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)