A travesty of planning proportions

Village Trailer Park & Planning

Philosopher Alain de Botton wrote that “bad architecture is a frozen mistake writ large. We owe it to the fields and trees that buildings we cover them with will stand as promises of the highest and most intelligent kinds of happiness.”

But the Village Trailer Park is a sad story of 99 low income mobile park residents — city employees, nurses, mailmen, teachers, elderly, some disabled — living quietly, and happily, in a park-like setting amid a grove of mature trees and now being uprooted from their homes. Forever.

Unfortunately the Village Trailer Park, a 65-year-old community that few people even realized was there, is being displaced by the Millennium East Village, a 4-acre, 5-story behemoth of a project. In 52 years of professional practice, I have never witnessed a failure in a city planning process as egregious as that which has destroyed the VTP community and will cause enormous negative impact on the adjoining residential neighborhood.

In 2005, Mark Luzzatto, a Santa Monica resident, purchased the VTP for $4.5-5 million and set about lobbying the City to change “residential mobile home park” zoning to “mixed use creative.” Early in the design process, both Planning Commission and City Council asked to see a Tier 2 reduced density alternative. What was approved instead was a project with substantially greater density — 377 units and a height of 5 stories. Instead of rejecting this greater density, planning staff produced a 290-page document justifying the developer’s design over that requested by the City Council.

So our city, which prides itself on social justice, approved a Development Agreement (DA), which allows building in excess of permitted zoning, evicting 99 very low-income tenants. The developer was then allowed to double height and density, creating more traffic in trade for 38 low-income units while the city collected 5 cents on the dollar in community benefits.

Adding insult to injury, in 2013, the owner sold his approved Development Agreement (without even a shovel in the ground) for a modest profit of nearly $60 million! The new owners (the Dinerstein Company), made aware of major problems in the approved design, hired a local architect to correct the flaws, and instead he completely redesigned the project — but the new design was even worse.

It was at this point in witnessing this surreal process that I took on what the city refused to do and appealed the DA approval. For the new design not to go back to the Planning Commission for review, the changes had to be deemed “minor modifications.”

There were four specific issues that are anything but “minor” and I felt needed to be addressed:

1. “reduction of any setback” — 63 percent of building frontage along Colorado Avenue violated setback requirements.

2. “any variation in design, massing or building configuration including building height” — a 4-story building 170 feet in length has ballooned to 5 stories and 400 feet in length!

3. “any change that would materially reduce community benefits” — open space was reduced 29 percent, courtyards and children’s play areas were narrowed and are in shadow most if not all day, and public outdoor space specifically added by the Planning Commission was now covered!

4. “any reduction in affordable units” — the rent control board, whose approval was required, under threat of a $50-million lawsuit, approved the DA but increased the number of affordable units from 38 to 51, a change that has not been incorporated!

Unbelievably, none of these four significant changes were considered “major” enough to warrant a new approval process — even though the planning director recently described “minor modifications” as “a procedure used to avoid unnecessary processing when modifications on the order of 6-12 inches and affecting only a neighbor and not a neighborhood.”

This is an inexcusable abuse of power and a blatant slap in the face to the community. The Dinersteins were still concerned that I could appeal this decision in court. A series of five or six meetings and numerous phone calls ensued over four months and resulted in my withdrawing the appeal based on the following revisions:

— increased 2-bedroom family units by 40 percent with 15 percent fewer studios
— reduced unit count to 356 units
— recessed the Colorado façade 20 feet and terraced two of four vertical structures
— breaking the massive east and west building elevations above first and second floors into smaller segments
— reduced height of a third building by removing three upper level units
— increased public open space by omitting three units
— added a community room available to the neighborhood
— added a shuttle van available to the neighborhood for hourly roundtrips to Expo light rail and other locations
— added short-term parking for drop-off and pick-up
— enhanced sustainability from LEED Silver to LEED Gold

Do these changes help? Yes! Do these changes make for a successful design? Unfortunately, far from it. Although I reached an agreement with the new project owners, this settlement provides nothing more than a Band-Aid on a massive project far in excess of what’s appropriate for this site and has no place in our city.

The real tragedy, however, is the process that allowed this to happen. There’s no reason I was able to bring about these improvements when the City should have done even more. This is the City’s job! But this has been an unbelievable failure on the part of City Council, Planning Commission, Architectural Review Board, the project’s new architect (incidentally, a former chair of the ARB) as well as the city’s planning, legal and administrative staffs.

In hindsight, here are three conclusions that can be drawn from this travesty — a complete failure of the planning process and one of huge proportion in our pocket-sized city of 8.3 square miles and 92,000 residents:

1. Staff needs to realize that density is not good design and that quality is more important than quantity. No amount of community benefits can make a poor project a good project.

2. City Council needs to ask whether a rush for tax revenues is worth architectural and environmental mediocrity.

3. By the Planning Director approving a totally redesigned project as a “minor modification” to avoid Planning Commission review of the new design, he made a mockery of the approval process and should not be given one ounce of discretionary power without absolute clarity in the code as to what those issues and limits are! To avoid any recurrence where citizens must threaten suit against those who are there to protect them.

If our City is unable to do a better job representing its citizens, perhaps it is time for residents to enact initiatives ensuring that our codes and powers are not so easily abused, or as in this case, neglected.

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

Robert H. Taylor AIA, Thane Roberts AIA, Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Samuel Tolkin, Armen Melkonians Civil & Environmental Engineer, Phil Brock Chair, Parks & Recreation Commission


Towards a New Planning Commission

Selecting Planning Commissioners

In coming days City Council will fill three positions on the Planning Commission. In political circles, the hubbub on who will ascend to these important seats can be heard over in the next county.

How do candidates get nominated? In principle, interested candidates fill out a form and submit it to City Hall. Those forms remain archived until openings appear on the Commission and announcements are published seeking candidates. City Council then reviews the candidate statements, nominations are made by Council members, and the Council votes.

It is not only individuals that are interested in a position at the Planning Commission, but political groups as well. As soon as Commission openings are announced (and often before then) there is much feverish behind-the-scenes activity by organizations wanting a Commissioner representing their interests. Individuals are approached to see if they’d like to serve. Names of suitable candidates are circulated to gather a response from the faithful.

Apart from those connected with political groups, there are often other candidates–unaffiliated folks with an interest in serving, and with background and experience that can truly contribute to the city’s welfare. Those freelancers must compete with politically-connected candidates that have behind-the-scenes backing of powerful circles, all jockeying for influence and leverage. This is part of a larger process, in which political groups attempt to control City policy by placing their members, or their sympathizers, in positions of authority and importance.

What makes this competition tougher is that a position on the Planning Commission can be a stepping-stone to City Council. For such groups, the effort to place a Commissioner becomes the first step in developing the career of a future City Council candidate representing their views.

Since the Planning Commission has an impact on development, getting a suitable candidate into the Planning Commission is seen as critical for the advancement of different organizations’ agendas. In many ways, the naming of a Planning Commission member eclipses in importance the actual working of the Commission itself, because of the candidate’s potential to ascend the lofty heights of the City Council dais down the road.

Lost in all this is the actual purpose of the Planning Commission. The Commission’s mission statement is on its web page:

“To promote the health, safety and general welfare by encouraging the most appropriate use of land; provide adequate open spaces for light and air; prevent undue concentrations of population; lessen congestion on streets; facilitate adequate provisions for community utilities and facilities such as transportation, water, sewage, schools, parks and other public requirements; and, designate, regulate and restrict the location and use of buildings, structures and land for residents, commerce, trade, industry and other purposes.”

It is clear to the most casual observer that these essential functions have often, though not always, become submerged in the intense divisive battling that is a feature of political life in Santa Monica. Because City Council appoints planning commissioners by majority vote, many Planning Commission appointees reflect the political and ideological positions of the City Council majority at the time of their appointment. Instead of acting as a source of objective advice to City Council and a ground-level arbiter of land-use policies for the community’s benefit, a politicized Commission majority will often either strongly support the City Council majority, or strongly oppose it. The result is a politically-divided Commission that is often a stage for proxy battles between different City Council factions, carried out by their allies on the Planning Commission. It is an absurd situation that does the residents of this community little good.

A politicized Planning Commission is nothing new, of course. Some of the most notable politicized commissions date back at least to the SMRR victory in 1981, when the then-Planning Commission acted, for a short while, in conservative opposition to the new City Council majority (See Pierre Clavel’s The Progressive City: Planning and Participation, 1969-1984). Politicized Planning Commissions are almost a traditional feature of progressive city governments throughout the country. One school of thought suggests that a politicized Planning Commission is an important place to hash out ground-level battles, because it provides City Council with a window into the priorities of important constituencies, and an effective venue for carrying out City Council policies.

But in today’s Santa Monica, divided as it is among political camps, a different approach is needed to help make the Planning Commission less of a City Council redux, and more a strong government body that is effective in looking out for the interests of everyday residents. One step could require members of the Planning Commission whose terms expire (or end voluntarily) to wait at least two years before running for City Council. This would help create a healthy separation between their function as Commissioners and the political campaigning needed for a City Council run.

It is also important to attract, and keep, candidates and commissioners who represent a broad swath of Santa Monica stakeholders, regardless of their individual political positions. Architects and others with knowledge of planning and real estate should be represented on the commission, as should residents of other professions (or no professions). All of them, however, must have experience in the community, and preferably a record of service that demonstrates a commitment to the needs of ordinary residents, and the community as a whole.

The City should help alleviate the crushing amount of work faced by planning commissioners by providing knowledgeable researchers who are not members of the City’s planning staff, and do not report to the City Manager’s office. These people would be less affected by the dynamics that inevitably develop between the City Manager and City Council. The Planning Commission fulfills a critical role in the functioning of this city, and planning commissioners should have independent support for their work.

A change is needed in the way planning commissioners are selected and appointed. And it is important to separate their function as commissioners from the pressures of running for City Council.

Daniel Jansenson, Architect, for Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow

Santa Monica Housing by the Numbers

Housing by the Numbers

There’s been an incessant discussion about Santa Monica’s work/housing imbalance. We hear constant buzz about our urgent need for affordable housing in our city which is already the densest packed beachside city in California. Can our city really satisfy this seemingly insatiable need? Here are a few ways to approximate how much housing we should provide:

  • What is Santa Monica’s “fair share” of the growth of the Los Angeles metropolitan area?  Since Los Angeles has been growing at about 1/2% per year for the last decade, you can extrapolate that our 93,000 person city would increase 465 residents per year.
  • The Southern Counties Association of Governments (SCAG) predicts Santa Monica’s population will grow will grow 8,000 people over the next 20 years for a total of 400 persons a year.

These two numbers might be averaged to 433 persons per year and if we take a ratio 1.7 persons per unit (close to Santa Monica’s current ratio) this means that Santa Monica should be building about 255 new units a year. This number is very close to SCAG’s 2014 desired target of 239 new units per year.

Its very hard to know exactly at any given time how many units are under consideration for approval, permitting and construction. However currently there are about 3000 units under consideration and it would not be unusual for those units to unfold over the next 4 years for an annual production of about 750 units per year. Therefore Santa Monica is producing housing at about three times its expected and fair share rate! We can quibble about the assumptions but it doesn’t change the fact that producing abundant housing is not a problem in Santa Monica.

Even without the new zoning code there is plenty of surplus housing capacity in the boulevards and downtown for this housing tidal wave. For example 57% of the downtown is either vacant, 1, or 2 stories. If all those lots were developed with 3 floors of residential above one floor of commercial uses it would generate about 7,000,000 square feet of housing or about 9000 units. Likewise 88% of the 896 parcels on the boulevards are vacant, 1, or 2 stories and if those properties were all developed with one floor of commercial and two floors of residential it would generate about 6,000,000 square feet or about 8,000 units. If we choose an arbitrary 2/3 of those lots actually being developed, we have the capacity for 11,400 new units (about 20,000 people). This corresponds to about a 46 year supply of housing at the desired rate of 250 units/year. In conclusion we are producing more than adequate amount of housing and we have the lot space for this housing for the foreseeable future. Another way of saying this is that we do not need to incentivize construction of housing with density bonuses, height increases or other code inducements. We have the space without resorting to “mega projects”. In fact height limits downtown could be kept to 4 stories and 3 stories on the boulevards and not have a large negative impact on the ability to produce housing.

So what’s the problem? There are essentially two areas of concern. The first is that the housing being produced is simply not affordable for our residents whose median household income is about $67,000. Affordability is typically defined as 30% of income in our case about $1675/mo. With new one bedrooms averaging about $2200/mo, the marketplace favors people making $88,000 a year. This excludes most of the entry-level participants in the major industries of Santa Monica: tourism (hotel waiters), education (college teachers), healthcare (nurses), and silicone beach (lab techs) to name just a few. These hard working residents have limited rental choices: live outside of Santa Monica, double up on room mates or family members, monetize their residences with Air BnB, or become housing slaves by paying a larger (40 or 50%) share of their income for housing. All are socially undesirable solutions. This affordability gap does not just effect the mobile young, such as students, but crushes families staying in apartments that are too small for their numbers and actively discriminates against limited income seniors. So, at every age, there are negative impacts from the lack of affordable housing. This is not news to anyone who has tried to find a place to live in Santa Monica. Likewise, when buyers try to buy homes in Santa Monica, lenders will typically lend 4 times your annual income or in our case about $268,000. Try finding anything for that price in Santa Monica or the Los Angeles area. In spite of the best efforts of rent control and affordable housing code incentives over the last 35 years we have become a City whose housing only engineers, lawyers and doctors can afford. We have become Bel Air by the Sea. Normally, increased supply of housing will reduce its price, but in a desirable marketplace like Santa Monica, the infinite supply of nearby wealthy buyers, including off shore buyers, means there is no effective way to build our way to affordability.  Today, we are producing about one deed restricted affordable unit for every ten market rate units. The financing of affordable housing is a complicated problem that has bedeviled cities all over the world and will be treated in depth in another article, suffice it to say that it is probably the greatest challenge facing our City.

The second problem is sustainability. We can produce the housing and have the lot space for it but we don’t have sufficient sustainable infrastructure.  All those displaced Santa Monica commuting workers, even if they drive hybrids or take mass transit, are polluting the air, adding to global and local warming and occupying gridlocked transit capacity. Our local water wells have limited capacity, and barring a breakthrough in affordable desalinization, will lose capacity as more cities tap into our shrinking aquifer. The city’s goal of water self-sufficiency is a mirage if the population keeps expanding. Finally Santa Monica wants to achieve net zero sustainability. Our buildings would not generate more resources as they consume. Solar access is the key to net zero, but when buildings grow to over 3-4 stories on typical lots and streets they start to shade each other and prevent their neighbors from reaching energy sustainability. We must mention that the same limits apply to our other common resources: open space, impacted schools, transit capacity etc. etc. All this frenetic urban growth initially reduces the quality of life of its residents and eventually, like a cancer, kills its host.

The good news is that Santa Monica is planning for abundant housing. The bad news is the new housing won’t be affordable and will eventually exceed our ecological limits to growth.  The solution will reside in our ability to add housing at a sustainable rate – within the bounds of our existing resources and infrastructure. To do otherwise could result in the degradation of the same city that everyone is coming to share.  In that scenario, nobody wins.

Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)


2-3-4-and No More

Limiting Height & Density

It’s time to stop the madness in Santa Monica! Even with the adoption of the new zoning code, the battle over height and density continues. This Zoning Code, along with the Land Use and Circulation Element, has formed an imperfect blueprint for the future growth of a significant por- tion of our bayside city. Still to come will be verbal volleys and pitched battles over the Downtown Specific Plan and the Memorial Park Neighborhood Plan. The passionate discussions over the height, density and positioning of future change are not cooling down. Indeed, as one newspaper editor opined recently, we are a balkanized city. Rife with special interest groups, all concerned with small fiefdoms, our residents are not taking a holistic view, a “big picture” view, of our combined destiny as a community.

The pressure to be more like our behemoth sprawling neighbor Los Angeles has become more intense. We hear cries to build higher, build denser, add more commerce to our neighborhoods, add private enterprise to city-owned land and, generally, to increase the intensity of our Santa Monica. We hear that we must blend into the metropolis, we must add more housing, add more buildings, more office space, more attractions, more, more, just more.

Visitors to our city treasure our world-class ambiance with its breezy beach town feel. We resi- dents treasure these elements as well, and we have a deep love for Santa Monica. That’s the reason so many of us are incredibly passionate about this special place. And with that love, with that passion, comes responsibility. Every one of us must become a responsible steward of Santa Monica’s future, a future where we do not allow more height, more density, more stress on our infrastructure, and more traffic. We now have an opportunity – an obligation, to control the form and shape our city will take — we can take control of our shared future, our destiny.

In our 2014 columns of May 20 and again on July 23, SM.a.r.t proposed that Santa Monica height limits be set at four stories or 50 feet in the densest zones (downtown), three stories or 40 feet in the mid-density zones (boulevards) and two stories or 30 feet in the low-density zones (streets and avenues). Today, we call on our residents to take the choice out of developers’ hands, to stop relying on the ever-changing voting alignments in the Planning Commission and City Council to safeguard our interests.

We can follow the success of other small cities in Southern California, which have protected their ambiance and quality of life through the ballot box. In 2008 the citizens of Sierra Madre voted for strict downtown height limits. Their Voter Empowerment Ordinance states that, “No City Council or City Staff can possess the necessary community-wide sensitivity to make decisions to ensure that the small town character … will be preserved.” The document concludes, “development decisions that could deviate from our long standing goals should be made by the entire city after a public debate and election, and not by a few city hall insiders.” These are brave words by the organizers in this San Gabriel Valley city. The measure won!

The cities of Yorba Linda and Encinitas have followed up with their own voter-mandated initiatives limiting height and density in their cities. The crafters of the Encinitas Right To Vote Amendment state, “It is the intent of this measure to protect our natural resources, our children’s lives and future generations, prevent the urbanization of our small town character and maintain the individual character of our … communities.”

Any developer in these three cities who wishes to build higher and denser than the ordinance allows, has only one choice: turn to the voters of their community to ask that their project be exempted. The SMa.r.t. Group urges that we let the voters of Santa Monica decide whether to approve the next huge “Hines” project, the next “Miramar Hotel” skyscraper expansion, or the next proposal to build tall, dense buildings on city land. We’re no longer willing to let our Planning Department and City Council make those decisions.

We know this: our current planning codes are too confusing — for city personnel and for devel- opers, and these codes provide too many loopholes. An overly large and cumbersome Planning Department bureaucracy exists in City Hall. If we put simple height and density guidelines in place it would reduce the number of necessary city staff and it would make decisions simpler for developers, staff and residents. Limiting height and density would reduce speculation and would foster a livable, human-scale beach community. These new guidelines would enable us to encourage the adaptive reuse of buildings, include verifiable open space requirements in each development envelope, demand creativity in the design process, and endeavor to preserve our existing housing stock. Our activists would be able to devote more time to charitable pursuits and less time to bird-dogging planning meetings. And, significantly, as residents, we would be able to breathe.

Santa Barbara, Manhattan Beach and other Southern California beach cities have even lower height limits than we are proposing for Santa Monica. Their established limits have proven rea- sonable and effective. The proposed building heights that would be adopted in our voter approved initiative would be the maximum allow- able heights and not subject to modification with- out voter approval.

We want to be clear. This is not a no-growth, no-change initiative. It would champion intelligent, smart growth. The heights we recommend would allow developers to profit from their purchase, and would promote the natural evolution of housing and commercial stock and thus the economic health of our city. If we reduce the amount of “cramming” a developer can bundle into a proper- ty, speculative buying and selling would both be dampened.

As one of the densest cities in our state, Santa Monica can no longer sustain more people and more traffic with the infrastructure we currently have in place. Far and away, the absolute best way to prevent even more desensitization in our city is to limit the height and floor area ratio of new construction. Rather than let our quality of life be corrupted, rather than see our city become urbanized to “blend in” with the Los Angeles metropolis, the height initiative we propose would allow Santa Monica to continue to be a distinct and refreshing environment.

Remember, those who come to our city to invest in and develop property are likely to put their business interests ahead of preserving our beach town ambiance and quality of life. They will not see the significance of protecting the unique authenticity of place that we value in Santa Monica. It’s time for the residents of our city take a strong stand.

SMa.r.t believes it’s time establish a clear and definitive “Line in the Sand”. It’s time for the “2-3- 4-No More” Initiative to blossom!

Phil Brock for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)


Our “Raison d’Etre”

Spirit of the City

What defines some of the greatest cities in the world? Their grand plazas and public spaces. A place where one goes first when arriving at a new city and returns to many times while there. The same could be true for Santa Monica. There could be a place to gather for public events and an animated social environment that would activate the downtown area providing a venue for civic events and respite from our busy lives.

But apparently our City Council is in the midst of an identity crisis. They believe that we should live in a different, much denser urban environ- ment. They believe that we need a massive iconic building called the “Plaza at Santa Monica” on city owned land at 4th/5th and Arizona to attract visitors, one that will little serve our residents. But we already have the Pacific Ocean, our beach, our Palisades Park, our historic pier, our prome- nade, our courtyard housing, and our relaxed beach culture with its open skies, sunlight, mod- erate temperature – assets in abundance! They must think they are working for those who would develop the City for profit rather than those who live in it.

We live in a democracy of gratification and this head-in-the-sand approach leads to a mindset of development and profit rather than quality of life. This project would be a beacon for unbridled growth, with every developer rightly claiming the same height for their own project. “Greed and density” on the part of the City are not synony- mous with “quality of life.” Do we need a down- town begging for tall and wide buildings casting huge shadows, and that will fatally compromise the city’s soul and character. The soul of our city is not massive building blocks stacked 148 feet tall.

The size of the Plaza at Santa Monica (an offspring of Rem Koolhaas’ Singapore project http://www.theinterlace.com) will create significant traffic, cut light and blue sky, cast enormous shad- ows on adjacent properties, increase demand on infrastructure and services, and most importantly waste this site’s potential. This is a highly questionable precedent to set, and worst of all, totally unnecessary.

If we were to draw a plan of our growing downtown, this 2.9 acre parcel is the new center of gravity with shopping, dining, and living spread- ing north, east, south and west – and should be used for creating a sense of place for residents, employees and tourists to enjoy. We believe what is needed to complement and support the four million square feet of downtown commercial and residential area now being developed is a park with shade trees and fountains, concerts and pub- lic art, ice skating, event venues and open air mar- kets. A place for residents, commuting workers, and visitors to recreate or rest – at street level where people will use it rather than rooftop levels 20, 58, and 96 feet above the sidewalk as is being proposed in this plan.

On city-owned property, creation of parks should be the 1st choice. An urban park in this area would fill a huge need with the growing number of families living in downtown apart- ments. Parks are an integral part of our active and passive well-being, of our quality of environ- ment and life. Remember the “Well-being Challenge” to measure and increase the feeling of well-being for residents, visitors, and employees? If one needs further convincing, look at Bryant Park (www.bryantpark.org/) or Post Office Square (www.normanbleventhalpark.org/).

The City may need income to pay its mortgage obligation, but it should not be used to feed its budget and future pension liabilities. The revenue from a subterranean parking structure, a “Tavern-on-the-Green,” and a multiplex theatre at the south end, or only if necessary, a boutique hotel (with union contract of course) and the requisite affordable housing would bring in the same $6.4 million expected from the proposed development! And the 1,200 car parking would be available for public use rather than required for a massive development above. Civic values and commercial interests can co-exist.

This is public property, it is the residents who own this property, and the City has the highest obligation to do the best for the public good. We cannot let this site be squandered on a project that neither meets the needs nor the will of Santa Monica’s citizenry. We’re advocating making this a remarkable town square which will bring the community back into downtown. These open spaces are priceless. Let’s hope the city can turn a “poverty of ideas” into a “wealth of well-being” by turning a massive mistake into a genuine benefit for all.

Every city needs a “raison d’etre” – a spirit why people want to go there and stay there. So what will define our ethos as a City? Will it be an over- scaled commercial building that dwarfs the down- town area casting its shadows for blocks around or a grand square that invites all who enter. This property is already public land and should remain so. Is tall and dense, massive and traffic our “raison d’etre?” We don’t think so.

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