Fans and Critics: The SMC Master Plan

No students attended last Wednesday's final Master Plan 2009 meeting, but about a dozen people from neighborhoods around SMC (many residents of Pearl Street) showed up with plenty to say.

The session began a lot like the two previous Master Plan 2009 meetings, with architects discussing how SMC's campus will change drastically over the next seven years.  The difference with last Wednesday's scoping meeting, however, was that all public comments were on-record, to be addressed in the project's Environmental Impact Report (EIR), said Shane Parker,  Environmental Consultant from Christopher A. Joseph & Associates.

Neighbors of SMC's main and satellite campuses came bearing handwritten notes, quoting statistics and demanding that Santa Monica College responsibly consider its community as it expands. Neighbors' criticism included the sheer number of students allowed to attend SMC, congestion and traffic on their narrow streets from the Big Blue Bus fleet and concern about noise, dust and vibration during the upcoming campus construction.

Regula Ziegler, a resident of Santa Monica for 38 years, had her entire speech written out. Speaking with a thick accent and raising her eyebrows, she called SMC's constant growth "alarming". Although she termed the stadium a "horrendous structure," she didn't understand the need for SMC to build another one. She recalled that when the current pool was being built, the construction noise was deafening and vibrations cracked some of the foundations in neighborhood homes.

Changes to the main campus include a brand-new Student Services building (currently under construction) with 500 underground parking spaces underneath the structure.  According to Greg Brown, Director of Facilities Planning, Drescher Hall will be heavily renovated.

The Academy of Entertainment and Technology campus will be the new home of SMC radio station KCRW and the exclusive satellite campus for Journalism and Broadcasting students. The existing building will have a new wing for additional classroom space and a parking structure adding approximately 188 spaces. The nearby Olympic Shuttle site, which serves the Academy campus and is a Big Blue Bus stop, will grow to include a parking structure with 630 spaces (currently 209), according to the EIR.

The Performing Arts Campus will see an expansion of the music school and a new two-story wing connected to the main structure. The Master Plan adds an extension to the west wing of the main building and introduces a new fine arts exhibition building with related classrooms and offices. Parking will show a net increase of 360 spaces.

At the meeting, Mike Spenelli, a 22nd St. resident, wanted to know if the college had a "cap" on the amount of land it could buy. SMC staff worker, Lee Peterson, a computer lab technician, attended the meeting to voice his concerns. According to Peterson's calculations, SMC had reached its "maximum simultaneous capacity" regarding the amount of students the campus is equipped to handle. Peterson said that student overpopulation contributes to the dense traffic on and around campus.

Not all are critics of the Master Plan. Completed projects such as the Main Campus central Quad and the Eli and Edith Broad Stage at the SMC Performing Arts campus, has brought accolades to SMC.

The amount of added open space was applauded by the Community College Facility Coalition, which gave the SMC Quad the Award of Excellence for their 2009 Professional Design Awards, according to a press release by Bruce Smith, SMC Public Information Officer. The Quad, a $9 million project, also won the 2009 Los Angeles Business Council's Architectural Award in the Landscape Architecture category. It was designed by tBP Architects and Meléndrez landscape architects.

Brown described the middle of campus before the Quad was created. He said that the campus never had an open space where students could relax. There was no landscaping and no place to sit. Before the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the area consisted of a few tennis courts. After earthquake remodeling, the space was filled with temporary buildings for classes, connected by narrow walkways. Brown said the addition of the Quad has given SMC "beautiful open space and gorgeous landscaping."

The Broad Stage, a $42 million state-of-the-art theater designed by Renzo Zecchetto Architects of Santa Monica, has won three awards according to SMC's press release. The first two awards, given before the Broad Stage even opened, were the McGraw Hill Construction Award for Best Higher Education and the Los Angeles Business Council's Architectural Award for Outstanding Architecture. Notably, the Broad Stage was given the Award of Honor in the Community College Facility Coalition's Campus Completion category, meaning that the SMC campus was not considered complete until the Broad Stage's addition.

Back at the meeting, Parker told residents that no future land acquisitions are proposed, aside from what is already laid out in the Master Plan. He explained that SMC's campuses won't grow in square footage, partly due to the fact that many of the older structures are being demolished and replaced.

Drescher Hall will be the only existing building to be remodeled. All other main campus buildings mentioned in the Master Plan will be demolished, according to the EIR.

Among the buildings slated for demolition are: the Liberal Arts Building, the Letters and Science Building, the Math Complex and Library Village, the Physical Education/Fitness/Dance Building, the ESL Building, and the Corsair Stadium.

"SMC is indulging in empire building," said Joe Faris, an 18th Street resident for 15 years who lives close to the campus. He said that because traffic is so dense, residents are being "held captive" between 4:30 and 7 p.m., when trying to get in and out of their homes.

To improve traffic flow for the Big Blue Buses along Pico Blvd, a new transit plaza, the Pico Promenade, is proposed in the Master Plan. It will allow access of up to four Big Blue Buses at once and will display an LED sign with an electronic timetable.

The neighbors proposed that SMC build a formal gateway along the Pico Blvd. section of the main campus. They said that a major ingress and egress along Pico Blvd. would help diminish traffic along Pearl St. and other smaller, neighborhood streets. Trent Thixton, a Pearl St. resident, was present at the meeting, along with his wife and brother. He said early mornings look like "a D-Day invasion of students" and asked that SMC contemplate closing access to Pearl St. altogether.

Don Girard, SMC Senior Director of Government Relations, stood up from his seat in the audience and turned around to address neighbors' concerns. He said that any changes to Pearl St. or bus routes would be up to the City of Santa Monica, not SMC. Girard told residents to write their complaints directly to the city.

On Nov. 3, Greg Brown and Louise Jaffe, Chair of the Board of Trustees, will be in Sacramento to accept the SMC design and architectural awards made possible by the Master Plan.

While Brown and Jaffe are honored at a luncheon banquet at the Sheraton Grand Hotel, with approximately 800 other guests in attendance, Regula Ziegler will be at home writing to the City of Santa Monica and SMC Facilities Planning staff in her tireless effort to overturn future proposals like those in the Master Plan. During the meeting, amidst applause from her fellow neighbors, Ziegler responded dryly to Parker's assurances, "Please forgive me for being rather cynical. I have heard it all."