The zoning code currently under review by the Planning Commission will establish the character of our city over the next 20 years. This discussion can only occur if we are able to establish how much development we want and where it should occur. Specifically, what height, density, open space, population, parking and traffic do we want to see as we move forward?
The LUCE (S. M.’s General Plan) is a document of contradictions. It states “96% of the city’s area is not expected to change within the life of this plan while the remaining 4% identifies limited potential change.” But the facts are that 15.2% of the city is undergoing rampant development. Specifically: 1) the 228 acre downtown alone represents 4.2%, 2) the 140 acre Bergamot area adds 2.6%, 3) the Memorial Park district .8% and 4)the 8 boulevards another 7.6% of developable area. If only these 4 areas were built out, it could add a staggering 40 million sq ft to our city if the code currently under discussion is approved.
Would you be surprised to learn that 70% of buildings in the downtown are 1 and 2 stories (67% being only 1 story)? Did you know that 87% of the 900 buildings along the boulevards are 1 and 2 stories (62% being only 1 story)? If the 15.2% of available land within our city were to be developed to the proposed levels, LUCE has opened the door to doubling and tripling density with 60-84 ft heights and 6-8 floors replacing the existing 1-2 story buildings! This would more than double the existing 12 million sq ft of downtown development. Currently over 4 million sq ft, 2,100 residential units, 3,800 residents and 6,400 cars are being processed just in the downtown area! Allowable development per the proposed zoning would allow population in the city to almost double, bringing with it 40,000 additional cars and 80,000 car trips. Although it is unlikely that all of this amount will be built, it would become a possibility.
The second problem with the proposed code is that it is overly complicated and needs to be simplified. Determining allowable heights and densities with increases and loopholes spread throughout 498 pages is an adventure even for an architect. Instead, we need a simple 30-40-50 foot height limit code, limiting the residential neighborhoods to 30 ft (2 and 3 stories), mixed-use building on boulevards to 40 ft (3 and 4 stories), and 50 ft in the downtown and immediately around transit hubs (4 stories). If two-thirds of our 1 and 2 story buildings were re-developed to maximum 3 and 4 stories, we would still add over 20 million sq ft spread throughout the 15.2% of developable area!
There are excellent examples of existing 4 story downtown buildings which would make any city proud, providing urban character while also maintaining our 1st class beachfront community. We need to set firm height limits appropriate for growth while maintaining the heart and soul of our beachfront community.
Our code needs to go further in establishing policies and incentives encouraging adaptive re-use of remaining stock of 1 & 2 story buildings, especially those on narrow lots that don’t permit 3 and 4 story re-development. This would make it easier for developers to retrofit older buildings instead of making it cheaper to replace them with 6-8 story buildings. This would also help maintain our heritage as well as lower rents for local business or workforce housing. In addition, we need traffic and parking requirements that limit commercial employees from parking on residential streets. LUCE states its primary goal is not to negatively impact residential neighborhoods, but traffic and parking are already having strong impacts and it will only get worse.
For our city to hold onto its civic life, the pedestrian realm has to be encouraged and expanded. Quoting LUCE, “Santa Monica’s boulevards represent the City’s largest public space.” We need to think of the boulevard as a linear park accommodating a variety of activities by increasing our 7-12 ft sidewalks to 15-20 ft. This can be done by requiring a 5% front yard setback for all new construction or remodeling. Our streets should be seen as verdant parkways and function as open space. This can be accomplished by augmenting the tree canopy and replacing ineffective planting like the palms currently lining Wilshire.
And, why are we continuing with a code that encourages Development Agreements? The D.A. process is allowing too much change too fast, and encourages abuse of power by the planning department! Instead we need a creative code that has the simplicity of 40 & 50 foot height limits in commercial areas. Our tiered D.A. system with multiple alternatives is both complicated and a cause of distrust allowing excessive development and backroom deals. D.A.’s are allowed by state code, but we can and need to just say no except in extremely unique and rare circumstances where it is truly benefitting the community. Trade-off of “community benefits” for increased density and heights and associated traffic and parking is not an exchange that serves our community in the long run! With 40+ D.A.’s submitted since the adoption of LUCE, there isn’t one that meets these standards.
The LUCE has a clear and stated goal of “Overall Height Reduction.” A simple 30-40-50 foot code will provide needed assurance for both developers and residents while avoiding painstaking 7-8-9 year struggles between developers, the city, and the residents as experienced with Hines, Village Trailer Park, and future “opportunistic” sites.
The growth of our city and its quality of life hinges less on individual buildings and more on the overall picture – environmental health, mobility and transit, creation of parks and open space, incentives for preservation and adaptive re-use of existing building stock. Adaptive re-use will help preserve both our neighborhoods and commercial districts. Adopting a zoning ordinance that continues to encourage ill-conceived development will only encourage referendums and turn the community against those who wish to build here. A more modest, simplified code instead sends a clear and specific message to the investment community that will encourage sound and acceptable economic growth for the City’s foreseeable future.
Our future is now and we need to streamline the City review processes to make it function better. The new code must be easy to use, simple, clear, concise, flexible, and open to new ideas. It should incorporate more discussion of good design principles so that staff is in a better position to evaluate innovative design ideas that the community is more likely to accept.
Ron Goldman FAIA for SMa.r.t.