It Takes a Village: Restoring Santa Monica’s Civic Center

"Santa Monica moved towards that rare event in Los Angeles–a pedestrian-oriented place," writes architect James Mary O'Connor.

‘Santa Monica Moved Towards that Rare Event in Los Angeles – A Pedestrian-Oriented Place’


By James Mary O’Connor, AIA, Moore Ruble Yudell Architects and Planners

O'Connor_James MaryThe final piece in the revitalization of Santa Monica’s Civic Center has just been completed this year: a mixed-use, mixed-income multifamily village called Ocean Avenue South. It repairs a 3.6-acre site at the heart of the city two blocks from the beach, adds walkable plazas and gardens to the urban environment, and brings a diversity of uses to draw people back to a neglected and isolated part of the city.

In the 1950s, the Civic Center was redeveloped to create large superblocks housing the civic auditorium, county courthouse, Santa Monica Place, and the nonprofit RAND Corp. Widening Main Street and creating extensive surface parking lots made the area more efficient for vehicle traffic but even less friendly to pedestrians. About half the land was in private hands.

In order to transform the Civic Center back into a walkable, vibrant neighborhood and provide much-needed open space and affordable and market-rate housing, the city purchased 11 acres of a 15-acre site owned by the RAND Corp. in 2000. The sale gave RAND the money to build a new headquarters adjacent to its old one.

The city updated its 1993 downtown Santa Monica Civic Center master plan in 2005 and developed a specific plan that established a “Village Special Use District,” which would include a new public park and a sustainably designed mixed-income, mixed-use neighborhood on former RAND Corp. land.

In 2006, the city selected a development-design team for the project: privately owned developer Related Companies, nonprofit affordable housing developer Community Corp. of Santa Monica, and local architecture firms Moore Ruble Yudell and Koning Eizenberg.

There are four main components to the project:

-The master plan, created by Moore Ruble Yudell in collaboration with Koning Eizenberg Architecture and Los Angeles landscape architecture firm Mia Lehrer + Associates;

-Tongva Park and Ken Genser Square (by James Corner Field Operations of New York City);

– 160 affordable rental units (the Belmar Apartments) and 10 affordable live/work lofts units designed by Koning Eizenberg; and

-158 market-rate for-sale units above retail by Moore Ruble Yudell, in two buildings (the Waverly, facing Tongva Park, and the Seychelle, along Ocean Avenue).

The master plan was rethought through an extensive community process led by the architects, configuring the mix of housing, retail, and open spaces to create a sense of a real neighborhood.

The original Santa Monica Civic Center Specific Plan had called for the village to incorporate donut-shaped and U-shaped buildings, with a pocket park tucked in a residual triangle. The design team drew on the contextual cues of both the local adjacent east-west walk-street grain as well as the “living street” precedent from Europe to offer an alternative, more neighborly approach, while keeping both options on the table. The living street concept eliminates curbs, giving precedence to pedestrians and cyclists while slowing vehicle traffic speeds. At Ocean Avenue South, all of the living street is available to pedestrians and cyclists, while half is also accessible to fire/emergency vehicles. No regular vehicular traffic is allowed.

Community involvement included four public workshops as well as presentations and input from multiple boards and commissions, addressing concerns about social equality, sustainability, density, traffic, height limits, and setbacks. The community evaluated the options and favored the living street approach, reorienting public space to create a public walk-street that runs from Main Street to Ocean Avenue. This street is activated by artist lofts, neighborhood-serving retail, and public art. As community members became increasingly invested, they added ideas such as a mid-block plaza on the new extension of Olympic Drive and facilitated implementation by supporting the design team’s request to adjust restrictive design guidelines relative to height and setbacks.

The city required that at least 160 of the residences be affordable to very-low and low-income households, with an emphasis on family housing, and that the project also offer live-work units suitable for artists. Of the 325 units of housing, 50 percent are dedicated affordable units. This is an unprecedented mix of affordable and market rate housing in a single development.

The buildings are organized around a series of public spaces, including the living street, three landscaped courtyards, plazas and gardens. A family garden, barbecue area and secure children’s playground provide shared open spaces for the affordable family residences. The development is a short walk from the forthcoming light-rail stop on the new Expo Line, the beach, Santa Monica Pier, hotels, and restaurants.

The 1.42-acre Ken Genser Square, directly in front of City Hall, provides a space for community gatherings. Located between Ocean Avenue and Main Street across from City Hall, the 6.2-acre Tongva Park consists of an undulating green space inspired by Southern California’s arroyos. It includes play areas, water features, and a variety of gardens. In order to ensure integration of the park with Ocean Avenue South, Moore Ruble Yudell coordinated with James Corner Field Operations on the design of the park in the area facing the Waverly Building and the plaza that leads to the living street.

The retail elements include restaurants as well as the 10 artist loft units along the living street and Ocean Avenue. Starbucks opened a month ago in the Waverly Building facing Tongva Park, and is doing well. A restaurant, Joan’s on 3rd, is also coming in on Waverly. Celebrity chef Brian Malarkey will open a restaurant in the Seychelle Building on Ocean Avenue. All artist loft units are already occupied, and the artists will be selling their own work. Santa Monica moved towards that rare event in Los Angeles – a pedestrian-oriented place.

For photos and illustrations, click here.


James Mary O’Connor is principal at Moore Ruble Yudell. In over 30 years of practice, Moore Ruble Yudell has earned an international reputation for excellence in design based on unwavering commitment to humanistic principles and thoughtful design for a wide range of projects and places. The firm’s work has been featured in numerous exhibitions and publications and recognized through over 200 awards for design excellence, including the 1992 AIA California Firm of the Year Award, three Chicago Athenaeum American Architecture Awards, and seven National AIA Honor Awards for architectural and urban design. In 2006, Moore Ruble Yudell received the Architecture Firm Award, the highest recognition the national American Institute of Architects can bestow.


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