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