The Plaza at Santa Monica…. “It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again”

Plaza at Santa Monica

Yogi Berra’s legendary words were echoing in the ears of residents in the wee hours Wednesday morning when the City Council instructed staff to move forward with an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for The Plaza at Santa Monica project. As a concession to the many opposed, the EIR is to base its primary findings on a 15% reduced version of The Plaza. This is to be achieved with a 50% reduction in the office component and consideration of alternative uses for the 30,000 SF that would be freed up by its removal. It was pathetic to watch the Council beg for ‘scraps’ as the Developer threatened to reduce the last vestiges of community benefits if they were denied their height for ocean views at their high-end hotel. It was a sad charade.

Insanity was once defined as doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result. Once again, our City Council has embarked on a misadventure that will likely end the same way as before with the Hines Project- a major waste of funds and time for all parties concerned, especially the developers. The Hines project, when compared to the The Plaza, makes it look like the ‘poster child’ for responsible development. Although Hines was larger, its FAR (average lot coverage) was only 2.5 while the new Plaza will be 3.2 or 28 % denser. The maximum height of the Hines project was 81’ while the Plaza will max out at 148’- almost twice the height. The Plaza will have only 48 housing units vs. 497 at Hines- 10 times more. The Plaza will have nearly the same area as Santa Monica Place Shopping Center but on a site that is one-third the size. The list goes on.

Both projects were allowed reduced parking requirements. But since the Plaza is in Downtown, where the demand for parking is 2 to 3 times greater, this will be a bigger problem than it would have been at Hines. Hines was on the outskirts of our City in close proximity to the Expo Line where the demand for parking is less and mass transit was adjacent. Initial estimates show that both projects will produce generally the same number of daily car trips- around 7000. Of course, the impact of these trips in the center of downtown will be much worse than it would have been on Olympic, in an industrial area, at the edge of our City. The Plaza is almost twice the ideal ¼ mile walking distance to transit. It will be generating car trips in the densest part of our City, an area that is already congested. There couldn’t be a worse place to put such a large development. Since the project is already “under parked”, it will have NO additional spaces for the daily visitors or adjacent businesses both of which require more downtown parking.

“The Plaza” is a misnomer. This project’s “plazas” are on four different levels- grade, 18’ above grade, 58’ above grade and 98’ above grade. Can anyone name another successful “plaza” that is on 4 different levels, with 98’ between them? Most plazas are square or rectangular to accommodate a wider range of activities. Are there other small, triangular plazas that can be cited as examples of successful outdoor spaces? The office space and hotel on the top two ‘plazas’ are directly adjacent to the office and hotel uses that will look out onto them. They have been designated as “private/public” and, due to their location and privacy issues, will likely be used by the public only on rare occasions, if at all. The second level plaza 18’ above the street will be accessed by a spiral stair and elevator. This will further diminish its public access except, perhaps, for programmed events. It is likely that the only “plaza” that will get any significant public use will be the one at street level. Its modest size, smaller than most residential lots, hardly justifies the project’s moniker- The Plaza at Santa Monica.

The reasons given for the project’s excessive mass, height, lack of open space, housing and parking come back to costs- “We can’t afford it”. This despite the fact that the annual ground rent for the project is only $ 1.3 million/year for a project that will cost in excess of $ 250 million. The exorbitant costs likely have less to do with the requested community amenities than the design of the project. One reason its design is “iconic” and “one of a kind” is that it will be an extremely complicated and expensive project to build. While The Plaza’s stacked, splayed blocks looks simple, when it comes to construction they are anything but. Normally, structural systems “stack” atop one another from floor to floor starting at the lowest parking levels and continuing to the roof. This is not the case for The Plaza.

The fact that the floors are skewed and offset will make the structure of the building extremely complicated and hence more expensive to build. In addition, the economies of having the roof of one level be the floor to the next are lost. Instead of ‘one roof’, The Plaza will have many “roofs” and, in this case, ones that must be waterproofed and designed for landscape and foot traffic even if they are never used for that purpose. The Plaza will be a “Type 1” (steel) construction that is the most expensive building type due to the fire proofing, elevators, mechanical systems etc. that are required. At the other end of the spectrum is Type 4 (wood frame buildings) that is 1/3 the height (around 50’) but much less expensive to construct with fewer constrictions.

While an “iconic” building of this scale and uniqueness will certainly draw attention, is it the kind of attention the City wants? Does it compliment our current beachside ambiance or denigrate it? This conflict, as well the other ‘trade offs’ for such a massive building, renders it an illogical choice as our City’s centerpiece that will forever tower over our downtown. The alternative-several small, simpler structures that were in keeping with the scale of the City, would be much less expensive and could free up funds for housing, open space and some of the other amenities that residents desire. It is a more modest approach, one that would be more attuned to our small, beach town character. It might even save enough money to allow for a real ‘Plaza’ or park instead of one in name only. Sometimes reducing expenses is better than chasing more funds. Currently, it is a case of the tail wagging the dog.

Finally, there is the issue of sustainability and environmental impact. The Plaza by nature of its construction type will be a less sustainable design and require more energy to build and operate. It will prevent rainwater percolation and create a heat sink in the heart of our City that will raise temperatures. It will consume more resources and be a greater source of pollution due to its size and many systems. Finally, it will generate more traffic than a smaller project that has more landscaping, trees and open space. All of the values that Santa Monica claims and espouses would be put into question if this project were to be built in its current form. It will forever symbolize the City’s desire for spectacle over substance, of quantity over quality, of waste over sustainability and of putting the needs of those that would exploit our resources above those who strive to protect and preserve them. Is this the legacy that we wish for the City’s current residents and future generations? We would hope not! Lets learn from our past mistakes and stop this madness before it is too late!

Thane Roberts, AIA for SMa.r.t.



A Giant ATM in Downtown Santa Monica

The Plaza at Santa Monica asks a very simple question of our downtown: Is our downtown the real center of our City or is it just a giant ATM for developers? If the downtown is to be the center of our city, it needs to have a commanding central open space that can be a “there” there for the entire City. An example of this kind of space is Saint Mark’s square in Venice. That square is the same size as our lot and plays that central role for a city that has two thirds the population of Santa Monica. Washington has the National Mall, Boston has the Commons. Most cities big and small have a big open space that is the center of their public life. This project is proposing a 148’ high cash register be the center of our public life. We can and must do better than this.

This parcel is the effective center of downtown now that downtown has been extended to Lincoln Blvd. With the downtown densification proposed in the upcoming Downtown Specific Plan, an open public plaza is just what this site needs. Centrally located on the Arizona bike lane, accessible from the 4th and 5th street transit corridors (which have their own freeway access), only one block from the Wilshire and Santa Monica bus lines and just 4 blocks from the light rail, this premium site should be an open space for the entire City. Not a park per se since we already have Palisades, Reed and Tongva Parks nearby, but an urban plaza that could have park-like elements but its major role would be public events and public enjoyment. Revenue generating services will certainly be needed on the perimeter of this space, but not anywhere near the scale being proposed for this site.

Because of the proposed oversize hotel, offices and housing, we get a puny corner open space that’s only 15% of the site. It’s actually smaller than the space currently dedicated to our seasonal ice skating rink. In other words, as the Downtown Specific Plan’s build out doubles or triples downtown’s square footage, we are actually shrinking the available public open space. The currently proposed roof decks garnished with faux ecologies are effectively inaccessible to the public because they are 18, 58 and 98 feet above the ground. The public has no real way to experience them. So exactly at the time when we need the foresight to build in more downtown open space for our future residents, tourists and workers, we are squandering this chance for a new inviting open space and filling it with an unneeded behemoth.

The proposed building is an ecological disaster. This building has no chance of being even close to energy neutral, which all buildings should aim for, since it has no where near enough solar collector area to even illuminate safely its 16 floors, much less operate elevators, air conditioning, or electric car recharging. While maximizing its own financial gain, it arrogantly compromises the ability of its neighbors to get to their energy neutrality. The gloomy shading and negative solar impact of this building will be felt in an arc covering 3 blocks west north and east of the building. In fact, the main facade of the building orients north west and will not have direct sun until the late afternoon. The open plaza is effectively shaded for most of the day by the main structure. It will block prevailing breezes needed for natural ventilation for a distance of 4 blocks to the east. Fifth street, which has only one lane southbound, will functionally collapse under the weight of the 1200 cars spreading a pool of congestion especially to the already overloaded 4th street. A building of this size can only move us farther from our goal of water independence by 2020. The list of its negative impacts goes on and on and all we will have to show for it is a couple of million dollars a year in rent.

But the real problem is that on a site owned by the City’s residents, the City is encouraging a development of exactly the kind of project the majority of residents hate while foregoing the kind of project citizens would love. Instead of modeling for developers an exemplary project on its own land, the City itself is advocating the kind of project that will make it very difficult to deny other developers similar 148’ high Godzillas. How can we as a community stop this kind of urban cancer when our own City is growing the biggest tumor of all? In other words, this is a repeat of Hines and the City should be visibly restrained and judicious in its use of our limited resources and while land is the most limiting resource, the trust of residents is also limited and is destroyed by these kinds of excesses.

But there are many good alternatives for the use of this land. The 4th/5th and Arizona site could easily become the center of our City by remaining a majority open space. The role of this space would be to continue all the activities currently happening on the nearby 3rd street promenade and sometimes in the Civic Center parking lot. In addition it could provide space for the current ice skating rink, farmer’s market, enlarged outdoor dining, book fairs, theatrical performances or movies, pet shows, car shows, political rallies and countless other public events that require a more rectangular space than the linear promenade provides. This new plaza would become the true heart of Santa Monica.

This can be accomplished in a much simpler manner than building a 12-story, football field size monster in the heart of our downtown. Architect Ron Goldman has sketched out such a more modest concept that involves keeping about 65% of the site open so it could function as an open City square.

Flanking the southeast edge would be the same nominal 50 units of affordable housing as in the original proposal. That wing might also house some retail at the ground floor, while a boutique 84 room hotel would be along 5th street and a classy restaurant with outdoor dining at the corner of 5th and Arizona and finally an open event venue along 4th street. Since the hotel would be only 50’ high (about 100’ feet lower than the original proposal), it would be in scale with the neighborhood and we could still provide up to 1200 underground parking spaces if desired to relieve downtown parking shortages even though the added structures might require only about 300 spaces in a single subterranean parking floor. The “extra” 900 spaces would give the City some flexibility, if it elects, to demolish any of the 4th Street parking structures to add theaters, for example, as has been previously discussed. However those same theaters could also be on this site with some judicious planning so as to activate the plaza at night.

A back of the envelope calculation indicates this would cost about $131 Million and generate about $600,000 profit each year after all maintenance, loans and land costs were amortized. A similar urban park called Bryant Park exists in New York and plays a similar role in an even denser urban context. The point is that even this modest proposal without pushing the design or financial envelope very hard would result in a project better suited to Santa Monica’s needs. Has anyone on the City Council or in the Planning Department shown why we “need” to violate our own zoning laws so dramatically on this particular property?

We should stop searching for a place to jam in an oversized iconic building and go back to the urban planning drawing board with a slimmed down Santa Monica Plaza project. This is clearly a case where less is more.

SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)
Thane Roberts AIA, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA t & Planning Commissioner, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Armen Melkonians Civil & Environmental Engineer, Phil Brock Chair, Parks & Recreation Commission.

A dangerous rise in development agreements

Development Agreements

Curb your DA’s. No, we’re not talking about District Attorneys, but rather the propensity of our planning staff to negotiate Development Agreements (DAs) with the owners of substantial chunks of our fair city. These agreements invariably allow development that goes beyond zoning restrictions, i.e. heights, setbacks, buildable area (FAR), parking requirements, and has a negative impact on our City, its residents, and their quality of life, in the name of “Community Benefits.” In the process, the Zoning Ordinance, the Land Use Circulation Element (LUCE) and any resident-friendly Downtown Specific Plan recommendations will be sacrificed. Additionally, the sustainability of our infrastructure will be compromised, and require costly capital improvements.

Between 1984 – 2009, only eight major DAs were sought, by application. Since adopting the current general plan in 2010, the City staff have processed 61 DAs. Not one of these projects in the downtown area or along our boulevards is being designed within the zoning codes. By all accounts, there remain at least 30 more DAs in some stage of negotiation. Is this the City of Santa Monica envisioned in the LUCE?

Every DA application requires a minimum of seven public hearings in a two to three year process. The Hines project took seven years, in what should have been a 6 – 12 month process, provided they had adhered to the prevailing code requirements. It is an expensive and unfair process, and developers should be forewarned that they cannot negotiate beyond the existing requirements based on an expectation that they will be able to build larger (greater profit), by simply including some “community benefits.” This process runs counter to good zoning policy and is often referred to as “spot zoning.” Spot zoning is allowing special building rights on one site, that are denied to others within the same zone — unless they provide specific “public benefits.”

One case is the particularly egregious, half a million sq. ft. multi-use development currently planned on City-owned property at 4th Street and Arizona Avenue. From my vantage point and experience, this is a project where the City has not exacted the maximum benefit for the use of our City-owned property. For instance, the City should retain the responsibility for developing and managing the sorely-needed subterranean parking, while leaving the majority of the plaza area as a tree-filled, “Urban Plaza.” The remainder of the two-acre site could be leased for a much smaller-scaled development. This is just one of 30 DA projects in the process of being finalized. There are more that are currently under construction or in the building permit phase.

Another particularly egregious case involves the redevelopment of the Village Trailer Park property that involved the eviction of most of the low income tenants, some being relocated. The developer provided the City with $2.5 million in “community benefits” in the proposal. He had paid $5 million for the property plus some additional funds used to create a design package that was then presented to the City. His negotiations with staff eventually resulted in an approved DA. The negotiated entitlements were then “merchandised” (for want of a better word) to another developer for around $62 million. Here the City was terribly short-changed in its pursuit of “community benefits,” and we suffered the loss of needed affordable housing.

These are just a few examples of what one might consider the “buying” of spot zoning.

I do not believe that the state legislature had this in mind when it empowered California cities and towns with the DA as a planning tool. Below is an excerpt from the law, and what was the intent.

(a) The lack of certainty in the approval of development projects can result in a waste of resources, escalate the cost of housing and other development to the consumer, and discourage investment in and commitment to comprehensive planning which would make maximum efficient utilization of resources at the least economic cost to the public

(b) Assurance to the applicant for a development project that upon approval of the project, the applicant may proceed with the project in accordance with existing policies, rules and regulations and subject to conditions of approval, will strengthen the public planning process, encourage private participation in comprehensive planning, and reduce the economic costs of development.

c) The lack of public facilities, including, but not limited to, streets, sewerage, transportation, drinking water, school, and utility facilities, is a serious impediment to the development of new housing. Whenever possible, applicants and local governments may include provisions in agreements whereby applicants are reimbursed over time for financing public facilities.

The lawmakers were looking to improve the development process from both a planning and an economic standpoint, for the benefit of the citizens of its communities, and not as a tool to enrich the real estate interests and the retirement funds for the City’s employees. Note the line, “ … in accordance with existing policies, rules and regulations.”

So one must ask the question, why is the City staff complicit in a process that threatens the quality of life for so many of our residents? Their actions subvert existing ordinances to the benefit of developers, and the international architects who design them.

Perhaps staff equates square footage to increased tax base and therefore job and pension security. Could they be so short-sighted? Or perhaps they simply don’t live here and have no personal vested interest in how such intense development impacts the lives of those who do live here. This includes the aged, children, and those who find it more and more difficult to safely move through a town that is already too congested, as it swells daily to accommodate more than 200,000 workers and tourists.

Our new City Manager has wisely, and perhaps even courageously, suggested that enough is quite enough regarding the use of DAs. They encourage the over-development that is eroding the fabric and low scale of our beachfront community. Santa Monica is a regional gem that must be respected and protected.

Samuel Tolkin for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

Sustainability on the backs of Santa Monica residents


A recent SMa.r.t. column on sustainability compared the City of Santa Monica’s residential and commercial sectors’ progress towards the City’s sustainability goals. Initially, it appeared that the residential sector was on track while the commercial sector was lagging. While this is still the case, the actual picture is more nuanced, as is the path to the City’s goal of water self-sufficiency and one pound of trash per person per day by 2030.

Santa Monica controls only two-thirds of its water supply, sharing the remaining third with other municipalities. In 2013 the City’s water usage was split between single-family residences (22 percent), multi-family residences (39 percent), commercial (27 percent) and other users (12 percent). The total residential sector (61 percent) has shown the greatest decrease in water usage. From 2005 to 2013 residential water usage dropped 6 percent as the population increased 7 percent from 86,643 to 92,472. During the same period, the commercial sector’s usage increased by 12 percent. This is an 18-percent difference between the two sectors. Clearly, the business sector growth and usage is outpacing all others.

Ironically, the residents’ conservation efforts have resulted in water rates being raised 9 percent in 2015 to cover administrative costs and needed capital improvements. In the subsequent years, a 13-percent annual increase is forecast. Most of these rate increases will be used to finance a needed $28-million upgrade to the City’s water infrastructure. Are these improvements necessitated due to the onslaught of new developments? If so, wouldn’t it make sense for those responsible to bear a larger share of the capital expenditures? As it stands, the proposed water increase will be spread across all sectors. In effect, the residents are subsidizing those responsible for the increased costs. Some of them may not even live in the City. This is not right.

What was not approved as part of this measure was an additional $5 million to pay for an Advanced Meter Infrastructure (AMI) system. Since the commercial sector is where conservation is most needed, this decision seems shortsighted. If enacted, it would have enabled more frequent and accurate metering of water usage in buildings with multiple tenants. This is of particular importance in commercial buildings where there is often just a single meter for the entire structure. This makes it more difficult to ferret out those whose water usage exceeds the mandated 20-percent reductions from 2013 levels. This same system might have also been effective in the multi-residential sector for apartments and condos where water wasters are also more difficult to identify. An additional $5 million might have been a small price to pay for the potential water savings by those whose water use is the highest.

Santa Monica has had a law on the books since 1992 that requires all newly constructed condos and apartments to provide separate water service and metering for each unit. Although new units may have been plumbed separately, their individual meters, in some cases, were never installed. An often-cited excuse has been their inability to locate the new meters in the public right of way. The City should make every effort to remove any remaining barriers to the implementation of this ordinance. The new technologies available for individual and remote metering remove any excuse to avoid individual metering. The AMI system described above might have also provided a solution to insure that our new residents are doing their part to save water.

In the area of refuse collection, the commercial sector generates the most waste. In 2014 the sector breakdown for waste was: single-family residences, 18 percent; multi-family residences, 36 percent; and commercial, 46 percent. Another way to look at these figures is that homeowners produce 50-percent less waste than apartment dwellers and 40-percent less than most businesses. When it comes to keeping waste out of the landfills, the figures are equally revealing. The residential sector recycles 58 percent of its waste while the multi-residential recycles only 13 percent and the commercial sector 20 percent. Although these figures are still higher than the residential sector, they are still a 50-percent improvement from 2011 levels for both businesses and apartments.

The commercial sector’s improvement may have as much to do with the methods of trash collection as the increased recycling on the part of the business community. The City continues to improve its methods and expand the types of materials it can divert from landfills. The greatest improvement has been in the recycling of organic materials. Commercial waste recycling increased 60 percent in just 3 years between 2011 and 2014. The Resource Recovery and Recycling Department, managed by Kim Braun, continues to innovate and find new ways to keep city waste out of the city’s landfills and make the system more efficient. For example, new public trash containers are now “smart” and able to notify the department when they are full and have built-in compactors that can increase their capacity and extend the time between pick-ups.

In 2006, the total amount of trash generated per person per day was 7.7 pounds. This figure came down 50 percent to 3.6 pounds in 2011. Unfortunately, it has since gone back up to 4.6 pounds in 2013 due to the increase in our daily population, a better economy and commercial growth. This has put us further from our goal of 1.1 by 2030. In the future, Braun envisions Santa Monica having its own reprocessing plant to convert organic material into energy or useful products, such as fertilizers. As the sorting technology improves, she envisions a time when residents will no longer have three cans (green waste, recycling and trash) but only two: one for wet waste and one for dry materials. The methods of recycling also continue to become more sophisticated and may one day be what Jane Jacobs envisioned in her book “The Economy of Cities” — a resource to be treasured rather than buried.

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