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