Taking height limits to new lows

Articles, Building Heights

Santa Monica faces a tremendous threat to the quality of life of its residents with the runaway development being approved or about to be approved. Even with the rescinding of developer Hines’ Bergamot Transit Village, 34 other significant projects are still under consideration. The consequences of past over development are already here with traffic overload, which is both a symptom of too much previous development and evidence of the inadequacies of the city’s current transportation demand management (TDM) program. So we need, as a city, to consider stronger steps to get our mobility back. The most certain way to do this would be to reduce the size of the allowed projects until an effective integrated public transportation system is functional. In this vein we would propose the following height limits in the new planning code:

• Four stories or 50-feet for the densest zones.

• Three stories or 40-feet for mid density zones.

• Two stories or 30-feet for lower density and all other zones.

Other successful seaside cities such as Manhattan Beach and Santa Barbara have even lower height limits (three stories or 30-feet) so this proposal is demonstrably reasonable and realistic. These proposed building heights would be maximum allowable heights and not subject to modification. Currently, Santa Monica’s proposed height limits in the denser zones are 84-feet with some projects under consideration at 148-feet and even 320-feet (Miramar Hotel)! Not only would this proposal reduce traffic by downsizing projects it would also allow more views, less shading of streets and buildings, better ventilation, and more roofs with access to sunlight for solar systems. Lower buildings also have the advantage of being less costly to build and maintain, and are easier to rescue and escape from in emergencies. Older, taller existing buildings of course would remain grandfathered in.

Additionally the ability to have “eyes on the street” for enhanced public safety and awareness falls off dramatically above four stories. Lower rise streets tend to be safer streets. Finally these lower height standards will discourage the demolition of existing buildings. This helps to preserve both landmarks and local business while encouraging and increasing the adaptive reuse of older buildings. The high land costs in Santa Monica still force developers to cram as many units or square feet as allowed on each lot, so that height limits alone would not be sufficient to create a livable city. We still need additional open space provisions in the code for the higher density zones. We could, for example, have a requirement in our denser zones that something like 30 percent of the lot area remain unbuilt and that one-third of that open space be visible to the public. The actual disposition of this open space would be left entirely to the architect’s creativity and the client’s program. In reducing heights there may be a reduction in the number of affordable units. This needs to be addressed with a strong continued mandated affordable housing component. The reason it needs to be mandatory is that given our current land prices and construction costs, there is simply no way to create affordable housing in Santa Monica without some kind of subsidy. Finally, height limits in this proposal, when applied universally, are clear, easy to enforce and to understand. Our residents are already familiar with and understand the impact of two-, three- and four-story buildings. Height limits work regardless of how effective or ineffective TDMs are or turn out to be. By slowing the rate of development they allow the city more time to respond more effectively to its potential water and actual transportation crisis.

We believe that the future arrival of the Expo Light Rail Line, is not necessarily a solution to Santa Monica’s on-going transportation collapse, because even the Hines project, which was adjacent to a light rail station, assumed that only 3.5 percent of its residents or workers would commute by light rail.

You may hear the argument that these height limits would not allow enough room for future growth. Putting aside the question whether a city unlikely to meet its 2020 water sustainability targets and already strangled in traffic should really be prioritizing future growth, this proposal allows plenty of room for reasonable future growth. For example, with 70 percent of Santa Monica’s Downtown being one- and two-story buildings, the number of square feet Downtown could easily increase by a third (another four million square feet) under this proposal. Other parts of the city would have similar margins for growth. Thus there would be ample room for growth (if that was desirable) while being respectful of the current urban fabric and preserving the wonderful beach side character of our city. By providing this kind of height limit clarity and simplicity, owners, architects and developers would know what to expect, the City Council, staff and commissions would know what the clear parameters are and the citizens would be assured of a reasonable development future relatively immune to back-room deals. This certainty is worth a lot to all these stake holders.

Finally, simple planning standards such as these height limits may restore trust in our city’s severely compromised approval process. The residents felt that the intent of the city’s new LUCE (Land Use Circulation Element) process was betrayed by the Hines approval, and I’m sure the Hines advocates felt betrayed by its being rescinded after seven years of effort. By having simple clear non-negotiable height limits in our city, it is a win, win, win, for our present and our future city.

Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA for SM a.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

Putting the Cart Before the Horse


A major component of Santa Monica’s new traffic demand management program is based on the idea that limiting parking will compel people to abandon their cars in favor of mass transit, bicycles or walking.

Although TDM sounds good “in theory”, some parts of this initiative might better be described as “traffic design magic,” based more on wishful thinking than fact. This is particularly true in Los Angeles where urban sprawl has made the automobile a necessity and mass transit, at present, still a work in progress.

An example of this was highlighted in the environmental impact report for the proposed Bergamot Transit Village (BTV). Although the project was directly across from the new Expo Line, the project’s environmental report estimated that of the 10,857 daily/person trips, only 3.5 percent would be on public transportation (EIR Section 4.16-72). The remaining 96.5 percent would be in vehicles. Based on the faulty assumption that proximity to the Expo Line would lead to more transit usage, the developers were allowed to provide 40 percent fewer parking spaces than normally required. The developer was on track to save $35 million with the removal of 650 spaces (40 percent of total) at $55,000 each from their subterranean garage. Their gain would have been at the expense of the surrounding community. The city estimated at least 20 percent of the development’s cars would end up in the surrounding neighborhoods. The actual number of cars unable to find a place in the 2,000 space lot would likely have been much greater with five times more daily car trips than the available spaces (Note: TDM normally targets 1.4 riders/car).

A major barrier to the implementation of mass transit is the “first mile, last mile issue” — how to get to the station and then to one’s final destination. This is why the car is still favored over other options. One solution to this dilemma would be a bike share system coupled with a network of paths reserved for bicycles and/or other alternatives (Segway’s, e-bikes, e-skateboards etc.) that could move commuters around the city as well as to the transit hubs. This system has been shown to be successful in other large cities, particularly when the mobility devices are small enough to be brought aboard the transit lines or made available at both ends of a trip.

Many of these devices are available for all ages, non-polluting, require smaller parking areas and often a faster, safer alternative for city travel. Ideally, it would also involve the repurposing of some streets and/or parking lanes to provide safe paths of travel. Since Santa Monica is only around three miles across, a bicycle traveling at 15 MPH could traverse the city in less than 15 minutes. This strategy could help alleviate traffic, and finding parking for a bike is far easier than for a car.

Alternatively, a DASH type system, such as The Free Ride, could run six-passenger electric golf carts that stopped throughout the city at no cost to residents or visitors. These bike and shuttle systems are viable, and could come on-line quickly. TDM reductions do the opposite — move more cars onto the streets making parking and traffic near transit hubs more congested while offering few alternatives for shorter trips. Filling our streets with cars would also make it less likely that streets could be repurposed for alternative modes of transportation at a later date, be it for personal devices or dedicated lanes for buses and shuttles. The current approach is piecemeal rather than designed as an integrated transit system.

Two other problematic aspects of the TDM program are: 1) permitting tenants to sell their spaces back to the developer and, 2) providing shared parking instead of assigned spaces for tenants. The result of both policies could incentivize those with parking, but also tight finances, to sell their spaces and take their chances with street parking. To avoid putting more cars on our streets, landlords and developers must continue to be responsible for providing space for their tenants’ cars as required under current standards.

The TDM concept of decoupling parking from units will also be applied to new multi-residential projects. New renters in the city may soon discover that what was once included in their rent will be sold to them separately. Unsold spaces will be offered at market rates to non-tenants for parking, storage or perhaps be even resold. Again, great for landlords but less so for tenants and residents who will now be competing for increasingly scarce street parking. Aren’t most residents and their guests already having enough difficulty finding a spot on the street? Cars should be housed in buildings, not on our streets. As it currently stands, TDM provides substantial financial benefits to landlords and developers but only additional expense and inconvenience for residents.

Santa Monica’s TDM program is not all bad. Some TDM strategies are workable and, if properly implemented, could reduce traffic. The relaxation of parking standards is not one of them. Good for the developers but bad for residents. The BTV project alone would require monitoring the use of over 10,000 cars. The TDM program will create another layer of bureaucracy in a City Hall that is already overstaffed and yet unable to enforce its current regulations. The TDM program should not use Santa Monica residents as guinea pigs for an unproven program with consequences that, in some cases, might be irreversible. More research needs to be done before this program is ready for implementation. Until such a time, our current standards should stay in place as they are. To Implement TDM at this time is to put the cart before the horse.