Shape up

Adaptive Reuse

Adaptive re-use. Re-purposing. Remodeling. Addition. Re-habilitating. Restoring. All these phrases are terms that describe breathing new life into older buildings. Some developers and building industry professionals talk of buildings as having a fifty year life cycle, because maybe the floor creaks and windows leak, or pipes drip, and energy efficiency is way down. Maybe not unlike looking in the mirror at age 40, seeing a bit of a bulge here and there, lines around the eyes, feeling lethargic and lacking energy, etc. I imagine many of the readers would be disturbed to view themselves as having only a fifty-year lifecycle and therefore say it’s time to demo the body. More likely, with the best of intent, it is off to the gym to re-build the body and to restore the energy through a healthy diet.

While working in London, I was project architect on the restoration of a 450 year old building at Christ Church College, Oxford. We found a lot of life in that structure, and it stands today re-purposed and serving its users well. Not all buildings merit designation as landmark or are historically significant, but almost all probably have a lot of life left in their bones and can be updated and upgraded to continue serving useful lives, probably for more than just another fifty years.

Others seem to find it easier and simpler, to just demolish and re-build new. A reflection of what was an American uniqueness, that of being a ‘disposable’ society. We didn’t so much fix things, as throw them away and buy, or build, new. Well, that 450 year old stone structure had a lot of life in it and it still stands and serves a useful purpose, fully functional, and so no doubt do most of the buildings that line our boulevards.

So what about Santa Monica? Do we have to approach our zoning code with language that tends to say tear it down so it can be taller and more dense? Seems so when analyzing the proposed new zoning code. But what about incentivizing new life for the buildings of 1, 2 and 3 stories that make up the fabric of our beach town. There are very few buildings that can’t be economically updated and made energy efficient, and by not tearing down and hauling away debris to a landfill, much more sustainable. There is this trend to justify building new to LEED standards of gold and platinum, etc., and building to those standards is good, but suffice it to say ‘the greenest building is the one not torn down.’ Additions, energy efficiencies, and seismic upgrades can generally be managed and economically implemented. Given that the majority of our boulevards are lined with low-rise structures, it seems much more sustainable to create a code that encourages and incentivizes breathing new life back into them in lieu of tearing down and building new. Developer desires and ‘text book planning’ should not dictate tearing down just to build taller and bigger.

A current project in the works shows clearly the benefits of adaptive reuse, and while not perfect, it could or should be a case study of how an incentivized code might’ve produced a win-win project for the developer and for our beach town. The new owners of the Papermate building on Olympic (previously known as the Hines project) recently applied to re-purpose the building for office use. The large single story structure contains about 200,000 sq.ft. A small second building on site will be removed, and a one-story subterranean parking structure is proposed to replace it and provide the required on-site parking. The existing building will be broken into two structures, thereby reducing the very long single structure into more pleasing proportions and massing, as well as allowing an on-site pedestrian passageway, possibly open for pass thru to access the light rail at the Bergamot Station. Additionally, it was reported that the corner of the site is to be developed as a plaza. So it sounds like the current developer is applying a reasonable and design-sensitive approach to his adaptive re-use project in a laudable manner. The only missing element is housing. In this instance more office use is being added in place of previous manufacturing uses, without helping to balance the city’s jobs/housing imbalance, and creating an added opportunity for workers to be able to live here. Had we had a zoning code in place that contained language that encouraged re-purposing those buildings to include a percentage of housing, that project could have become the perfect poster-child for what ideally should occur on the boulevards. Adaptive re-use is probably the most efficient and ‘green’ way to produce more housing. (More about that next week.)

We need a new, healthy and trim zoning code that says “go to the gym and re-invent, get fit, re-energize, breath deep, and increase the durability, endurance, and life span of our buildings. Simplify the code, encourage, and incentivize existing office uses to be repurposed for housing when the opportunity arises. The buildings on the boulevards do not have to face a ‘mid-life’ crisis with the only option one of being removed and replaced by something 4 or 5 times as large that is going to crowd everybody out to the sidewalk and to the surrounding residences, looming over them and casting them in shade for good parts of the day. A healthy environment is one with fresh air and blue skies, especially in a coastline beach community such as ours.

BOB TAYLOR, AIA for SMa.r.t.

Toward a better zoning code

A New Zoning Code

The City Council is getting ready to approve a controversial new Zoning Code. Many would describe the currently proposed code as incentivizing development instead of managing it for a more neighborly, sustainable City. While the proposed Zoning Code has many contentious parts, the most significant controversy centers on the Boulevards where the proposed changes will directly impact the adjacent residential neighborhoods. Fortunately, the City Council still has an opportunity to rectify this when they give it its final review on April 15.

A good place to start would be with the five proposed Activity Centers. These are high-intensity commercial zoning districts proposed along the major boulevards; three on Wilshire and one each on Lincoln/ Ocean Park, Broadway/Colorado, and Olympic/Colorado. All would allow special heights and densities. These “Godzillas” will rise to 70’ (88’ including roof structures) along the major boulevards crushing the adjacent residences with their traffic, solar shading and noise. Remember that on Wilshire and Santa Monica Blvd. there are already two hospital districts (HMU-Tier 2) with similar heights. These new Activity Centers will only that add to the buildings that are already out of scale with our City’s urban fabric, being more similar in size to the Beverly Center or the Westside Pavilion. Since there are already plenty of development possibilities along our mostly one and two-story boulevards, these special districts are unnecessary. In addition, since the Subway to the Sea will not reach these areas in the foreseeable future, the reason for their existence no longer exists. Even if the proposed subway to the seas were to come to Santa Monica, it will likely only provide a moderate decrease in traffic. For example, studies have shown that the proposed subway would only reduce the traffic on the 10 Freeway by 1%. This is another reason why the oversized Activity Centers are decades too early and should be eliminated from the code.

The Tier 3 projects on the boulevards should be eliminated for similar reasons. Tier 3 projects get height and area bonuses over and above the underlying zoning but suffer from the same drawbacks as the Activity Centers. Some would argue that the “community benefits” outweigh the detriment to the residents but experience has proven otherwise. The Community typically gets marginal benefits compared to the developer’s massive increase in profits and associated negative impacts. But the real problem with the Development Agreements is that they allow exceeding the current codes through secret negotiations with the City staff that are invisible to the residents. The DA’s are typically poorly written and result in negative impacts that far overshadow any meager benefits. For example the reduction in parking requirements allowed to Agensys did not, in fact, reduce their use of the automobile as they have had to rent over 100 spaces of additional offsite parking for their employees at the Bergamot Station. This shifting of a project’s impact on adjacent areas is not unusual for large projects approved under the DA process. This is the reason that Tier 3 allowed under the DA process, with all its inherent flaws, should not be included in the new code.

There are several other areas related to the Boulevards where the new Zoning Code needs significant rebalancing. For example, originally when lots were consolidated, the project’s floor area had to be reduced slightly to discourage the creation of gargantuan, monolithic buildings. Those floor area reductions have been eliminated in the current proposed code, resulting in larger buildings with their associated outsized mass and impacts. Another misplaced incentive is that Tier 2 projects (another height and area bonus but slightly less than Tier 3) require only an administrative approval, effectively, and dangerously, bypassing neighborhood input. With all this incentivized canyonization of our relatively sunny and open boulevards, the proposed code still does not mandate any required space open to the sky along our boulevards. If there were such a requirement, it would help to relieve the monotony of the marching facades by providing some visual penetrability into the fabric of the City. Additional residential protections were eliminated when the so called A-lots north of Wilshire lost their residential zoning. Perhaps the largest shift is that many of the Boulevards have gone from a Neighborhood Commercial designation to Mixed Use Commercial Zoning. This up-zoning will allow a significant jump in height, mass and impact that the neighborhoods have resisted and the City does not need. The Boulevards with their current neighborhood commercial heights should be maintained.

Finally the proposed Code has struggled mightily to try to solve the City’s transit problems. While everyone hopes to ameliorate the City’s long term parking and gridlock issues, this Zoning Code still needs to deal with current transit issues. For example it mandates unbundled parking whereby tenants do not get automatic use of their parking spaces but have to buy (or rent them) from the building owners. This is a well-meaning but uncertain experiment to solve the common problem of insufficient parking spaces with its attendant neighborhood spill-over. The idea is that persons who do not have cars, would not have to pay for spaces they don’t use, presumably making their units more affordable. In addition, shared spaces might make parking lots and structures more efficient because they could be used jointly by tenants or visitors at different times. In reality, this will probably lead to speculation by developers who now get to sell or rent two items–the unit along with its parking. Although we do need to incentivize the shift to fewer cars, some solutions should be experimental until we see if bike lanes, the EXPO line and other transportation demand management initiatives really do reduce the number of car trips.

Other significant areas for the Council to review but not addressed in this article include: 1) height reductions, decreased FAR on the boulevards; 2) limiting planning director’s authority; 3) intrusion of commercial parking into residential neighborhoods; 4) increased medical space without requiring additional parking; 5) TDM’s (Traffic Demand Management) that allow a reduction in parking … and many more! Next week the City Council has a last chance and we would say responsibility to rebalance the proposed biased Zoning Code toward a more sustainable and neighborly future. More importantly, the last day for Community input to the City Council is April 14 and you have the opportunity to help the City Council do the responsible thing by showing up and testifying for a better and balanced Zoning Code. Please be there.

MARIO FONDA-BONARDI, AIA for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

Too long in length and too short in safeguards for a better City

A New Zoning Code

As a community, we have spent more than six years establishing goals and objectives in defining the LUCE, a new general plan for our city. Then we set out to address the zoning code that codifies and implements the vision in the LUCE, but after five more years, the process failed to produce a document that achieves its stated goal.

Although it was a perfect time to write a new, simplified code, the city’s planning staff instead spent the first three years dealing with the flood of Development Agreements that took advantage of LUCE loopholes. Most of these were slipped into the final document by attorneys in the final days before it was adopted and have since provided developers with a windfall of exceptions that residents have been contesting ever since.

So the five years set aside to create a new code became two. The unfortunate result was that the planning department, instead of starting fresh and writing a new simplified code, put expediency before brevity and added still more modifications and interpretations to the existing code.
After 27 years of similar surgeries and procedures, our code has grown from a 275-page tome in 1988 to now more than 500 pages! In contrast, Santa Barbara, a community similar in size to Santa Monica, employs a simple, creative 245-page code, with a three-story height limit for both commercial and residential areas. Los Angeles, a much larger city, is re-writing their code from an 800-page document to one that will be fewer than 500 pages.

Mark Twain, among others, wrote “if I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” We did have the time, so where, why and how have we strayed so far afield? With every other paragraph stretched and altered, wading through 500-plus pages is a daunting task even for architects. Often, definitions found in one chapter are modified or open to interpretation in later chapters. Internal inconsistencies and regulation render the Code difficult to read and open to contradictory interpretations. For an architect, and any other trained professional, it represents a complex puzzle, an unsolvable Rubik’s cube.

After two years and 33 Planning Commission hearings, we see the net effect of this surgical approach is that we’re about to adopt a code that promises more height, more density, more traffic and more parking in Santa Monica. This could result in more canyonization of our boulevards, less sunlight, less open space, less blue sky, less local business, less parking, and a much lower quality of life

Santa Monica, with a daily population in the generally accepted range of 250,000 workers, tourists and residents, is already the most dense beach community in California at approximately 30,000/sq. mi., and with a residential population of 92,000, a nighttime density of 11,000/sq. mi. What is the “problem” that suggests an increase in density as a solution? Culver City, by contrast, has a density of 7,500/sq. mi., Santa Barbara 2,100/sq. mi. What is it that City staff thinks is missing that requires increasing our density even more? Perhaps we don’t have enough traffic yet, or enough demand placed on water and other infrastructure. When asked of staff, or council, or housing authorities, “what are the limits?” there is no answer.

The LUCE, at 3.25 and 2.75 FAR (Floor Area Ratio), allows “Activity Centers” on Wilshire, at Ocean Park and Lincoln, and other sites, with traffic, parking and massive structures that are 1.5 and 2.5 times the size of Santa Monica Place! The overriding goal of the general plan was to protect existing neighborhoods, not destroy them. If that is true, why does it allow overly tall buildings to extend into adjacent residential blocks, with cars that exit on residential streets? Why are six-story buildings even necessary when threestory development can provide more growth than we believe will ever be needed over the remaining 15 year lifetime of the LUCE? Why is our Planning Commission listening to developers and their attorneys and architects and not to the residents that are opposed to these plans? The result of this neglect is a code that falls far
short of its intended purpose — to protect our neighborhoods.

Mayor McKeown suggests that in the remaining two days of deliberation which the Council has set aside to correct the 500-plus pages, “there is the opportunity to weigh effects on neighborhoods and evaluate the cumulative impacts of change.” He goes on to say, “You may be surprised at how well this turns out.” That’s a big challenge for the Council, to do in two days what could not be accomplished in five years. The risks are too great, since this is a code that will affect Santa Monica for generations to come. With all due respect, Mayor McKeown, your optimism is laudatory but we can ill afford such wishful thinking. The potential negative consequences to our City’s residents are too great.

With more than two years and 33 Planning Commission hearings and with five years of listening to special interests while ignoring resident input, the process appears to have fallen far short of its intended purpose. The LUCE was supposed to protect the city. We were also told that the new zoning code would do the same. Significant changes still need to be made to this overly complex document that does not really protect residents and neighborhoods from commercial intrusion.

Can the council legally extend the deliberations, tackle the problems and not enforce an artificial one day deliberation deadline with this zoning ordinance? The council needs to meet the needs of its residents, now and in the future. Let’s not further diminish the quality of life in Santa Monica and let’s not waste this opportunity to regain the trust and confidence of residents in our city government.

Ron Goldman FAIA for SMa.r.t.