A New Zoning Code

Last week’s article discussed Urban & Architectural Design ( 1/16/16) and this week’s article will discuss Process, Zoning & Conclusions as related to Urban & Architectural Design.

“The fates of cities are decided in the town hall.” Le Corbusier

As populations increase in urban areas, densification is inevitable. The question then becomes- how much and where? How can this expansion take place without degrading quality of life for current and future residents? At present, Santa Monica’s zoning would allow doubling of existing building areas in downtown and tripling existing buildings areas along our eight boulevards. This would be possible since over 80% of existing parcels along the boulevards are either vacant, or one or two stories. In the downtown area, 50% of parcels are similarly underbuilt. Taken together, 15% of our city is available for future development- providing over 20 million additional square feet – nearly twice the current downtown building area. You would think that it would be sufficient.

Is our City Planning Department aware of this? Their actions would imply not. If they were, we would expect them not to continue approving 5, 6 and 7-story block buildings that degrade both our City’s ability to function and its beachside allure. Negative impacts from increased density are overburdening our City’s fragile infrastructure, creating traffic gridlock and long shadows darkening our City’s streets and open spaces. Many residents are saying “enough”!

It has become the new “normal” that most new commercial and multi-family projects are not built within City’s zoning codes or limits. The public process has become coopted as loopholes are found and exploited. In this scenario, the Planning Department and investors negotiate “Development Agreements” behind closed doors allowing projects to be built that far exceed limits set in the Building and Zoning Codes. The results are huge profits for developers and negative impacts for residents.

This is the reason that many residents feel that our city is “for sale”. Inclusion of a few affordable units in these projects are crumbs compared to developer’s profits. Still they are enough to seduce City Planners, and some community organizations, to believe that we are getting a good deal. It’s a devil’s bargain. For example, in place of the “affordable” Village Trailer Park nestled under a grove of trees, the City approved the Millennium East Village project in exchange for $2.4 million in “community benefits”. In exchange for these benefits, the developer was allowed to double the height and density of the project. When the City asked for more, the developer claimed he would not make a profit. The City backed down. Shortly thereafter, the same developer sold his approved agreement for 68 million dollars to a second developer without ever breaking ground. The first developer made a huge profit. Residents will pay the price for years to come with increased traffic on an important cross town link as well as an increased tax burden and a project that is out of scale with a neighborhood consisting of 1 and 2 story buildings. This is a prime example of what happens when City’s codes are modified behind closed doors by staff- the City as well as residents, come out on the short end of the deal.

If codes are to be interpreted, it should not be on a case-by-case basis but once only and for everyone. We had this opportunity with the adoption of the LUCE- a planning document intended to set a new vision for Santa Monica’s future. Five years later, a revised zoning code was finally approved. Unfortunately, instead of completely rewriting the entire Code, as occurred in Los Angeles, Santa Monica chose to add provisions to a code that was already burdened with 30 years of revisions? This approach compromised the LUCE recommendations due to the complexity and contradictions that inevitably occur with such an approach.

Instead of simplifying the existing, complicated 500-page document, Santa Monica’s new zoning code is even longer, more complex and more difficult to decipher. Closing “loopholes” will become more difficult and exploiting them more common. In Los Angeles with a population of nearly 4 million residents and a land area of 470 sq. mi., an 800-page Building Code was more than cut in half. But in Santa Monica with a population of 92,000+ residents and a land area less than 9 square miles, the old 500-page code was made even larger. This was great news for developers but less so for residents and small business. Once again, the City’s Zoning and Building Codes favor those with funds to interpret Codes to their advantage. Unfortunately, most do not have means to retain such services nor the time to do so.

The LUCE and its Environmental Impact Report (EIR), adopted in 2010, didn’t anticipate the amount of growth that has occurred in recent years, or the traffic and related infrastructure improvements that would be required on account of it. Although LUCE did have a clearly stated goal of “overall height reduction,” it was never enacted. Most residents would like to see a simple 2-3-4 story (or 30-40-50 foot) height limit. Lower height limits would apply to our residential neighborhoods and higher ones to the boulevards and downtown. These limits would keep our community from exceeding its limits to growth while still providing more than ample opportunity for responsible development. We have many attractive three and four-story buildings in our downtown and on our boulevards, some historic, that would be candidates for adaptive reuse. If we limit heights across our city to three and four stories, land prices and construction costs would remain lower and the temptation to demolish becomes less tempting. This would retain the look of our beach town, make housing more affordable and the preservation of our natural environment more likely.

If we fail to act, outside developers will continue to push for six and seven-story buildings creating more mistrust, referendums and initiatives. While mixed-use development is a positive feature of the revised code, it does not go far enough with specific form-based design guidelines. Our future will depend on our ability to correct this oversight and amend or adopt a better code – one that is simple and concise. It may be the only choice if we are to preserve our City’s character.

Santa Monica residents accept the inevitability of change and welcome it. We also believe, however, that development can and must be done responsibly to preserve our unique beachfront community. If done properly, development can enhance our environment to improve the City’s draw for tourists and residents alike. If done improperly, it could destroy both the reason to live here as well as the desire to visit. In this scenario everyone loses. In this need for instant gratification, we need to transfer our priorities from “consumerism” to “community,” from quantity to quality. Plenty of opportunities still exist in the City for growth that is both economically viable and sustainable. We need to strike this balance to remain a City that can be business friendly while preserving our unique character, beautiful oceanfront and small beach town atmosphere. We would do well to appreciate more the sounds of the birds and the beauty of blue skies than the ringing of the cash register and the dark shadows that are consuming our community. To do so, will ultimately be in everyone’s best interest.

Ron Goldman and Thane Roberts for SMa.r.t.


Why Santa Monica Needs Responsible Urban Design, Architecture

Urban Design & Architecture

This is the first of two columns on urban planning and architectural design, both subjects that have not been addressed adequately in practice and our current codes. Urban and architectural design is an important aspect of both our visual and emotional environment.

Cities help us to be more connected and involved, but we’ve yet to decide what the vision for our City is. Are we a metropolis or a beach city? Peggy Clifford asks: “Is Santa Monica having an identity crisis — is it a great place to visit or a great place to live? Is its primary reason for being love or money?”

We have a heritage to protect, a wonderful combination of a natural beachfront environment and the human scale development like our courtyard housing. This spacious, sunny quality of life is one of many factors that make our City iconic.

But over-development is consuming our city and its resources. Speculation is taking precedence over all other residents’ concerns. Santa Monica has become a developer’s goldmine due to the council’s myopic focus on affordable housing at the expense of other considerations. At times it appears that they will approve virtually anything for a few units of affordable housing, leaving residents with the impression that our city is for sale.

This growth is a sure path to future nightmares. Increases in density, height and infrastructure — from water to schools — isn’t solving problems, but rather creating more of them. The LUCE was created to protect our unique beach town; unbridled growth will accelerate its demise.

It wasn’t long ago that developers lived in the same communities where they built their projects. They came to understand that good design was good economics. Today’s corporate economy does not care about wellness, quality of life, or open space and blue sky. Their interests have narrowed to maximizing rental area and their profits.

As this tug-o-war between residents and corporations unfolds, how do we find common ground where all parties can prosper? This will only happen when we have a carefully conceived and amended code that sets area limits and criteria for design and open space.

Urban Design

Urban design is not about iconic buildings, but about buildings that work well both individually and together. The LUCE calls for “placemaking,” using design standards and guidelines to shape projects that connect people, by providing gathering spaces with landscaped connections. Urban design is about respecting historic streets and landmarks – areas that give a community a sense of place. Successful buildings and streets are those that have good design coupled with human scale and greenery. The ethos of a city is embodied in its architecture and open space. Great design doesn’t require excessive height. Is Godzilla more beautiful than the rest of the tribe? It is the collective beauty of a City that makes it iconic.

We can’t impose our will on nature, but must learn to live with nature with a commitment to the preservation of our natural environment — our beach, palisades, weather, blue skies and sunlight. This same attention must be applied to our infrastructure — our schools, libraries, and cultural venues. The city should be primarily for residents, both present and future. While tourism and business development are important, they should never be the driving forces of any City’s design or raison d’etre.

Open space on every street brings a City to life. But our streets are becoming dark corridors of uninspired architecture and gridlocked traffic. Streets are being filled with tall buildings and tiny apartments looking into small interior courtyards. Quoting Thane Roberts, “When you pack 100 oranges into a 50 orange crate — everyone gets bruised.”

The good news is we can still have significant room for growth on our boulevards without turning “Silicon Beach” into Miami Beach. There is an extensive supply of one and two story buildings and undeveloped lots on our boulevards and in our downtown. These can be retrofitted or redeveloped for workforce housing and ground floor retail to greatly activate our streets. In the future, this is one of many areas where future housing for young workers, professionals and families who can’t afford detached housing might be built.

If one were to drive Jefferson Boulevard east of Lincoln you would see mile after mile of massive apartment blocks. Today, the same can be seen on a short drive down 5th Street in our downtown. In a couple of years, you will see the same thing in the proposed Millennium East Village — a massive prison of 356 apartments that’s replacing 99 low-income seniors once living under a beautiful grove of trees.

Savannah, Charleston, and Asheville are communities that experienced substantial growth in the past two decades but held onto their iconic history and sense of place. Their downtowns are similar in area to Santa Monica and are flourishing with creative open space, pedestrian activity and adaptive re-use. But you needn’t travel that far to find successful urban design. If you were to take the freeway to Pasadena you would discover passageways and arcades filled with people and small shops. Rather than “iconic hi-rises,” you will see restaurants opening to street-side patios, 5- to 10-foot passageways with café seating or florist shops, or 20-feet-wide skylit shopping arcades in projects that covers multiple lots. If blades of grass or roots of trees can grow in the narrow spaces between boulders, then landscape can flourish alongside our streets, buildings and cars.

Architectural Design

Architectural design is a dialogue between the building, its environment, and its user. It is at its simplest a series of spaces — horizontal or vertical, static or dynamic, rectangular or curved. Surprisingly, the beauty of architecture often lies in the voids rather than the solid forms that enclose them. A significant part of the design process is the way a building interacts in a progression or layering of these spaces and solids. It is not about overwhelming you, but rather conceiving a building and its environment as one, about indoor and outdoor spaces being connected, sometimes seamlessly and at other times ways that surprise or delight .

Architectural design should be much more than the prevailing building mass with its abundance of jutting balconies — a “facadomy” translated to the language of a computer punchcard. The design of apartment buildings today as fortresses with their hidden interior space is alienating and demoralizing. Why does the city approve massive, banal buildings? L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez suggests that when this happens, “both developer and architect should be arrested for indecency.” We may have evolved in nature, but our contemporary habitat has largely become an indoor environment. We spend day and night in dark corridors, windowless offices, at a desk facing a computer in artificial light. Where is the greenery and open space from which we evolved?

There is ample opportunity within the zoning envelope to get away from this robotic design to create environments that are win-win for developers and residents. But to date, the zoning code has resulted in ill-designed buildings that, with their height and density, have lead to the “canyonization” of our cities.

Our history of courtyard housing could be applied to our downtown buildings with sideyard setbacks above 1st or 2nd floors providing added light and air. The inclusion of mid-block passageways would give buildings added identity as opposed to their current massing that is often cheek and jowl.

Where are apartments with corner windows allowing you to feel part of the environment rather than looking through a window at the environment? Why are there long dark corridors without windows? Why aren’t there courtyards for recreation and relaxation, where you can talk to neighbors, sun yourself, or just enjoy a quiet afternoon.

We need to bring the outside in with building area reduced by 30 percent on the upper levels of 3- and 4-story buildings — providing terraces for community gardens. At street level, alleyways should be made more pedestrian friendly, rear elevations should create more visual interest. Finally, all new buildings need to comply with the new California guidelines to avoid the casting of shadows on their neighbor’s gardens and/or preventing their rooftop solar collection.

Next week we will address process and zoning and what conclusions we can draw as it relates to urban and architectural design. Thanks for listening.

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


Wicked Problems and Profit-making

Our last two SMa.r.t. articles focused on the advantages of low rise, 2 to 4 story, buildings and how our typical low-rise beach town environment is more sustainable, and has less negative impact on our quality of life, than taller buildings. In 2010, Santa Monica adopted a multi-year document referred to as the LUCE (the Land Use and Circulation Element of the City ‘s required General Plan). After a five year effort, that document resulted in the recently adopted revised Zoning Code that stipulates land use and development standards, such as height, lot coverage, density and parking requirements.

One should view these documents as the design solution for our beach town. They should reflect the results of an analytical and creative design process of the planning ‘problems’, that existed, and needed to be solved. And the process should result in a Zoning Code re-design that will not further exacerbate the ‘problems’ it was designed to solve.

Prof. Horst Rittel, taught design problem solving at U.C. Berkeley’s School of Architecture for many years. He coined the term ‘wicked problems’ to describe the nature of problems that are in a constant state of flux with many moving parts and stakeholders. Not a simple task to define the planning problems of a city, or find the solution. Rittel taught the need to “define the solution space” by identifying as many missing or needed elements (parameters) as possible. The more identified parameters, the smaller the “solution space” becomes, and the number of possible solutions become fewer and more focused.

Hpowever, the re-designed zoning code provides significant increases in heights and density along the boulevards, with the likely result being the significant increase in the allowable square feet of commercial and residential development. The old zoning code already allowed for significant increases in additional commercial and residential development, and with lower heights than the new code? So where is the analysis that defined a need for more height and density (F.A.R., Floor Area Ratio) allowing much more sq.ft. than the old code already allowed? An example being the change from the C4 zone to GC, which doubled the maximum allowable size by increasing the F.A.R. and eliminating the “lot consolidation” F.A.R. step down requirement. Why is it not possible to find data that supports that finding? We can see buildings that reach enormous heights in cities all over the world, and we know that it is physically possible to do that in our beach town as well, but the fact that we can build taller and more dense doesn’t mean we should. Without analysis showing a need to do so is not problem solving. It creates more problems than it solves, it merely shows that excesses can be the result.

Our town has more residents per square mile (residential density) than any city on the west side, or any beach town along the California coast, so why are we increasing density? Add that we are a tourist destination un like such small beach communities as Hermosa Beach. Our daytime influx of workers and tourism causes our daily population to more than double. We have already built far more residential units than are recommended by SCAG (Southern California Association of Governments). Where is the Planning Department’s analysis that shows that we have a “problem”, a need, requiring an increase in our residential population?

Over the last 35 years, many millions of sq. ft. of commercial office space has been built, resulting in the daily influx of thousands of workers. Where is the analysis that shows a problem/need exists, and the solution is to further increase commercial/office development? Our resident population is about 92,000, but our beautiful beaches and tourist attractions, such as the pier and the Promenade, along with the commercial workforce, swells our daily population to more than 200,000+, doubling or tripling our already dense town. Where is the analysis that indicates it just isn’t enough and we must add more? SMa.r.t.’s previous articles have shown the value and sustainability of low-rise buildings and, as our land is already built out, increased density can only occur by building taller, contrary to the positive environmental impacts of maintaining Santa Monica as a low-rise town.

There are voices that argue we need more housing due to the jobs/housing imbalance created over the last 35 years that focused primarily on office development. It is many of these same voices that recommend and support such projects as the 450,000 sq.ft., twelve-story tall, office/hotel/retail project at 4th/5th and Arizona. While they argue in support that the project will include 48 units of “affordable” housing, it is never mentioned that a conservative estimate of the number of workers to be added to that site would exceed 2000. Who is doing the math that shows such projects are a good way to solve the jobs/housing imbalance, and where is the data, or common sense, that would support such a notion?

The design process requires defining a “problem”, i.e., a “need”, and then, as creatively as one’s talent and budget allow, solving the problem. It is an age-old process, and we have often heard the expression “need is the mother of invention”. So where is the analysis that defined the need to increase the density of our beach town? It seems clear that increased density is the “problem” and is an imaginary need dreamed up by those whose economic interests would be served, with the outcome being increased traffic congestion, pollution, demand on police, fire, water, power, sewer, street maintenance, emergency services, etc., diminishing the livability of the City and burdening its residents with loss of quality of life and higher costs of city maintenance.

The increased development allowed by the new zoning code is a little bit like chopping down the rain forest by chipping away at the low rise openness and blue sky beach town ambiance that Santa Monica provides its residents, and those of the greater region that come here for relief from heat and dense urban life. Building taller and denser, killing sunlight and the fresh ocean breezes that currently define our town, would not be so different from the idea of living in the Amazon and chopping down the rain forest, destroying the “lungs” of the entire region.

What is the reason for this self-inflicted wound? If it’s not just one size fits all textbook planning, then it’s likely the one design criteria not yet mentioned: financial gain/profit for developers. Are those the parameters that were used to define the solution for a city design that seems to address no other needs for height and density other than greed? It seems harsh to make that assumption, but designing a zoning code is a “wicked problem” requiring careful analysis of need, not just wants, for a successful and creative design solution. It is likely that the residents, many of whom are not satisfied with the direction the new zoning code is taking development, will raise their voices in opposition. Do we need to go down that road again?

Bob Taylor, AIA for SMa.r.t.