Adaptive Reuse or Vertical Sprawl?

Adaptive Reuse

We have written about adaptive re-use in our previous columns of “The Magic of Adaptive Reuse” and “Shape Up”. We postulate that with proper incentives, the existing one, two and three story buildings lining our downtown streets and our boulevards provide all the buildable area we need if properly re-purposed for new uses, including housing. And with that notion we do not preclude the addition of a 2nd or 3rd floor to the existing buildings.

The City of Los Angeles has a specific adaptive reuse code section that encourages saving older buildings, they do so with specific incentives, both economic and with code compliance issues, recognizing safety at all times, but accepting certain exceptions that would otherwise be required of a new structure. Los Angeles specifically has guidelines that encourage adaptive reuse for housing and under that ordinance currently lists approximately 100 projects completed or in process of development, 3164 housing units completed, 2498 in construction, and another 848 in planning and process.

How has Santa Monica approached adaptive reuse in the newly adopted zoning code? Adaptive reuse is mentioned three times. That is more than in the previous zoning code. The reference occurs in the section titled “Employment Districts”, which are then defined as the Industrial Conservation Zone, the Office Campus zone, and the Healthcare Mixed Use zone. And while the zones list 100 percent affordable as a permitted use, it is not as a specific incentive for the purposes of encouraging adaptive reuse and family housing is not among the approved uses “by right” except in the Healthcare district, which already encompasses existing residential neighborhoods.

Adaptive reuse means more than just saving an old building from demolition. It means that typically there is a lot of life, structurally and functionally, still left in the bones. Current technologies permit relatively easy adaptation to new energy saving devices such as LED lighting, high efficiency heating and air conditioning system upgrades, energy saving glass and solar panels. Water metering can be adapted for all or some new housing units in the event that the building is repurposed for all or a portion of housing. Adaptive reuse is not historic preservation of a landmark structure as the building does not need to be historically significant to be useable, and re-useable. Adaptive reuse means less demolition and is therefore a much more sustainable solution than complete demolition and having to build an entirely new structure. It also means a much smaller carbon footprint than will occur from hauling debris and earth from a subterranean excavation to a distant landfill that would accompany one of the big box buildings you see currently redefining our downtown.

In the building frenzy that is occurring between 4th and Lincoln downtown we are losing the character and soul of our beach town. Our 8.3 sq. miles are already built out horizontally, and yes, one can build taller and taller, but all that means is that you can simply stack more blocks on top of one another. Vertical sprawl means more vehicles and more congestion. It means more demand on the infrastructure, water consumption, power consumption, waste, and sewer demand. It means less open space and less blue sky. Simply put, more is more, and we don’t need more, we need responsible.

As we stated in previous articles, “the ‘greenest building’ is the one not torn down.” Adaptive reuse and the repurposing of existing low-rise structures that comprise the vast majority of Santa Monica’s built environment can fulfill the future needs of responsible housing growth with appropriate incentives similar to Los Angeles. It is working in L.A. because it is being encouraged with more than just words. The most visible and current adaptive reuse project in Santa Monica is the rehabilitation of the PaperMate building, repurposing the manufacturing facility to an office use. The project drawings we have seen show the very long building being cut into two with a wide passageway separating the two halves, a landscaped green open area at the corner of 26th and Olympic, removal of one small structure allowing for one level of subterranean parking, and even a small dog park at Stewart St. The project designer listed is the world-class architecture firm of SOM (Skidmore, Owens & Merrill).

So, what is missing from this project? Housing. Had our zoning code had the incentives that encouraged housing, perhaps the project, now called The Pen Factory, would have inspired the developer to include a number of housing units, maybe in equal number to the potential jobs that will be created in the other half of the project. This may not have been the case but had the incentives been there the chance of maintaining a relative jobs/housing balance would be much higher than the straight office use that will now occupy the buildings.

The new zoning code for the Industrial Conservation zone states the following, “Assure high-quality design and site planning of office and employment areas and support the adaptive reuse of industrial buildings that contribute to the city as a whole.” So while some might nit-pick and say The Pen is part of the Bergamot Area and not the industrial conservation zone, it is an industrial building and is adjacent to the industrial area, as newly defined in the LUCE (Land Use Circulation Element) and the new zoning map. It appears to be a good project and a good example of adaptive reuse, as opposed to the previously proposed vertical sprawl project known as Hines. But it is also another example of a missed opportunity due to a zoning code that didn’t go that one step further and say, we have great low rise buildings that create and define the real fabric and soul of our beach town, and we need to encourage, with carefully considered incentives, their reuse, and recognize they have lots of life in them and should continue to serve our low rise community and let them age with grace.

Bob Taylor for SMa.r.t.


Preparing Santa Monica for the next big earthquake

Preparing for the Next Quake

Last week’s SMa.r.t. column was about sustainability. This week we look at another part of sustainability: surviving inevitable crises that rarely occur but have a disastrous impact. For example, the San Andreas fault creeps about 2 inches per year but in a large earthquake could move 12 feet in a minute. Likewise, the climbing ocean levels may take decades to rise one foot, but a tsunami can raise the sea level 30 feet in 3 minutes. Recently, earthquakes above magnitude 6 occur in the Los Angeles basin every 23 to 38 years. It has now been 21 years since the last big quake in Northridge. This 6.7-magnitude earthquake killed 60 people and severely damaged the Northwest quadrant of Santa Monica. We are now entering a period of increasing statistical probability of a significant seismic event.

We have seen enough disaster movies to know what to expect in such an event. The first three days will be chaos, including fires, building collapses, overwhelmed first responders, hospital triages, and everyone in survival mode. Afterwards, the survivors will be “camping” in a ruined city for up to a year before water, phone, gas, power and food supplies are fully restored. During that period some reconstruction will occur but, given the shortage of skilled labor, financing and the supply chain interruption, reconstruction could continue for up to 10 years. A decade later and New Orleans, New Jersey and Long Island are still under reconstruction.

While individuals are responsible for their own initial 3-day survival (water, food, general repair), there are things we can do as a city to minimize the “camping” phase of the post-quake recovery.

1. Identify where and how to house residents whose homes are deemed to be uninhabitable. No one knows how many buildings will be unlivable after a large quake, but using the San Vicente corridor as a guide, after the 1994 quake it lost roughly 5 percent of its structures. If that same percentage were applied to Santa Monica, about 4,500 Santa Monicans might need emergency housing. Since most residents will want to stay in Santa Monica, the city should plan now for the required open space to park the tents and FEMA trailers and the distribution of life neccesities. Also it should take stock of how many hotel rooms, vacant apartments, empty classrooms and short-term rentals might be available for emergency housing. Abundant open space in our already dense city is not just a quality-of-life issue, but possibly a source of survival in a worst-case scenario.

2. Do not build over 4 stories. Low-rise buildings are easier to escape from in the initial quake and fires as well as easier to live in without power. After the initial shock, we can expect a slow and partial power supply restoration to different parts of the city over a year with intermittent brown outs. During that time, many senior citizens who can’t do stairs could become prisoners in their own apartments. Likewise, parents carrying small children and groceries may not be able to make it up long, multi-story stairwells. Finally, mid-rise businesses (e.g. hotels) relying on elevators could become (barring generators) uninhabitable. As a minimal standard we could require stairwells and halls to have windows or skylights; and buildings to have enough solar collectors to continually illuminate their interior halls and stairwells. In fact, an abundance of solar collectors combined with battery backups increase any building’s odds to keep functioning during the loss of the power grid.

3. Lots of bicycles. Cars parked in deep subterranean parking lots could be trapped because of the no power for ventilation and garage gates. Likewise, gas stations may not be able to pump gas consistently and traffic and street lights may be down. Bicycles might be the transportation mode of choice for many and would have the added advantage of being able to maneuver around piles of debris and broken pavement. Fortunately, our City has a growing bike path system, and the new zoning code will, as new buildings are built, begin to provide more bike parking. Finally, getting the city’s bikeshare program fully stocked and integrated with that in Los Angeles in a timely manner should be part of the City’s quake survival strategy.

4. Hardening our existing buildings. Building design and seismic technology has progressed substantially in the last two decades. One of the disquieting things we have learned is that large quakes can easily generate 1g forces, or 5 times the forces that typical residential buildings are designed to withstand. While most buildings on paper could not survive a 1g jolt, in real life, the interaction of many repetitive elements and short quake duration might make it possible to survive such an extreme quake. In such cases, most buildings would not collapse completely, although they might still be a total loss. So every opportunity must be taken to upgrade our existing buildings to reduce the possibility of a total collapse. After the 1994 quake, the city did an initial structural review of all its buildings but has never published its results. It is time to publish that list and alert owners so that they can begin the process of upgrading their buildings to potentially save lives.

5. Water is the real choke point. People can live without power, but only three days without water. There is a high probability that a large earthquake on the San Andreas fault could cause us to lose about a third of our water that currently comes from two aqueducts that cross the fault. In addition, new homes that use tankless water heaters will lose that built-in water reserve. A well strapped 50- to 60-gallon tank water heater can provide a family of four about two weeks of water at the survival rate of 1 gallon per person per day. It is unclear if our water system of well pumps and sewer pumps can survive a power cut off or intermittent power supply not to mention the possible initial 1g jolt. As the city adds more residents and businesses, the need to be able to provide them water in an emergency becomes increasingly difficult. Even if the city could fix the innumerable quake ruptured water mains, if the water is not there, we have painted ourselves into a corner. The current upgrading of the water system infrastructure should be skewed toward survivability before additional growth is programmed. The sooner we can get to water independence from our own wells, the better.

6. Early warnings. Finally, while quake prediction is a long way off, functioning early-warning systems are available today. Relying on the different speed of seismic waves, sensors can give a 10- to 30-second warning before the really damaging waves arrive at a building. That warning interval, while not large, may allow people enough time to safely exit buildings and elevators, garage doors, stop elective medical procedures and take countless other life and property saving actions. While costs of such systems are not precise, costs of $200-$300 million have been estimated to cover California with sensors (plus $5 million per year to maintain them). These are small prices ($10/resident) to pay given the potential to save lives. We should contact our public representatives and lobby them to install such a system over the entire state now.

Our City has to be both sustainable and survivable. Survivability is sometimes called resilience: the ability of a City to bounce back from a catastrophe. These are not pleasant things to contemplate, but to ignore them would be much worse. Resilience is something we have to build in today. We have been fortunate to have had a 21-year respite from a major quake, but as each day passes, the odds increase that it will be here soon. Let’s be ready.

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

Santa Monica’s Future: Sustainable or Untenable?

Sustainable City

In 2013, Santa Monica was named the nation’s fifth-most sustainable city according to a prominent national organization dedicated to sustainable development and living. As one of the densest cities in the state, we may need to work harder to maintain our high marks for sustainability in the future. Our density will only increase as our city attracts more tourists, visitors and developers wishing to share our good fortune.

What is sustainability? Sustainability is not wasting today what can be renewed, recycled, or saved for tomorrow. Sustainability is using our planet’s resources responsibly. Sustainability is preserving our fragile ecosystem, our rain forests and oceans, by reducing green house gasses, reducing our dependency on oil and our waste products. It also has a social component that addresses housing, open space, public health, education, transportation, etc. It is a broad subject that, at its core, promotes policies enabling Santa Monica’s residents to live healthier, more productive and more gratifying lives now … and in the future.

Although some measures of sustainability are difficult to quantify, there are metrics that can measure the success our city’s conservation programs. For example, the state has mandated all municipalities cut water consumption by 20% from 2013 levels. Santa Monica is currently on track to meet this goal through an intensive conservation program. While the residential sector currently exceeds the state’s goals, the commercial sector is still lagging. It is only when the two sectors are taken together that the City is shown to be on the path to compliance.

This is all the more important since Santa Monica controls only two-thirds of its water supply, sharing the remaining one-third with other municipalities, which makes its continued availability less certain. In 2013 the city’s water usage was split between single-family residences (22%), multi-family residences (39%), commercial (27%) and other miscellaneous users (12%). The total residential sector (61%) has shown the greatest decrease in water usage. From 2005 to 2013 this sector’s water usage dropped 6 %. During the same period, the commercial sector’s usage increased by 12%. This is an 18 % difference between the two sectors! Over the same time, the total commercial usage as a percentage of total increased from 22% to 26.5 % — almost 5%.

Why is this? This can partially be attributed to better controls on residential usage but perhaps also to an increase in commercial development. It is not surprising that the commercial sector would consume more resources since it is usually more energy intensive and its users more difficult to monitor and control. This sector’s users often include tourists and employees that live outside the city yet use its resources daily. In apartment buildings and some condos, tenants’ water use is difficult to determine if the building has only one master meter. Although a City ordinance was passed several years ago to require individual meters in apartments and condos, it has never been implemented. Now is the time to correct this lapse.

The “Road to Zero Waste” program managed by the Department of Public Works has set a goal of 1.1 lbs./person/day by 2030. From 2006 to 2010, this figure has gone from 7.7 lbs./person to 3.6 lbs. — a drop of over 50%. Current figures are not known. In 2011, the ratio of commercial to residential waste was 54% commercial and 46% residential. The recycling percentages were commercial 9%, multi-residential- 18% and single-family residences 37%. The more rapid growth of the commercial sector is one possible explanation for the increase in waste. The other could be accountability. The fact that the generators of trash are harder to identify in larger, commercial projects may partially explain the 400% difference between the two sectors. When the offenders are known, fines can be levied to enforce compliance.

Water usage and the creation of waste from the 7.3 million annual visitors must also impact the city’s resources, and again there is less that can be done to control it. Although daily use of energy and resources is likely to be greater for residents, an effective 20% daily increase in the population is sure to have some impact. One would doubt that most beach goers are taking their trash with them or waiting to shower until they arrive home.

In the social arena, there is a need for additional affordable housing. While this housing at one time was subsidized by the state, those programs have been cut and the burden is now falling on the city to make up the shortfall. One strategy has been to negotiate with developers to allow them to build larger projects if they include low and moderate-income units. This solution, however, can create its own set of problems. Sometimes, the very projects that provide more housing are the same ones that remove it and raise property values when the land is cleared. These projects also have a larger ecological “footprint,” negatively impacting the surrounding communities with more traffic, shading and water usage. The projects also put strains on our city services like schools, fire, and policing as well as our fragile infrastructure.

In the area of transportation and circulation, we should be planning now for the new modalities of transportation — from electric bicycles and skateboards to personal mobility devices (e.g. Segways) and self-driving cars. Transportation is evolving in ways that will require new solutions for parking as well as on our streets and sidewalks. Many of these new personal means of transport will help solve the “first mile to last mile” problem for our new Expo Line. It might also help the thousands of tourists arriving each day to access our city’s beaches without their cars. In the downtown, our City has a successful pedestrian mall that incentivizes walking over driving. Perhaps we can expand on this idea by creating more inviting pedestrian walkways across our downtown to encourage more to experience our City on foot.

Finally, the City has made progress to encourage the use of renewable energies, like electricity generated from solar panels. Since this trend is likely to continue, now is the time to start thinking about the implementation of the State solar Initiative passed into law but never applied in Santa Monica. This law would create regulations to protect solar rights from those who might block them. In the future, privately installed solar panels might become our primary source of power and their future use should be assured today..

In the last 30 years most people in the developing world have seen the ill effects of too many people in too little space competing for too few resources. The area of Santa Monica is a little over eight square miles, less than three miles on a side, and can be crossed (with no traffic) on a bicycle in 12 minutes. In this small community, we currently have over 90,000 residents with a daily population that it is much greater. We have the second-highest residential density in the state.

Our limited area should make it easier to implement more sustainability measures and policies within our boundaries. It is time that we start thinking about our limits and plan accordingly before it is too late.

Thane Roberts AIA for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)