The zoning code blues

Zoning Code

A multitude of regulations, ordinances, laws, boards, commissions, etc. define, affect, and impact the work that architects and clients do designing and planning buildings, and public spaces.

A complex web of regulations push on the buildable envelope in one place only to be pushed back by another, making the design process sometimes complex and expensive. Clients expect their consultants to design their projects in compliance with the applicable governing ordinances. They expect them to know exactly what can be built on their project site, creating designs that solves their project requirements and budget and satisfies their, and the communities, aesthetic values.

Sadly … the reality is that one may indeed satisfy zoning and all other applicable code requirements, yet have the project stopped or delayed, and more modifications required for non pre-determined reasons. For example, a commercial or multi-family project is subject to review and approval by the Architectural Review Board (ARB). The ARB can deny the project based on its color, or materials, or placement of a window or door, and send the project back for re-design adding the possibility of thousands of dollars more in design fees and construction costs. These often-subjective decisions are impossible to predict, other than to know they can occur.

The structures that impress and stick in the minds of the public seem to be the structures that were built many years ago that are often low-rise, modest in scale, with recessed storefronts and distinctive architectural features. It is ironic that the ARB has been in existence for about forty years, has approved every commercial and multi-family project built in that time, yet the public perception is that the overall feel of the architecture in our city is ‘pedestrian’, or at best “average”.

The General Plan, and the LUCE, have been re-written over the last several years. And now the zoning code update, but there isn’t one week where some new issue doesn’t arise requiring analysis and response to the City, often in opposition. Why? Because it seems that the need to simplify and clarify is not the end goal of those writing the new code.

In the interest of flexibility (read exceptional freedom to overbuild) the new proposed code is larded with exceptions, tiers and contradictory clauses, while residents are demanding simplicity and clarity, with the credible goal of a sustainable City. Why should it take three or four visits with the planning department to define the buildable envelope for a project? It is understandable that after making endless amendments and exceptions to an outdated zoning code the result is a code that is too long, too complicated, convoluted and replete with contradictions.

This makes no sense and at a certain point it becomes necessary to start fresh. Santa Monica is in the midst of doing exactly that – trying to replace a too complex existing code. Los Angeles (30 times larger than Santa Monica) is going through a similar process as Santa Monica, writing a new, and a goal-oriented simplified, zoning code. It is a process open to public scrutiny and will likely result in a simpler code than the one that we, a much smaller city, currently have. We certainly hope that our current process will result in a less cumbersome and clearer code as well. Many have written and spoken to our planning department staff, and Planning Commission, with suggestions to be incorporated into a simplified new code, currently in the ‘redline’ phase wherein changes are made, but they often appear to have fallen on deaf ears.

It should be the City’s goal to create a zoning document that is simple, understandable, and represents the wishes of the residents for uses, density and heights, providing responsible planning regulations while protecting the quality of life. It should do that without requiring multiple meetings with planning staff to verify what is possible and what is not. It is indeed like swatting flies to process a project through our City, with one undefined or unclear issue after another arising just as one believes that the review process is complete. It seems like those who most benefit from an obscure and complicated code are those most able to utilize lawyers and lobbyists to contort the wording to their advantage. Unfortunately, this generally occurs on larger scale projects where a biased interpretation can have significant negative consequences for those adjacent sites and our community. Meanwhile, the average citizen trying to improve their own home, may be denied some minor request, and are left wondering why the process is so complicated, and how ‘those other projects’ received approval for something seemingly beyond the code.

We appreciate that the City’s re-writing of the zoning ordinance is a difficult process. It would be made much simpler if there were fewer exceptions, special cases, and other methods that allow exceeding the basic limits of height, use and density. For example, SMa.r.t.’s position is that a simple 30/40/50 foot maximum height limit be applied to residential/boulevard/downtown districts. This would be a clear and concise way to regulate heights that requires no further explanation. If the Code requirements continue to be merely a “suggestion”, rather than a requirement, zoning interpretation will remain as convoluted and complex as it has been in the past, and where those with money and connections will continue to find ways to circumvent the intent of the City’s Ordinances.

We remain concerned that the only significant changes being made to the zoning code are increased heights and increased density, benefiting only those special interests’ bottom line. We would love to be wrong.

Bob Taylor, AIA, for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)


Metering our Future

Water Meters

During a previous water crisis, the City passed a law requiring developers of multifamily dwellings to install individual water meters for each unit. This law has been on the books since about 1990 (Municipal code 7.12.150). Unfortunately, the city has allowed many buildings to forgo this requirement since then, and many apartment buildings, especially in the downtown area, have master meters for the entire building, but no individual meters for each unit despite this 25-year-old ordinance.

The explanation given by the City is that larger buildings often do not have adequate space in the public right-of-way for individual meters. With this explanation, the City has been approving the construction of large apartment buildings, but then allowing those same developers to avoid installing individual meters. When individual meters are not mandated, most developers will save costs by using a shared rather than an individual water service. Once buildings are completed, the cost to re-pipe them for individual meters becomes cost prohibitive. Forcing them into compliance later is no longer a realistic option.

Many cities around the country have the same individual meter requirement in their municipal codes, and many buildings around the country, including the larger ones, do incorporate individual water meters for each unit. Metering individual units is widely recognized as an effective method for reducing excessive water consumption, because it makes individual consumption known to consumers (compared to a flat monthly payment, which many non-metered buildings have). Despite the lack-of-space argument, new technologies are appearing that will soon make it relatively simpler and more cost-effective to meter individual apartments in new buildings (and in some cases older buildings as well), even in the absence of sufficient room in the public right-of-way (such as alleyways). The City has investigated some of those already, but no decision has been taken to acquire (or require) specific systems.

In any discussion of water meters in multifamily dwellings, it is best to avoid conflating two very different situations: retrofitting existing buildings versus installing individual meters in all-new construction. The former is a complicated, capital-intensive process. There are methods for installing electronic meters in older structures, but those installations can be costly because apartment buildings that have not been configured for individual metering from the start, have plumbing systems in which water supply is shared between a number of stacked or neighboring units. This may require many more meters to be installed throughout a building, often measuring individual rooms or fixtures, compared to new, from-the-ground-up buildings that only require one or two meters for each unit.

New buildings present great opportunities to get it right from the beginning, because with these the solution to the problem is far simpler. Each unit can be serviced and metered separately for both cold and hot water (with the hot water in-line sub-meter located just before the unit’s plumbing entry, so not impacted by the heater position itself). That sub-metering could be done either in the alley, or by means of electric, electronic or mechanical sub-meters located along the plumbing lines to each unit; often within the boundaries of the building itself.

This issue of how to read internally installed meters was solved long ago with remote devices (either wired or wireless) that are in widespread use throughout the world. Yes, this will result in increased costs (current estimates range between $500-$2,000 per unit), but the payback to the community at large far exceeds the costs to the builder, which could be mitigated by means of tax-rebates and other measures. And to keep this in perspective, even the higher cost is equivalent to less than one month’s rent in many of the newer downtown buildings, with a payoff that extends throughout the building’s lifetime.

For those buildings–completely new from the ground up– there really is no reason to avoid installing individual meters, just as there is no reason to give the builder a pass on wall insulation or insulated glass windows or low-flow toilets, faucets and shower heads- all required under current codes. New buildings should be required to be in full compliance with the code as a condition of the certificate of occupancy–including separate water service with individual meters. If the City needs to alter the municipal code to help make this happen, it should do so without further delay. As a recent correspondent reminded us recently:

I sure don’t like the fact that exemptions are being provided. How do we stop this? In addition to my house, my family owns a duplex built in the 40’s with only a single water meter. We have no leverage over our tenants if they don’t want to conserve water… there is no good reason… for any new multi family housing building to be exempt from having to install individual water meters.

Multi-family buildings are considered to be more efficient users of water than single-family residences. Let’s make sure that this continues to be the case and provide the necessary incentives to help in our crucial water conservation efforts. The City should require multifamily building developers to install individual water meters, with no exceptions.

Daniel Jansenson, Architect, for Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow