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.