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)

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