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)