to follow, if not a step behind Santa Monica, then often at least two steps behind. Glendale has historically had less financial resources but also a more diverse and conservative body politic than Santa Monica. That said, Glendale has often been willing to pursue highly innovative policies, but sometimes only if the innovation is not trumpeted too loudly.

In contrast to the solidly left-leaning and progressive “People’s Republic of Santa Monica,” Glendale would in many respects be an everyday American city if it was not surrounded by greater Los Angeles. So Glendale, although it receives far less attention than Santa Monica, is actually a better barometer of what is possible in American cities.

Has the pandemic changed opportunities or challenges in these markets?

Absolutely. Santa Monica’s municipal budget is heavily dependent upon tourism, through direct fees such as hotel room taxes, and indirect income such as tourism spending in shops, restaurants, and beachside parking lots. The immediate collapse of this income in March 2020 created a fiscal crisis within City Hall that required a reduction in staff and services and restructuring of various City Departments. A number of long-range planning and capital projects had to be shelved, but the City was able to effectively implement a number of parklets and other on-street dining areas, or “streateries”, to support local business districts. Ironically, these sorts of initiatives had been in the planning process for years, but the pandemic managed to grease the wheels of Santa Monica’s considerable bureaucracy.

Glendale is far less dependent upon tourism, and so it was able to weather the economic downturn of the pandemic without significant impacts on city services. It too implemented a number of “streateries” on its primary retail and restaurant streets, with similar success as Santa Monica. In both cities, there is now a desire to see these temporary changes to the streets and sidewalks become a permanent fixture.

Pre-pandemic, both Santa Monica and Glendale were highly desirable residential markets, a fact generated by good regional location for jobs, blue-ribbon public schools, and perception of general safety. The pandemic seems to have had little impact on either city’s residential desirability in either the for-sale homes or new multi-family development markets. However, in both cities the work-from-home regimen of the pandemic has cooled the office market. In Santa Monica, which has had a red-hot office market for tech and entertainment companies, this cooling effect may well be a good outcome by giving the city an opportunity to rebalance itself.

What best practices should cities be leveraging to support growth?

Santa Monica is a leader in requiring new development to shoulder responsibility for affordable housing and mobility issues through inclusionary housing policies and transportation impact fees. Glendale would have been well served to have followed this model when it experienced a significant building boom during the 2010s. Thousands of new housing units were built in this decade and Glendale received relatively little public benefit from this growth. On the other hand, the development review process in Glendale is significantly simpler and less time-consuming than in Santa Monica. Santa Monica has a process wherein almost every project requires a separately negotiated development agreement, ostensibly to generate public benefits out of each project. But it is debatable whether that process has generated better results than Glendale’s expediated review process. Glendale has done a much better job than Santa Monica in aligning its various departments and divisions responsible for development review into stronger unit with clearer chain of command in amongst city staff and commissions.

What are the planning opportunities in these two markets?

Both Santa Monica and Glendale have a large-scale long-term open space projects on the horizon that will fundamentally reorient each city.

In Glendale, the City recently engaged the landscape architecture firm !melk to create a vision plan for the Verdugo Wash, a 9-mile long tributary of the Los Angeles River that ends near Griffith Park and extends upwards into the mountains past downtown Glendale, Glendale Community College and multiple neighborhoods. Although the Wash is a concrete drainage canal today, the charge of the vision plan is to imagine multi-use open space corridor with pedestrian and bike paths, natural habitats and parks, and create a landscape spine that will unite disparate parts of the city. Its likely to be implemented over a generation through a series of small-scale projects.

Santa Monica, meanwhile, plans to close the municipal airport located at the southeast corner of the city limits in 2028. Just over 200 acres, this site was an airfield for Douglas Aircraft in World War Two, but today, an airport in the middle of a dense residential neighborhood does not make sense. Under the rules adopted by a referendum, when the airport closes the land can only be used for parks, education and cultural uses. But the practical financial reality of building and operating a 200-acre park suggests that Santa Monica will need to create a plan that includes regional partnerships and most likely some private development to offset the costs of such park. In the near future, Santa Monica will need to hire a team to create a master plan to guide the conversion of the airport site, including parklands, housing development, capital and operating costs, and most likely a ballot measure to approve the plan. Whatever eventually comes to the airport site, it has the potential to become the Westside’s “Central Park” and one of the most important well-used parks in greater Los Angeles.

One response to “A Tale of Two Cities

  1. Brilliant analysis comparing these cities you know intimately well… but the lessons are all so simple! I’m sharing this far and wide because it lays bare the issues that small city need to balance in order to be more economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable in this era of economic, social, and environmental calamity. Cheers!

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