Beach Town or ‘Dingbat’ City?

Dingbat Apartments

In the late 1950’s, 60’s and into the 70’s, there was an architect in Los Angeles that picked up the sobriquet of Crammin’ Jack. This architect seemingly could cram one unit more than anyone else into any apartment project he was asked to maximize. And he designed a lot of them, two stories, open parking under the second floor, often open to the street. Sometimes some stone or brick element would be stuck on the stucco façade, or maybe a big starburst or palm tree and emblazoned with a name like “Riviera” or ‘The Palms’ to create a hoped for illusion of the Southern California dream. Small units, with one or two bedrooms, one bath, small kitchen open to the living room, and often not more than four to eight units per building. These apartments came to be known years later, as they began to deteriorate, as “dingbats.” They are ubiquitous and exist in Santa Monica as well as throughout the greater region.

“Good design” is often very subjective and emotional, and as such people are not always in agreement as to what constitutes “good design.” If one measure of good design is the success with which the clients needs were solved, then some may say that the “dingbats” were successful, since the usual design criteria was simply to get as many units on the typical single or double lots as possible so a developer could build fast and cheap and maximize a return on his investment as soon as possible. By that measure, one might credit Crammin’ Jack with “good design,” because he seemed to always get that ‘one more’ unit crammed in.

But if the design criteria are expanded even a little, to include such desirable elements as light and air, scale and proportion, sustainability and energy efficiency, privacy and sound separation, then maybe the “dingbats” were not such good designs. In fact, pretty poor on the scale of most people’s sensibilities.

Don’t most people want and need to live in a healthy environment that includes the elements missing from the “dingbats?” Shouldn’t light, openness, blue sky, scale and proportion, privacy, sustainability and amenities such as courtyards, with trees and landscaping that enhance ones quality of life, be included in any client’s project?

We think these criteria are necessary for solving city design problems as well. Open/green space, and other physical adjacencies such as commercial/residential, concern for shade and shadow, impact of artificial lighting on neighbors, noise, paths of travel, heights, density, blue sky and more, are all factors that must be considered if one is to create/maintain a beach town that we might describe as being of “good design.” We don’t think those elements are achieved with increased heights, lot coverage and density, especially in our town, which in the daytime is already the most densely populated and used beach town in the State.

With the above criteria in mind, and applying it to re-designing Santa Monica, we have to think of the current LUCE (Land Use Circulation Element) and ZOU (Zoning Ordinance Update) as an adaptive re-use/ remodel/addition project. And when we approach such a project it’s necessary to have first analyzed what the needs are, what is missing, what is good to keep, and what needs to be replaced and perhaps strength

ened. It doesn’t seem clear that this was necessarily the process that occurred during the creation of the LUCE or the ZOU. They seem more like someone’s ‘wish list’, but not tempered by prioritizing the ‘wants’ and balancing them with quality of life issues, what is sustainable, and the economics that allow proceeding realistically with projects of such magnitude.

The economics of how one builds their dream home is complex for most, and most end up borrowing money and balancing that amount against affordable payments, leading more often than not to a reduction in the scope of work, maybe even reducing the footprint a little. We don’t usually end up selling a part of our home to finance our wishes; we just trim the wish list.

Our beach town needs to do the same thing. The current ‘wish list’ represented by the LUCE, and the attempts to find a way with the ZOU to pay for the wishes by encouraging intensified development (to generate tax revenues to pay for the increased services and the physical amenities wished for), is a reflection of not being willing to prioritize and eliminate. So paying for it requires cramming more into the ZOU to chase the taxes that might come.

But without the balance of those important elements of good design, e.g. controlling the impact of development on quality of life and on existing residential neighborhoods we will be designing a future “dingbat city.” There will be increased demand on diminishing resources that will lead to a lack of sustainability and put pressure on all aspects of the infrastructure, emergency services, and our residents lives.

Crammin’ Jack had been quoted in a 1972 Los Angeles Times West magazine article as having said, “We’re looking for some dramatic punch that’ll bring tenants in. Most important is an exterior. We give them enough to get them in., not more. We don’t waste any money on exteriors. Once they’re in, they have to love these apartments. We give them the illusion of space. We’ll cram in as many units as we can. I ask myself what can I cram in here and still get a nice feeling?” he said.

So the question is, was the City staff, and their consultants, given Crammin’ Jack’s criteria? If so, one has the sense that they took it to heart and have successfully “designed” a LUCE and ZOU that will no doubt, after developers, without respect for our well known beach and courtyard history, have crammed in all they can, maximizing lot coverage and counting tiny balcony’s as “open space”, gain our little beach town the moniker of “Dingbat City.” Let’s not lose our beach town sense, and our courtyard history. This is our home, not a short-term Airbnb. Let’s not build it into one.

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

Our Boulevards… the keys to our City’s Future

Boulevards and Housing

“If you want creativity, cut one zero from your budget, if you want sustainability, cut two zeros.” – Jaime Lerner, Brazilian architect, mayor & governor.

Santa Monica’s eight boulevards are both the gateways to our City and define its structure. In addition to affording mobility, they also contribute housing, park space and economic opportunity. They are the bridges that tie our community together, that link adjacent neighborhoods and sustain the scale and quality of our environment. Of the 15% of our City that is available for growth, over half of it (7.6%) lies along our boulevards. By comparison, the downtown area is only 4.2%, half of which might be tapped for expansion. Quoting the LUCE, “Santa Monica’s boulevards represent the City’s largest public space.” They also provide its greatest opportunity for future growth.

Santa Monica is at a crossroads. The rezoning of our boulevards holds the key to our future. Designated for mixed commercial and residential use, they could become a “pot of gold” if properly utilized. So how do we provide the mix of housing and open space needed without spoiling the beachfront scale and character that makes Santa Monica unique? We need planning decisions for water, traffic, housing and commercial development based on facts, not prejudices or special interests. Below are the 5 questions we need to answer as a City if we are to be successful:

Q – How much development is sustainable and where should it take place?
There are 896 buildings on the 8 boulevards, 88% of which are 1-story or 2-story. If only half of these properties were to be re-developed as 3-story buildings at an average 2.0 FAR, there would be 9.2 million sq. ft. available for development. This is 75% of the area that currently exists in our downtown area that is available for growth.

Q – How much housing is necessary to meet the State mandated goals?
SCAG (Southern California Association of Governments) proposes that Santa Monica add 2,037 units by 2020. RNHA (Regional Housing Needs Allocation) suggests an additional 700 units be added by 2021. Currently there are 1,149 units with permits or under construction and another 3,000 units being processed through Development Agreements (DA’s). Taken together, there are over 4,000 units that could come on-line in the next few years, far more than that mandated by State agencies. If one were to add the 6,500 family apartments that could be created within the 9.2 million sq. ft. of 3-story mixed boulevard development, this would raise the total to over 10,000 units- almost four times the State’s mandates. While there will always be a need for more housing, the City is already on track to do more than its share to ameliorate this crisis.

Q – Will a 3-story height limit provide the economics for us to meet our housing goals?
The average land value on the boulevards is approximately $350/sq. ft. Under on our current codes, that would allow development of up to 6 stories. Could a developer still turn a profit at 3-stories? If one were to build a 3-story mixed-use building (1-story commercial with 2-stories of residential over a 2-level of subterranean parking on a 15,000 sq. ft. lot), the total hard and soft costs would be around 16 million dollars. It would yield an annual income of 1.6 million with a yearly profit of 700K after expenses. The return on the developer’s initial 4 million dollar investment would be a 17.6 % profit, more than enough in today’s poor interest rate environment.

Q – Would this amount of development still allow for adequate open space?
A new 3-story building with a 2.0 FAR (Floor Area Ratio) could still leave 33% of the site envelope available for 18-20 ft. wide sidewalks as well as 28% of the site free for patios and courtyards. Even a 1.75 FAR could more than meet our housing goals while providing even more design flexibility and open space.

Q – Will a 3-story height limit incentivize developers to evict tenants in order to build condos and thereby further diminish our City’s precious rental housing stock?
Condos and rental housing development are not comparable as each attracts a different type of investor. Developers will go where the opportunities and profits are. If it were profitable, it would be happening now as smaller developers are always looking for such opportunities. The demolition of apartments to build condos does not usually “pencil” due to the high costs to remove existing tenants and our restrictive zoning laws.

Q – Can we provide affordable housing or adaptive-reuse within this construct?
With infinite demand, we can build all the housing in the world, but it’s still unlikely to bring prices down. Affordable housing will always require some sort of incentive in this competitive housing environment. Having said that, the opportunities to create more affordable housing are as great or greater with a 3-story height limit and adaptive-reuse, particularly on narrow lots that are too small for 3-story redevelopment. This approach will also help to retain our local residents and businesses. If developers had to pay a fee instead of providing affordable housing in their large commercial projects, the city could choose to build new housing where it would be most desirable- where children can play and where schools are available.

Q – Will the City lose “community benefits” without added height and density to trade?
The trade-off of “community benefits” for increased height, density, and increased traffic is a “devil’s bargain”. Many would argue that providing a positive pedestrian experience is as important as vehicular movement. The widening of sidewalks would allow for fountains, flower stands, kiosks & café seating along our boulevards. These Community benefits, funded through development fees, would be a beneficial exchange, as it would enhance the enjoyment of our Boulevards for all.

Q – Wouldn’t 4 & 5 story limits provide more housing in our competitive rental market?
The requirement to provide more housing should no longer be the deciding factor as we already exceed all State mandates. At some point it is necessary to switch our focus to sustainability and the limits to growth that exist for those that are already live here. Santa Monica’s residents, young or old, understand the inevitability of change, but also expect that our representatives manage it in a responsible manner. Redeveloping to a 3-story limit would more than double our current building inventory. This is a large increase that could occur while maintaining access to sunlight and blue skies. It could also occur while preserving our historic building stock through encouraging adaptive reuse. A win-win for all.

The LUCE has a clearly stated goal of “Overall Height Reduction.” A simple 2, 3, 4-story or 30-40-50 ft. code for residential, boulevard, & downtown areas would provide clarity for developers while protecting our City’s unique character. Laguna and Manhattan Beach already have 3-story limits, and Santa Barbara has limited its skyline to 4 stories. We should follow their lead.

In summary, on the boulevards there is already plenty of room to grow, exceed our housing goals, maintain open space, while still enabling profitable projects. It’s not only feasible to limit development on our boulevards to 3 or 4-stories but absolutely necessary. We need to get off our current unsustainable path of trading the quality of our environment for buildings on steroids with little or no open space. We can and must do better. An over-developed City is not what LUCE promised nor what the citizens want…. but that is where the current proposed Zoning Code is going to take us. The City Council needs to step up and protect the beachfront character of the City, by reducing the Boulevard allowable heights and increasing open space. The only way to achieve this is by curtailing height exemptions as will be permitted in the proposed zoning code (ZOU). It’s the least that citizens should expect from the City Council as the stewards of our unique, beachside community.

Ron Goldman FAIA for SMa.r.t.
(Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)