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.