The Magic of Adaptive Reuse

Preservation and Adaptive Reuse

Just like your body, the urban fabric is continually renewing itself: buildings are continually torn down and new ones erected in their place in response to economic, demographic and political factors. But some parts of your body, such as adult teeth, need to last a lifetime. Likewise certain buildings should last the lifetime of a City. These significant buildings play an outsize role in the City’s history, because of their particular architectural or historical impact. Usually they get landmarked and afforded the highest level of protection. Santa Monica, a City of 51,000 units, has only 110 landmarked structures. If these structures were evenly distributed in the City’s 139 year history there would be less then one landmark worthy structure built every year. It’s fun to guess which of the buildings being built today will be the landmarks of tomorrow?

But there’s another more common and efficient way the urban fabric renews itself and that is to take existing buildings and with minor modifications repurpose them to new uses (e.g. adaptive reuse) avoiding their outright demolition and preserving their presence in the community. This adaptive reuse provides benefits that are shared by residents and developers alike:

The greenest building is the one not torn down.
Some estimates say construction waste accounts for 40% of our landfills. But even with the City’s excellent construction waste recycling program, the stream of dumpsters leaving the City every time a building is demolished, inevitably creates an irreducible amount of waste that cannot be recycled. And all new buildings generate 10-15% waste in their “normal” construction. If the amount of “new” construction in an adaptively reused or remodeled building is reduced in relation to new construction, this secondary waste stream is further reduced. Finally every building has “embedded energy” in it such as the energy needed to fabricate materials, the gas needed to bring the workers and materials to the site, the electricity needed to power their tools etc. etc. When a building is completely torn down all that energy is totally wasted since it only appears as residual global warming with no ongoing benefit (and a considerable global penalty). But when a building is adaptively reused much of that embedded energy remains “in” the building to benefit future generations.

Adaptively reused buildings are quicker to complete.
This is a no brainer. Adaptively reusing a building is quicker than building new particularly since large new buildings often have to provide full subterranean parking with all of its attendant delays and neighborhood disruption. When construction moves quickly, both developers and neighbors benefit.

Adaptive reuse is typically cheaper than new construction.
Even with their higher relative cost for seismic reinforcement and energy efficiency upgrades, these older buildings, typically can be repurposed for less cost than starting from scratch. Since the shell of an adaptive reused building remains intact, it is an expense whose replacement is avoided. Often this remodeling work is akin to “putting a ship in a bottle” and may create more skilled jobs per square foot than new construction.

Adaptively reused buildings have more fans than new buildings.
Buildings are not just time, money, square feet and kilowatts, there’s always an emotional component. Because these are familiar older buildings: people who have used them often still remember them in their previous incarnation. This familiarity adds an extra dimension or charm to our current experience of them. It takes a long time for a new building to build up all the positive associations and memories, while an adaptively reused building starts with a 30 50 or even 70 year affinity head start. More people will fight to preserve an old building threatened with demolition than a new one.

Fortunately, Santa Monica has many different adaptively reused buildings for its residents to enjoy for example :

  • A large private home became a bar and event/banquet hall (The Victorian, 2640 Main St).
  • Two large homes became museums (Angels Attic and the California Heritage Museum)
  • An airplane hangar became an event venue (Barker Hangar 3021 Airport Avenue)
  • A church became a home (2621 2nd Street)
  • A googie restaurant became a dental office (The Penguin 1670 Lincoln)
  • A car dealer/garage became a restaurant (El Cholo 1025 Wilshire)
  • A small shotgun house is becoming a new Preservation Resource Center (2520 2nd Street)
  • A 7 story office building is becoming a new hotel (710 Wilshire)
  • And our former post office is probably becoming a new office (1248 5th Street)

The list could go on and on. Of course the biggest collection of adaptive reuse in the City is all the buildings on the 3rd Street Promenade and the surrounding downtown area. From this short sample list it’s obvious that practically any building of any size can become another use and still remain a part of the living family of buildings that makes our city such an interesting place. That is the magic of adaptive reuse.

Is every building worthy of adaptive reuse? Of course not. For the best candidates we could start with the 1500 buildings on the City’s Historic Resource Inventory (HRI) list. These buildings have substantial architectural or historical merit, and deserve special attention, yet will probably never rise to the level of being protected by landmarking. The City has done initial research on these buildings and determined they are worthy of future study, And they should be afforded the same modest parking breaks the current code allows for Landmarked buildings. You can see which buildings are on the HRI by checking Inventory/.

Finally when you realize the concentration of older industrial buildings in the Memorial Park area and that the vast majority of buildings in our downtown and along the major boulevards are 1 and 2 story (in excess of 75%), the city would do well to establish a policy outlining the circumstance that buildings need or could be maintained profitably by adaptive reuse.

Small incentives would often be enough to push a building from being demolished to adaptive reuse. Even the preservation of a relatively small number of adaptively reused buildings is of tremendous benefit to the architectural experience and soul of our City.


Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA for SMa.r.t.


The Bergamot Arts Complex…. It’s not too late to get it right.

Bergamot Arts Complex

The train is coming! In less than two years, the Expo Line will arrive in Santa Monica. While the Expo Station will be ready on time, the adjacent Bergamot Arts Complex likely will not. This delay, however, should not give the City reason to rush into a project that lacks vision and contains many unresolved issues. The City’s initial description of the concept for potential developers stated:

“The concept emphasizes retaining the concentration of art galleries and other art uses, providing space for a museum, creating revenue-producing and visitor-serving uses, including a hotel and restaurants/bars, and delivering infrastructure improvements to compliment the arts center and new Expo station.”

The City is currently reviewing proposals from three developers, and could make their selection shortly. It is likely going to be much longer before the Bergamot Arts Complex welcomes its first visitors. There is still time to question if the City’s concept will result in a project that both inspires and meets the needs of the community. It is already too late to be ready on time, but with a price tag of $ 92,000,000, let’s at least make sure that we get it right.

Is the City’s current concept for the site correct? No.

The biggest problem with the City’s program is that it does not address the “elephant in the room”- parking. The current tenants believe that the complex needs at least 1,000 spaces (some say 1,200). Although all three schemes may achieve the City’s targets for parking, their target is likely 50% short of what is needed to serve the Arts Center and Expo Station.

One solution that has been proposed is to construct a new parking structure on the City Yards adjacent to Bergamot. The City’s reticence towards this solution is understandable since it would require relocating a portion of the City Yards and result in further delays. Ultimately, they may have no other choice. Failure to provide adequate parking will ensure the failure of the Arts Center.

Secondly, the premise that the project should be designed around the current galleries is putting the cart before the horse. The overall vision for the new Bergamot Arts Complex should come first not last. Once this vision is established, the current galleries can decide if they share in the new overall vision for the Center and, if not, relocate.

Private, for-profit galleries, whose interests may conflict with the interests of the City’s residents, should not dictate the design of this public amenity. Currently, the galleries want to remain but will only do so if certain conditions are met: 1) no rent increase, 2) long term leases, 3) the exclusion of artist’s studios and 4) their ability to continue business operations uninterrupted during construction.

While reasonable, these demands will complicate the creation of a unified Arts Complex. For example, the inclusion of uses unrelated to the arts may be necessary to keep the galleries’ rents at current levels. Two of the commercial uses that have been proposed are: 1) 100-room hotel 6-7 stories high, and 2) “creative office space” of 25K to 60K SF. Some residents have concerns that these uses will tilt the scale towards a center that is more oriented towards Income than the Arts. The term “Creative Office Space” more often refers to their ability to house more employees than to the work they are doing.

SMa.r.t. believes it is imperative that any development is deed-restricted to ensure that the developer cannot waver from their promise to prioritize “arts and cultural” uses and keep the arts center from turning into a commercial center. The focus of the complex should remain on the Arts, in all its various forms, rather than retail in its various disguises.

SMa.r.t. believes that the Bergamot Arts Center should be one that is diverse, includes a wide spectrum of the arts, has broad appeal and, ideally, is self-sustaining. We hope it will not require a 6-story hotel or creative office space to support itself. It should be a low-rise center that focuses on providing artistic and cultural activities that appeal to all ages and interests in the community. It should include amphitheaters, stages and other venues for performances, music and theater arts. It should be a day and night venue that takes advantage of its proximity to the new Bergamot Expo Line. It should enhance what is there, not destroy it. It should be a low-rise arts village with an industrial character consistent with its historical roots.

It should not preclude studio lofts where lesser-known artists could work, teach and show their work as well as art schools with classes for all age and skill levels. In short, an Arts center that is unified and synergistic where each use-element supports and energizes the others. It should not be one that is bifurcated with an area for the galleries and unrelated commercial activities to support them.

The developers will follow the City’s lead. The City needs to accept this mantel of leadership and rethink their program. It should be a vision for the future unfettered by the past. It should prioritize the Arts not commerce. Bergamot should be an Arts complex focused on entertainment, education and the promotion of the arts in all its forms. It could introduce residents of all ages to theater, music, painting, performance, etc. Bergamot is a unique opportunity to celebrate Santa Monica’s connection to arts and culture at a prominent gateway to our City. Let’s take a little more time to make sure we get it right.

Please share your vision with the City Council for this precious City resource so that it can serve and inspire all Santa Monica residents for years to come.

Thane Roberts AIA for:
SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

Opportunity Sites

Santa Monica's Opportunity Sites

The America Oxford dictionary defines opportunity as a time or set of circumstances that are suitable for a particular purpose. Our city planning staff in formulating the Downtown Specific Plan (DSP) has identified a total of eight sites. As follows:

  1. The new Expo Station and it’s adjacent City owned property. Multiple transit related are envisioned at this site.
  2. The Sears Building property adjacent to the Expo Station under construction.
  3. The Miramar Hotel proposed for significant redevelopment including a hotel and condominium (+/-320′tower).
  4. Ocean / 2nd and Santa Monica Blvd. Site currently being proposed as a hotel and museum, designed by Frank Gehry and including the ubiquitous affordable housing (+/- 260′).
  5. Ocean / Colorado site, currently the Wyndham hotel, to be demolished and replaced with a terraced 9-15 story hotel (+/-175′).
  6. 4th / 5th and Arizona. The City-owned property designated to be hotel, office, commercial, affordable housing, public space and parking (+/- 148′).
  7. 5th and Broadway. The Fred Segal site slated to be commercial and residential with some affordable housing.
  8. City-owned property adjacent to the Big Blue Bus Yards to be developed in a way to enhance the bus operations, provide open space and affordable housing.

It appears from a glance that development on these sites has been generously assigned to the developer owners and to developers as surrogates for the City. This is not necessarily a bad marriage but are the citizens getting the full value from these agreements? In the case of the City owned property at Arizona and 4th, it will be violating its’ own development guidelines, i.e. zoning ordinances, heights, setbacks, floor area ratios (density). This will benefit the developers at the expense of the scale of our beachfront community. Another case where opportunity means exceeding the code for excessive profit.

My fundamental question as an architect, does the selection of these eight sites represent an underlying vision for our city’s downtown beyond the simple zoning restrictions? It appears not. Considering each of the opportunity sites, I’ve yet to discern any particular logic in their placement other than those adjacent to the Expo Line.

The Expo station and the adjacent opportunity sites should have transit related activities and uses such as commuter parking, transit related commercial and convenient interfaces with other modes of transportation, i.e. bus, taxi, bike, as well as enhance pedestrian access to Downtown and the Pier as primary destinations.

To put some perspective on the magnitude of these, it is expected that by 2030 this location will need to accommodate a ridership of 60,000 per day or 2/3 of the city’s current population. This figure begs the question. Was this indeed the optimum location? In my opinion it was not and like the decision to run the line on grade is a major missed “opportunity.” The line should at minimum have been elevated throughout the Downtown area running down Colorado terminating adjacent to the Wyndham Hotel. A new pedestrian bridge and/or people mover should have been planned to move the tens of thousands of visitors to and from the Pier. Such a bridge could serve also to make the Pier more ADA compliant and family friendly. Further, parking on the Pier should be eliminated as inherently problematic to its structure and pedestrians. The Sears site being adjacent to the station could accommodate transit related parking with housing above, both moderate and affordable, as well as a pedestrian bridge to Tongva Park.

The current Miramar Hotel should be allowed to renovate or rebuild to the density and height currently allowed, taking into account the historic nature of its existing assets. As there is a new design architect, I will withhold any judgment until his concept is made public. Whatever is proposed should reflect the parking requirements of the current ordinances without reductions.

The Ocean Ave./Santa Monica Boulevard Site with its multi-storey hotel and condo proposal should also be scaled down to reflect the existing zoning. It should be 3-4 stories in compliance with current codes, maintain the landmark structures on the site and not be required to provide affordable housing. By example, one only has to look at the new Shore Hotel down the street.

The Ocean and Colorado site, the Wyndham Hotel, should be allowed to rebuild replacing like for like in regard to height, lot coverage, parking, etc. The proposed design missed an opportunity to be integrated into what might have been an above grade terminus of the Expo and a dramatic Pacific Window access to the Pier.

The 4th/5th and Arizona site SMa.r.t. has discussed in detail in a position paper which expressed the belief that this City owned parcel be developed as a major sorely needed Plaza space with only low rise structures, perhaps a boutique hotel, some appropriate commercial, shade trees and fountains, and perhaps a tall iconic piece of public art. This development would exist above a City owned multi-level garage with revenue solely the City’s. The Plaza would be connected to the 3rd Street Promenade by a mid-block arcade.

The 5th and Broadway site familiarly known as the eastern portion of the Fred Segal site should be developed adhering to current zoning into residential and neighborhood/transit oriented commercial. In every one of these sites there should be strict requirements for open space and sufficient parking.

The Big Blue Bus Yards site should be developed as a transit interchange or hub allowing City residents access to the Expo terminal by way of smaller feeder busses, jitneys, taxis, autos and bikes. Expo riders would benefit from improved access to the rest of downtown. Sites 1, 2, 5 and 8, would be a linear transit related corridor and developed cohesively

Opportunity sites in downtown abound but we as residents should insist on these being developed to enhance and respect our quality of life. They should all have significant architecture but should not be allowed to become opportunistic monuments to satisfy few at the expense of many.

In planning Santa Monica, the staff, planning commission and the council should free themselves from the ordinary, develop a visionary overall concept for the downtown at a scale that we as residents expect. It should not be one that will further stress the fabric and infrastructure of our downtown. We need to re-establish trust and transparency while planning our downtown. These sites should be considered “public benefit sites”, not opportunity to exceed code for excessive profit.

Sam Tolkin, Architect



Thirsty Development

Water Conservation

By now everyone knows about the drought, although some people seem to be in denial about the problem it presents. The governor has asked for a 20% reduction in use, and our City has followed suit and asked residents to reduce water use by 20%. In the meantime, new developments–some of them especially water-intensive–continue to make their way through the approval process. Even as residents try to reduce their consumption, the city’s overall consumption is well on its way to new heights.

Santa Monica gets most of its water from its own wells, purchasing the rest from the Metropolitan Water District. MWD water, which comes from the Colorado River, rain and snow melt, is especially susceptible to the effects of drought. As the water supply from the state diminishes, the cost of that water will rise. To reduce the impact of an unstable state water supply, the City developed a plan to be water self-sufficient within the next six years. Included in this plan is the construction of two new wells, and various other water-conservation measures.

As with our current wells, new wells will draw from a vulnerable underground supply shared, and desired, by others. New conservation measures, while laudable, will not reverse the rising water-consumption trend, because conservation cannot trump an increase in the number of users. With all the projects in the pipeline, including residential developments and hotels, the City will continue to depend on unreliable and increasingly expensive water from the MWD, and increased costs will inevitably be imposed on all water consumers in the city. The more water consumed by the city, the more we will depend on purchased outside water, and the more we’ll pay.

In January last year the city consumed approximately 10 million gallons of water per day. We were asked to conserve a mere 200,000 gals per day, a reduction of two gallons per day per person, or 2%. One year later, in January of 2014, water consumption had jumped to 12 million gallons per day, a 20% increase in one year. And now, after the State declared a severe drought and asked for voluntary conservation efforts, consumption has risen another 2%.

Today we’re faced with mandatory cuts at the risk of significant penalties. Yet we see no serious attempt to put the brakes on excessive development, with several development agreements having just been presented to the Planning Commission and City Council. A twelve-story mixed-use commercial/residential/hotel project proposed downtown will have enormous impact on existing infrastructure, especially water demand. Two other hotels have already been approved, and another very large mixed-use project at the Fred Segal site, as well as eight mixed-use residential/commercial projects in a four-block area along Lincoln Blvd. Twenty-two projects in a twelve-block area of downtown have applied for development agreements. And this does not even include the three condo/hotel projects on Ocean Avenue that many in this community consider ridiculously over-scaled.

City government has not asked us to subsidize new development. but that is the net effect of continuing to encourage and process large developments that signficantly increase the city’s water consumption–especially projects substantially larger than basic zoning allows. Let’s not mince words: it’s irresponsible to consider such developments given the current water crisis. This past year has been the driest in recorded California history. There was a similarly dry year over 100 years ago, but our population has grown 40 times since then–and with indoor plumbing and hygiene changes, consumption is probably closer to 100 times what it was then.

The City’s solutions to water shortages depend on access to resources over which the city has little control. This includes the new wells, which access regional aquifers vulnerable to depletion since they are available to others, among other reasons. With any shortfalls provided by the wells, the City will purchase water from MWD, whose sources are also being depleted. The reliance on uncontrollable resources means that a reliable plan cannot, in fact, be prepared, and the risk of draconian cuts and ballooning costs increases with each new project being approved.

The City is already doing some things right, on the water conservation side. But more must be done. The city must commit to the widespread use of greywater systems, and plan for a fully greywater-enabled city within the next twenty years. The city should require the installation of water meters in all dwellings and apartments (accompanied by lenient financing terms), efficient metering and control systems for hotels, a more aggressive water-use policing effort throughout the City, and a stronger rainharvesting effort.

It is clear that with a severe drought upon us, we should all do our part to conserve water. As part of SM a.r.t, we believe that our City’s own policies on infrastructure and development should be held to the same standard of reduced demand, including placing a hold on large projects unable to provide their own water supplies. The State requires new developments with more than 500 units to supply their own water, exclusive of the city’s supply. Such projects must go outside the city to obtain their own water. There are at least 1500 new units in the pipeline, but the City does not require those projects to bring their own water because none reaches the 500-unit threshold (the defunct Hines project ‘oddly’ limiting itself to 498 units). Since many of these projects rely on development agreements, the City should require evidence of a new water source as part of the negotiated public benefits with each agreement.

Residents and local businesses already carry the weight of conservation in the city, even as daytime population swells to over 300,000 transient visitors who consume water at hotels, restaurants, beach showers, and public restrooms. There is no reason to burden residents and local businesses with the increased infrastructure costs that large developments bring, in this water-constrained environment.

For many years, comedians and radio pundits referred to Santa Monica as “the home of the homeless.” Let’s make sure our city will never be known as “the home of the waterless.”

Dan Jansenson, Architect and Bob Taylor, A.I.A. for SMa.r.t.

SM a.r.t.’s Questions for Santa Monica City Council Candidates

Questions for City Council Candidates

SM a.r.t evaluates candidates’ suitability to the extent they adhere to our 5 principles outlined below. Based on this 5 -point philosophy, SM a.r.t. has created 10 questions for potential candidates. Hopefully, their answers will help you select the candidate that best represents your vision for Santa Monica’s future.

To preserve Santa Monica’s “relaxed” beach culture- The City’s “relaxed” style differentiates it from neighboring cities to the east and needs to be preserved.

  • Do you believe that new development should be “maxed out” or in scale and compatible with the City’s predominately low-rise, existing buildings?
  • Do you believe that a new “town square” with an open plaza surrounded by cafes and low-rise development is a better use of the City owned site at 4th and Arizona than the 12-story development currently proposed?

To maximize light, air, views and green space- We should continue to provide more open space and keep new construction in scale with the existing building stock.

  • Would you support specified MAXIMUM height limits for all new construction-30’ for residential; 40’ for “Boulevard commercial” and 50’ for “Downtown commercial”?
  • Would you support new design guidelines that encourage variations in building mass, require open space and encourage preservation of light and views for adjacent uses as opposed to the current crop of 5 & 6 story boxes being built to the property lines?

To build at a human scale and for family life- We should prioritize low-rise, residential buildings close to ground level in areas of the City that are the most compatible with family needs.

  • Would you support multi-unit family housing for areas that are low-rise and in proximity to parks and schools rather than in the downtown center or at transit hubs?
  • Would you promote policies that encouraged local commercial development that maintains Santa Monica’s small beach town atmosphere as opposed to large, generic “Box Stores” or 20 plus story hotels on Ocean Ave.?

To create a walkable, bikeable and drivable city–large sidewalks with outdoor cafes enhance the pedestrian experience. The result is a more dynamic street life for pedestrians and cyclists.

  • How would you address to the problems of inadequate parking and traffic that currently exists in the City and is likely to worsen with the Expo line coupled with proposed development.
  • Would you be willing to re-evaluate the effectiveness of the current TDM guidelines that
    reduce needed parking but fail to provide residents with viable alternatives for their cars?

To be a connected & sustainable community- It is incumbent upon the City to make sure that our resources and facilities are adequate for the current population.

  • “The greenest building is the one that is not torn down”. Would you make adaptive reuse of the City’s existing building stock a priority to preserve our heritage and reduce waste?
  • Would you agree to have the cost of upgraded infrastructure necessitated by future development be born by developers rather than the residents with higher utility rates?

We are in a severe drought and have been asked to reduce our water use by 20%.

  • Should there be a moratorium on new development that until our water resources are adequate to support it?

Thane Roberts AIA for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)