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.

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