The Mansionization of Santa Monica

Zoning Code

In the 1980s, Santa Monica’s single family zoning code was rewritten and modified to prevent the “mansionization” of small homes on small lots, from being built out to the maximum allowable height without setbacks and articulation of the facades.

The revised codes were written with the intent to restrict maximum height vertical walls being built along the side yard, for example, blocking sunlight and blue sky from the neighboring home. Side yard setbacks were widened as height increased to assure adequate separation for light and air. Homes had to be articulated, stepped back after a certain number of feet or percent of wall length, to minimize negative impacts on their neighbors’ access to air and sun.

When we consider those design criteria for single-family residences, it seems logical that it should apply to the commercial sector too. Looking at recently approved, and built, commercial mixed use projects, we find little or no “front yard” set back (otherwise known as wider sidewalks). We see no new paseos between newly-built commercial buildings, or articulated facades that allow sun and air to reach either the passageways or the occupants of the buildings.

We see instead boxes that maximize their site with some (usually repetitive) breaks along the front elevation but little concern for the side elevations that can block access to light and air. Lincoln Boulevard, especially from the freeway north, will soon be the ugly poster child of wall to wall mixed use five-seven story buildings, a testament not to good planning and design but to developer greed and the politicians who allow it.

Santa Monica is a beach community that can be likened to Central Park in New York. We are a natural resource of fresh cool air and sun for the greater region. People come to Santa Monica to seek relief in the summer from the oppressive heat of the valleys, the downtown metro areas and the east side. It is time to recognize that and step away from the notion that Santa Monica is merely a developers’ golden goose that is to be built out to the maximum. Can you imagine infilling Central Park with high-rise “walkable” neighborhoods? New Yorkers wouldn’t stand for it. Why do we?

The sooner we treat Santa Monica as our home, with quality of life and sustainability of the environment as the primary motivation for responsible growth and development, the healthier and more functional our home will become, for all of us who live here and for those we serve in the greater region, including our millions of tourists per year, crucial to our economic well-being.

We continually hear from those who propose more and more development that it is all about a shortage of affordable housing. Close to 3,000 units approved and in the pipeline has not produced affordable housing. It’s a myth, a con. The new housing units will rent very high, whatever the market will bear, which in fact will have the opposite effect, of raising rent ceilings in the adjacent neighborhoods.

“Affordable” is a buzz word that moves large scale commercial projects through the approval process with the promise of a few token so-called affordable units. Certain council members and planning commissioners seem very willing to ignore the negative impacts of these large scale projects, as long as there are a few units that are called “affordable.”

The commercial building sector needs to be similarly restricted from “mansionization,” of our downtown and boulevards, much as our single family residences are restricted, for all the same reasons: light, air, sustainability, impact on adjacencies – quality of life. We have a responsibility we’re not currently fulfilling, to protect our beachfront environment, and the relief our low rise beach town provides to the greater region. People come to enjoy our beaches, blue skies and fresh ocean air, not to visit just another dense, congested, traffic clogged, downtown metropolis with a Disney-esque promenade soon to be buried in the shadows of the tall condo/hotel structures contemplated for Ocean Ave.

Just say no to the “mansionization” of Santa Monica.

Robert Taylor AIA for SMa.r.t.


Santa Monica’s Path to Net Zero

Sustainable City

The City Council recently voted to accelerate Santa Monica’s adoption of the State’s new “Net Zero Energy” policy (NZE.) Although slated for adoption by 2020, the City will now require that Residents reduce their energy use by 15 percent starting in 2017 and be fully compliant by 2020. The Commercial sector has been held to a lesser standard despite the fact that they are the ones using the most of the City’s resources while generating more waste.

Below are five areas where the City might refocus their efforts to be more effective. Generally, it recommends shifting stricter guidelines from the residential sector to the commercial sector where there is much more to gain over a shorter period of time.


  1. Santa Monica should pass a Solar Control Ordinance that protects future solar systems prior to enacting stricter requirements for their installation.
    In 1978 California passed Assembly Bill 2321, the Solar Shade Control Act. Its intent was to make solar energy more desirable by protecting the solar rights of those who installed solar systems. Although a few Cities (Santa Cruz and West Hollywood) have adopted these standards, Santa Monica is not one of them. The City currently has no plans to enact a solar rights bill to protect future solar systems from shading. They should reconsider.
  2. The required reductions in energy usage should be GREATER and MORE URGENT for the Commercial Sectors as they are the City’s main users of these resources. Commercial projects currently use 75 percent of the City’s Electricity- 3 times the Residential sector. The Commercial sector’s usage has increased 18 percent in the last 14 years while the Residential usage increased only 10 percent. The number of large commercial projects has increased by 245 percent while the small commercial sector over the same period has shrunk by 9 percent. If the City is serious about saving energy, it should shift its focus from the residents’ smaller homes to the Large Commercial projects, where there is more to gain.
  3. Although Water Conservation is easier to enforce on homes, it is the apartments and commercial Buildings that use 3 times more water than the City’s Residences.
    Since 1992 there has been a law that requires all new multi-family projects to provide separate water service for each unit. It has never been enforced. The City has also refused to fund an AMI System (Advanced Meter Infrastructure) that would have enabled more accurate metering of water usage in buildings with multiple tenants. Both of these oversights were lost opportunities for water conservation in the commercial and multi-residential sectors.
  4. In 2014, Santa Monica’s homeowners produced 50 percent less waste than apartments and 40 percent less than most businesses. Residents also recycled more of their waste (58 percent) compared to Renters (13 percent) and Businesses (20 percent). Our trash generation has dropped 50 percent from 7.7 lbs. in 2006 to 4.6 lbs. in 2013. We are still, however, a long way from our 2030 goal of 1.1 lbs. It appears that the residents are already doing their share of recycling while the Commercial sector needs to increase their efforts. Some method of enforcement should be considered for businesses to insure their compliance.
  5. The City is about to invest 85 million dollars in a ‘state of the art’ administration building as a model for sustainable design. 
    While it is clear that the Commercial sector is where the greatest gains are possible, will the proposed project move us closer to our goal? Are there any systems or new technologies that will be employed in this building that would be cost effective for a developer of an office building or large commercial complex? It is doubtful. If a portion of these funds could be applied towards an AMI system for monitoring multi-tenant buildings or an Electrical Power plant that was powered by the City’s waste, the benefits would be much greater, tangible and immediate.

It often appears that when the City needs to boost its tax base or achieve compliance with a new State statute, the burden falls primarily on the residents’ shoulders. Should they now also have to do the “heavy lifting” for a Net Zero program that is now necessary due more to commercial development than their smaller homes? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have the ones who created the problem be asked to fix it? There is no doubt that the Net Zero Policy is an important step in the right direction. The path to get there, however, should not be focused on the residents that are already doing their part and do not have as large an impact due to their smaller energy “footprint”.

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

Money and Energy in Santa Monica

Sustainable City

For years Santa Monica has been a willing participant in a variety of urban and civic experiments. These range from widespread rent control to sustainable buildings, to the comprehensive (and controversial) LUCE masterplan for much of the city. Now the city is embarking on a new experiment: the new City Services building, to be constructed on a narrow lot behind City Hall. A 50,000 square-foot example of advanced building technology, the project intends to meet extremely tough environmental building standards. The plan is to make a building that will use solar electric panels to be self-sufficient in energy, collect and treat its own water for use and re-use, including the potential installation of a well, and composting toilets to convert waste to fertilizer. According to city staff, only 11 projects in the world can match the very challenging standards intended for this building.

The project represents a very advanced view of government projects and their purpose. Not only will the building be used to provide services to City Hall and local citizens, it will serve as an example of what can be accomplished by a city government that is driven by a particular vision of the future. It is a project colored, also, by optimism that technology will help solve our environmental problems, and by a sense that local government can set an example that will propel private industry to new heights of environmental sensitivity.

The project faces serious challenges. The building’s roof is not big enough to accommodate all the solar panels needed. The plan called for installation of additional panels on the existing City Hall building, but this ran into opposition from advocates of building preservation looking to protect the historic building. It appears to be unclear whether the well can provide the water needed. Will the health authorities allow the installation of the composting toilets included in the program? That is still uncertain.
The costs of the project have increased to new highs for municipal support buildings. The City expects the 50,000 square-foot building to cost nearly $85 million, or about $1,700 per square foot. Besides the building itself, the project includes deep changes to the way City Hall staff perform their jobs, with new methods of collaboration and teamwork, the use of large common spaces, and a highly-mobile staff using tablets and laptops working in many places throughout the building.

To be fair, not all the money will be spent on the new building. Considerable funds would be invested in modifying and upgrading the existing City Hall building. Money will be spent to improve fire safety, redesign office space in the existing building, new fire sprinklers, efficiency upgrades to the existing Heating, Ventilation and Air-Conditioning systems, new roofing that allows rainwater to be re-used, and many other items. Most of these are the result, at least in part, of the need to integrate the new building with the old, and combining them into an environmentally-efficient package.

City Hall currently rents 50,000 square feet of office space around the city, and the rents are constantly increasing. In 2013 the City spent about $2.4 million on leased office space. Moving staff from rented spaces to the new building, the thinking goes, will help reduce the cost of the project.

Are there better ways to spend the money? Perhaps a simpler, more conventional building could be built–still efficient, but without the cutting-edge experimental combinations we see in this project–thus releasing funds for other energy and water projects that could benefit the entire city and its residents.

The city’s new energy standards this coming year will help reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions. Future buildings will be much more efficient, for sure. But the bulk of the effort will fall on small projects, largely residential, such as single-family homes and small apartment and condominium buildings. Those will have some impact, but it will be limited due to their smaller scale and fewer number. While important, these new regulations will not make much of a dent in consumption by the city’s primary user- the large commercial sector. This is where the City’s efforts might be more productive.

The Public Services building is an interesting project, a fascinating experiment across different disciplines (including local government), and an exciting focus for any architect (such as this writer). But the solution to our city’s energy challenges will not come from ‘one-off’ projects, a few single-family solar homes, and some small low-rise condominiums. The solution should come from a systemic, concerted effort on a much larger scale, because it is only through economies of scale that we can begin to address our real water and energy needs city-wide. This effort must include not only the residential sector that currently shoulders much of the burden of the new regulations, but also the commercial enterprises that are the major consumers of our City’s resources.

We need a real energy and water independence master plan for the city, with an action plan that includes a timeline, cost analysis, allocation of resources and plan of execution. If this means pushing for an independent power utility and new sources of potable water, then let’s study and plan for that, and not confine much of our effort to expensive, limited-scope projects that look good and provide some improvement, but don’t solve our underlying challenges.

Daniel Jansenson, Architect, for SMa.r.t.

SM.a.r.t. A House Divided Cannot Stand

Sustainable City

Following the election, our city remains as divided as ever. Are we an urban, or a beachfront city? Who will determine our future- developers or residents? Will we continue seeing sunlit skies, trees, local merchants, and children playing in our parks? Will we walk, drive, and bicycle safely? Will we preserve what’s iconic about Santa Monica? If so, what steps are necessary to assure this future? In this article, we addressed six issues that need to be resolved for a better tomorrow.

Have we reached our limits to growth? Police and fire departments are asking for more staff and equipment. Traffic jams an everyday occurrence, brownouts more common and water conservation targets remain elusive… and it might get worse. Why? The Planning Department is currently considering over 50 projects that exceed current codes. If approved, they would bring 8,560 additional cars into downtown- enough to fill all of the city’s current structures! Our city leaders need to upgrade our infrastructure before not after any more major development is approved. To do otherwise would be folly.

Traffic is the most visible reflection of City staff’s agenda, with Council’s full complicity. With more and bigger development in the ever expanding downtown, they obviously believe in the counterintuitive notion that more development means less traffic. Two more hotels under construction, along with several others planned. And there is the proposal for a 500,000 sq. ft. multi-use building of offices, hotel, housing at 4th and Arizona. They must believe all people employed or visiting will arrive on bikes, the Expo line or helicoptered to their destination. All one has to do is cross downtown on any weekend to experience the reality of this folly.

The DNA of a city is embodied in its architecture and open space. Every city has its own character and Santa Monica needs to maintain its unique heritage and environment – its mix of human scale courtyard housing and offices alongside large commercial complexes. Gate keepers of our beachfront identity are currently allowing a tsunami of wall-to-wall buildings that don’t provide open space, good design, or many community benefits. Our “sense of place” is being smothered by soulless six and seven-story high walls of uninspired facades. Our environment is being dehumanized one building at a time – slow death by a thousand bad decisions, hundreds of buildings, by a handful of developers who see our community as a place to exploit rather than enjoy. We need a code that provides 30 percent of building envelope as open space. Quality is more important than quantity.

Santa Monica faces particular planning challenges, both short and long term. Short-term issues of Specific Plans: Downtown and Local Coastal Plans unfolding as we speak followed by Memorial Park and the Airport Plans which are collisions between the needs of residents and adjacent uses. Short term we also have the shrinking number of affordable units, gentrification of the Pico Neighborhood, traffic gridlock, increased population, lack of a downtown elementary proposed school, and countless other problems that are part of a city that has not yet decided what kind of city it wants to be.

In the medium term we have the shrinking auto industry (a large part of our economy), unsustainable growth of medical behemoths Saint Johns and Santa Monica Hospitals, Santa Monica College on steroids, evolution of Silicon Beach with its boom bust cycles, inevitable water shortages, and crushing municipal effect of the pensions of overpaid staff.

Finally there is the mother of long term challenges – global warming with its attendant sea level rise. In 100 years we will be a beach city without a beach. Deep planning is required since we have no way to stop the rise.

We need a real master plan that considers the full spectrum of urban, demographic, financial and ecological issues. To live within our means should be a guiding principal of all our planning decisions.

There has been much discussion about salaries and benefits since the Bell scandal a few years ago. The L.A. County Grand Jury was prompted to evaluate all 88 cities economic performance.

In the 2012-13 report, Santa Monica is listed as #65 for fiscal management. For example, Santa Monica had 66 employees earning, with benefits, over $200,000, Pasadena had eight, Culver City had 13.

A 2015 assessment lists Santa Monica with 105 staff earning over $300,000, compared to similar sized Berkeley, with only 21. Isn’t it time for salary/benefit caps?

Aside from measure LV, which failed this month, other proposed initiatives have been discussed. City Councilmember Kevin McKeown talked about an alternative that would be less restrictive but conform with what he sees as residents’ desires. McKeown’s proposal would only be implemented after the Downtown Community Plan is completed. This plan, in current form, includes features opposed by many in the community, including an increase in the “by right” height of many buildings without requiring development agreements, exempting them from special review by City Council. Another councilmember, Sue Himmelrich, proposed that projects exceeding zoning code standards should require approval by a supermajority vote of City Council before going to voters. All these plans are hypothetical. What is the likelihood that they will come to fruition?

Fates of cities should be decided in open town halls, not behind closed doors with greedy developers. What’s happening around our city is painful to see and experience. Anxiety over tax revenues is not worth architectural and environmental mediocrity or a city choked with cars. Why are we letting a handful of developers determine our fate and ruin our city? Developer profits should not be the basis for our City’s decision-making or design. To do so is to sacrifice our quality of life on the altar of greed.

To remain the friendly beachfront community we love the operative word should be “liveablity,” not “profit.” We’re capable of charting our own future, but only if we stand together and hold leaders accountable to a standard that nurtures rather than destroys our City’s soul!

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