The “Broken” D.A. Process

Zoning and Development Agreements

Santa Monica is undergoing a period of sustained growth. But it has reached a crossroads where even bus shelters can’t be designed successfully. Why are we at this intersection?

We have a city budget that drives development and planning codes allowing Development Agreements (D.A.s) to override our zoning codes. Instead of following the zoning code, it has become the standard for developers to request D.A.’s allowing substantial height and density increases up to 83% in exchange for “community benefits.” This exchange is destroying Santa Monica’s quality of life while providing few benefits to residents. It results in agreements made with little transparency and selling our city assets – held in trust for our children! Circumventing zoning requirements has created a toxic atmosphere with reduction of blue skies, mobility, and increased water demand during the most serious drought in California history.

The original purpose of the D.A. was to eliminate uncertainty where zoning codes and/or specific plans were not yet approved. But in the rush for short term economic gain, the City has become blind to the long term effects of their policies – more traffic, higher utility rates, streets in shadow, and the loss of the soul of our city. Developers live by the rhythm and mantra of the cash register instead of the songs of birds and blue skies.

Between 1984 – 2009, only 8 D.A.’s were applied for. Since adopting the current general plan in 2010, the D.A. process created a tsunami of activity and 61 D.A.’s have been approved or are pending. Not a single project in the downtown area or along the boulevards is being designed within the zoning code. Every application requires a minimum of 7 public meetings in a 2 – 3 year process (7 years in the Hines case) instead of what could be a simple 3 – 6 month staff review process. This is not the City you envisioned in the LUCE.

Our city planning staff has had 4 years to develop specific plans for the Downtown, Bergamot and Memorial Park areas – plans dictating land use for years to come. This process has been largely delayed allowing developers to push through dense and traffic burdensome projects.

To offset increased height, density and traffic with community benefits, the City’s emphasis is providing 10 – 20% affordable apartment units within each development and generating additional tax revenue. This unfortunately comes at the expense of open space, design, traffic, additional required infrastructure, etc.

Economically this is a poor exchange. In the case of the Village Trailer Park debacle, the city receives $2.5m in “community benefits.” In exchange, the developer paid less than $5m for the property and, upon receiving D.A. approval, sold it for +/-$62m! In other words, while developers are eating cake, we’re getting crumbs. What makes this process even worse is pitting community groups (e.g Conservancy, History Museum, Hotel Hospitality Training Academy, Cultural Arts, etc.) against each other in pursuit of “community benefit” revenues and thereby helping the developers gain city approval.

Let’s look at the effectiveness of the D.A. process to date with recent examples of this rush to judgement –

  • 2 mixed-use projects at Lincoln and Colorado with 75% density increase, where 65% are family apartments but less than 1,500 sq ft of rooftop play area is allocated for children, no nearby schools or parks within the recommended ¼ mile, and 22% reduction in required parking but no curb parking for blocks in all 4 directions!!
  • Village Trailer Park, in addition to the windfall profit the developer made, is another project with no meaningful play area or even grounded landscape for 140 family apartments in an otherwise concrete jungle, with height and density totally in excess of LUCE and Bergamot plans.

  • 2 hotels at 5th and Colorado provide a “gateway” to downtown from the Expo station at Colorado with designs looking more like gulag housing developments rather than saying “Welcome to Santa Monica.”

  • Mixed-use development replacing Fred Segal’s at 5th and Broadway with overbearing height, repetitive mass and density creating narrow, shaded canyons for open space.

  • Hotel at 7th & Wilshire – 7 stories, 80 feet high and covering 2/3’s of the entire block with the “community benefit” package being little more than converting the historic corner office building to a hotel use?

  • The Agensys D.A. at Olympic and Stewart where parking concessions saved the developer $4m in costs but resulted in the developer having to rent 100 parking spaces at adjacent Bergamot Art Center and Transit Station, where future parking will be sorely needed.

  • Santa Monica Plaza at Arizona and 4th/5th bought by the city with the help of state funds for the purpose of retaining the ice-skating rink, now designed as a massive private 12-story mixed-use project instead of a town square while adding 1,200 cars to the downtown traffic soup.

  • And, finally, the Hines Papermate project, approved by City Council after 7 years of indecisiveness and pleas from LA City and LA County to avoid creating monumental traffic issues. The City allowed a 40% reduction of required parking with proximity to Expo despite the fact that their EIR showed only 3.1% of employees using the train. That saved Hines $36m in garage construction while the city realized $2m annually in community benefits over a 55 year period. The adjacent residential neighborhood was left to absorb 1,250 cars.

This is what’s taking place in your city on a weekly basis – reviewing projects that have an abundance of serious flaws in return for “peanuts.” The City’s residents are not being fairly compensated. In an 11/29/12 email exchange with city manager Rod Gould, he writes that “… the D.A. process … quite frankly works well for no one as it stands – not the applicants, public, Planning Commission, City Council or staff.”

The bottom line… the City needs to do away with the D.A. process completely and adopt a concise, creative zoning ordinance based on a simple 30/40/50 ft concept – 30 ft height in residential neighborhoods, 40 ft for boulevard mixed-use, and 50 ft in downtown. In the end this will benefit developers by creating certainty and saving time and cost, as well as benefitting the City and its residents. Added permit fees can make up for the marginal community benefits we’re currently receiving at a high cost to the liveability of the City. Otherwise, taking a short term view is a long term mistake. And quoting Gandhi – “the world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”

Ron Goldman FAIA for Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow 


Parks Make Life Better

Needing More Parks

“Out is In!” is the theme of this year’s National Parks & Recreation Month. Our community is an incredibly active one, where city parks are an important part of our urban life. Over 70 percent of our residents live in apartments, with another 10 percent living in condos or town homes. That means the vast majority of residents do not have a back yard to call their own – in fact their back yards are our city parks. The green space in our city is a more integral part of our active and passive wellbeing than most people realize. It is the lungs of our city. Our Santa Monica leaders should always be seeking to add to our city’s capacity to breathe.

Santa Monica possesses 132.58 acres of park space, which means that we have about 1.45 acres of park space per thousand residents. Our city parks are jewels. From the grandeur of Palisades Park to the Douglas Park ponds to the baseball fields of Memorial Park to our micro parks such as Goose Egg Park and Euclid Park, our parks are all used … heavily. However, Santa Monica has a much lower ratio of city parkland to residents than many of our neighboring cities: Manhattan Beach averages 2 acres per thousand residents. Santa Barbara’s ratio is 4.3 acres and Newport Beach has 5.92 acres.

Our youngest residents discover nature through our parks. They start active lives and connect with their peers through our children’s playgrounds. As our kids grow, they join teams and play organized sports on our fields. Kids explore the botanical offerings of our city, and conservation and sustainability become their mantra. Families gather to picnic and take their dogs to play. Teens and adults walk, run, ride bikes, skate and breathe fresh air, to de-stress and gain mental clarity to tackle their daily workload. They use the playing fields, swimming pools and tennis courts to stay in shape. Seniors meet, socialize, and keep their minds sharp in our chess park, or over an afternoon of cards or a walk through Palisades Park. S.M.a.r.t. believes that great urban planning requires abundant green space in Santa Monica. This must be a priority of our Planning Department and our City Council.

There is scientific evidence that living close to a city park raises activity levels, raises satisfaction in a neighborhood, raises property values, and increases wellness. Parkland and green space are what give Santa Monica its open and peaceful essence. In fact, the concept of the entire city as a park is fundamental to keeping this essence alive. It’s not only spaces formally laid out as parks that give our city its character – it’s also the urban forest canopy and streets that are greened so that residents can comfortably walk, ride a bicycle and have a place to play. Santa Monica’s Urban Tree Canopy was estimated at 15 percent by the USFS in 2001. This compares poorly with the national average of 27 percent. Our urban forest needs more trees. Santa Monica also has neighborhoods that lack playground space, dog parks, community gardens, meeting space and picnic areas.

Santa Monica has made great strides in adding park space in the last 12 years. Tongva Park, Ken Genser Square, and the award-winning universally accessible playground at South Beach Park were added last year. A linear park at Stewart and Exposition will be added soon. However, even with that progress, Santa Monica still comes up short on the green space index. Park experts believe that every citizen should have a park or green space within a quarter mile of their residence, so that mothers with children and seniors can easily find a spot to play, to learn and to have tranquility. Santa Monica does not meet that benchmark.

Our city is under threat of having its park-like spirit eradicated but let’s find ways to add green space. We already require setbacks in our single-family homes. We must require similar setbacks, measurable ironclad height limits and a commitment to more than an extra 10 feet of open sidewalk in each new mixed use and commercial building. We need to create streets that are inviting and green, with green pedestrian trails and cross-town protected bike lanes to help our residents feel that it’s safe to bike or walk. Going forward, our zoning requirements must reflect our city’s staunch stand on creation and protection of green space in the city. Our city can be sustainable and green, and at the same time provide superior parkland for future generations to enjoy.

However, we must take action. The creation of park space should be first and foremost in the equation of how that real estate is to be used. Property owners can be encouraged to establish temporary parks on vacant lots. On wide streets we can add parklets and more green center medians. We can create a park with remarkable vistas by opening a portion of our covered reservoir on Mt. Olivet as a tranquil public area.

We must create more community gardens and plant fruit trees on public land. We can open the Lincoln Middle School pool to the public. Let’s turn the directional lights back on, retool the Lincoln Middle School field and add artificial turf to give the neighborhood kids a recreation area. That will decrease traffic and increase activity. Lets expedite citywide bike sharing and mandatory bike education for elementary children, cardio/weight training stations, new playgrounds, walking clubs for seniors, and return the Senior Recreation Center to Palisades Park. We can open more dog parks. We should encourage the extraordinary concentration of artists in our city to display their art, music, dance and drama in our parks. Take a stroll through your neighborhood park and think what our city would be without these peaceful spaces. Then consider what you can do about it. Truly, Parks Make Life Better!

Phil Brock for SM a.r.t.



Zoning and Development Agreements

Every twenty years or so, cities are required by State law to renew their ‘General Plan’. The General Plan has several sections, but the one that most greatly influences zoning is the “Land Use & Circulation Element”, the LUCE. The LUCE establishes the conceptual design of the city by outlining with words, maps and charts the guidelines for specific land uses throughout the city. It establishes a basic framework for zoning regulations that define the limits of what is buildable, and is the blueprint for how the city develops. In Santa Monica, however, there are developments proposed that would clearly ‘bend’ the meaning of “general.” New car dealers, for example, are currently attempting to expand into areas explicitly prohibited by the LUCE and zoning regulations.

In contrast to the General Plan, zoning ordinances codify, with great specificity, the uses, the allowable height, floor area and number of stories allowed, and how much of any single lot can be covered with buildings. There may be unusual circumstances that create an undue and unintended hardship, such as a very small lot, or one that is irregular in shape or orientation, and for those cases there is a method, referred to as either a “minor modification,” or when a more complex problem, a “variance,” to help resolve those issues.

A community decides that specific areas of the city will have certain defined uses. There are usually areas zoned for residential, commercial, industrial/manufacturing and other uses. Each of those zones may also contain sub-zones. For example, in the residential ‘R’ zones there may be areas that permit only single-family homes, or areas that allow multi-family homes. Those residential areas may be divided further into areas that permit larger structures with more units per acre or per lot. The same type of division occurs within the commercial and industrial/manufacturing zones.

Zoning is a way to help make adjacent land uses compatible, taking into consideration various environmental issues such as noise, toxicity, safety, traffic and quality of life. For this reason factories are not located next to private homes. The maximum size, mass and height of the buildings in each zone are regulated by development standards. These standards describe what may be built in any particular zone. For example, the typical single family home in Santa Monica is limited to two stories and a maximum height of 30 ft. Single-family homes are also typically required to have a 20 foot deep front yard, have at least 5 foot wide side yards, and a 15 foot deep rear yard. The yards create breathable area for privacy, security, greenscape, and first responders as well as other quality of life and environmental issues.

The rules for commercial buildings on the other hand, are different. Unlike residential, commercial lots have minimal restrictions for front, side and rear yard setbacks. In many communities, including Santa Monica, commercial projects are allowed to be built right to the property lines, and building heights can vary greatly.

Why aren’t commercial developments required to provide open space in the same way as single-family homes, with room around the buildings (or groups of buildings) to allow for greater light and airflow? This would reduce the amount of land coverage, and create a more ‘breathable’ environment, allowing for paseos or ‘pocket parks’ to provide a natural break from the intensity of tight commercial construction.

In Santa Monica there is also a process called a Development Agreement, that sets aside all of the zoning regulations pertaining to a specific lot (or group of lots) and results in a negotiated design that does not have to adhere to the LUCE guidelines. In this case a developer is allowed to exceed regulated heights and number of floors, and mass of the building, in exchange for providing public benefits, such as a monetary contribution to the city for a historic preservation fund, or less parking with a commitment to provide a Transportation Demand Management Program (called TDM). With a typical TDM, a developer promises that occupants of the building will carpool together, for example, thereby reducing the number of vehicles serving the development; that’s the theory. And it is here that the developers are having a field day by asking for projects that allow as much as an 80 percent increase in floor area, in exchange for their offer of negotiated public benefits.

Many people think the Development Agreement system is not very different from “spot zoning,” a situation in which privileges are awarded to a particular property and not its neighbors. Spot zoning is illegal in California, and we think that, while the Development Agreement system is legal, because of the public benefits, it is time for DAs to be ended, as they have consistently provided excessive benefits to the developer, instead of we, the residents. It often seems that developers have not held up their end of the bargain, selling the projects quickly and moving on, leaving our city with one more over-built site, increased traffic, increased demand on the infrastructure, and more canonization along the streets resulting in a loss of light and mobility, and a deteriorating quality of life for our residents.

Some projects may take several years of meetings and hearings before the project is approved. One reason for such delays is the apparent willingness of the City staff to support developers who want to build beyond what zoning regulations and the LUCE allow. What is the purpose and value of the zoning regulations if they are up for grabs every time a developer asks to exceed them? And, if they are to be considered, why should it become a “negotiation” instead of having clear demands stipulated for the developer wishing to exceed what is code allowable?

Such negotiated increases should simply not exist beyond the minor adjustments and changes for unusual conditions, mentioned earlier. Without the open negotiating door currently offered to developers, everyone would know exactly what they are able to build and the economic decision to move forward or not becomes the developer’s choice. We need a greatly simplified zoning code, one that provides clarity to residents and developers, and with enough flexibility to allow creativity by designers and architects. Our zoning should have easily understood-height limits for the entire city clearly defined in a simplified zoning code that is long past due.

Robert H. Taylor AIA for Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow



10 Reasons Why We Love Santa Monica

Loving Santa Monica

As we enjoy Fourth of July weekend we have much to be proud of. It’s hard to believe that when those original patriots were laying down the keel of our country, our city was just sand dunes, still a century away from being born. But in the subsequent decades our City, like our nation, has prospered and today we stand on the shoulders of countless citizens, commissions, and councils that have made Santa Monica such a wonderful place to live. But why is it so wonderful? Everyone has their list, here’s our ten best:

1. Culture Reigns supreme: From Stairway of the Stars to our own Symphony Orchestra, from Bergamot Station to the Broad Stage, from the oldest Carnegie Library in Ocean Park to the newest in Virginia Park, from beach musicians to KCRW our City invites everyone to enjoy and participate in the creative contributions of an endless variety of artists.

2. This City Moves: From kelly green bike lanes to the Big Blue Bus with its quixotic new bus stops, from our newest bright orange (or is it red?) parking structure to the approaching EXPO line, this City, while mired in traffic, is moving steadily forward toward a diversified transportation system that can regain our urban mobility.

3. Our favorite color is green: Its no secret that sustainability is the City’s mantra. From our proactive recycling program, to Heal the Bay, to our incentivized LEED building codes, to our water conserving gray watered parks and planting areas. Santa Monica is doing its part to make the world a cooler place in the face of the real challenges of global warming and a severe and possibly permanent drought. No wonder the National Resources Defense Council put its southern California office in Santa Monica.

4. High Tech-Low Tech: From Uber and the world capital of Prii to skateboards and roller skates, from Silicon Beach and Rand Corporation to farmers’ markets and performers on the 3rd Street Promenade and every level in between, our City gives us countless first class experiences both virtual and real. All we have to do is reach out and select from the many options. Very few Cities have this spectrum of simple and sophisticated jobs, residents and pleasures.

5. Low Rise Paradise: To get that level of sophistication and diversity in one city, you would think we needed a density of New York or Miami, but fortunately this is not the case. We still have courtyard housing. Our downtown is still 70 percent one and two story buildings. Our streets and sidewalks are still mostly under our control, our skyline is still palm trees instead of high rises. We have afternoon breezes, blue skies and sunlight. No wonder everyone from all over the world wants to visit here.

6. A City with a big heart. Our City does not just cater to the wealthy that can afford to visit: it has many charitable and service organizations. From the Ocean Park Community Center to Step Up on 2nd, to Community Corporation (the largest landlord in Santa Monica) to name a few, who ably serve all those who do not fit the 1 percent demographic. Renters (3/4 of the population) have benefited from the exceptional decades long stability provided by SMRR. The City will always have a big heart and open its arms to the less fortunate.

7. Education doesn’t just happen. Those same engaged residents have consistently backed, by volunteering and funding, an exceptional education system. From preschools on public property, to Santa Monica High School (one of the top 250 public high schools in the US) to the 34,000 student Santa Monica College (the best Jr. College of the 112 in California and perhaps the nation), our residents benefit from the consistent and dedicated efforts of hundreds of teachers, staff and volunteer. This is not surprising since an astounding 2/3s of our adults have a bachelor degree or higher.

8. Education is not enough. The Santa Monica’s formal education system is surrounded by a galaxy of sports, arts and disciplines whose long-term purpose is to instill the lifetime habit of continuous activity. From Pony League, to the YMCA, to the 1,500 children playing AYSO, to the City’s Rec program, up to the Emeritus College classes at SMCC and countless other organizations, there is no reason to stop growing or participating in sports at any age in Santa Monica.

9. The City, as you know it, will be around for your grandchildren. While our City since its inception has had its real estate ups and downs, its residents have consistently protected its historical icons and along with it its quality of life. There are over 100 landmarks from the Pier to an airport beacon in our City. In fact our relatively tiny City has three organizations (Santa Monica Conservancy, Santa Monica Historical Society, and the California Heritage Museum) actively preserving Santa Monica’s (and California’s) physical and cultural past. This collective memory is valuable to current residents, returning residents and visitors who all hopefully feel at home here no matter how long they have been away. This is one big reason we love Santa Monica, it moves forward while also honoring its heritage: thus it’s always recognizable.

10. Finally, Our Authentic Beach Culture: From fishing off the Pier to amazing athletes at Muscle Beach, from morning surfers to evening strollers, from kite fliers to Segway riders, Santa Monica Beach is the real thing. Not something that is staged just for tourists or for weekend Angeleno visitors. It acts as a breath of fresh air for all visitors and residents alike. The beach is and always has been and always will be our most important asset.


Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA for Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow