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)

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