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)

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