Housing Über Alles

Downtown Community Plan

The current Downtown Community Plan under consideration by the Planning Commission is a good start but could get better. It is single mindedly pro housing expecting to add about 2500 units (approximately 4000 new residents) in the next 13 years to 2030. In addition it reduces certain (not all) parking requirements to hopefully reduce traffic and create less reliance on the car as the primary transportation mode. Furthermore it provides major incentives to preserve many of the historical buildings which might otherwise be subject to demolition in the future. That said, it is not yet a great plan which was one of the City Manager’s Rick Cole’s stated objectives and what Santa Monicans expect of their downtown after the extended review and approval process.

When that long approval process started, the downtown area was supposed to absorb the half of the City’s 5000 new unit housing needs until 2030. Housing was supposed to be maximized through a tier system whereby developers could get extra height and density if they paid additional fees and added more affordable units than was required for simply conforming projects. But suddenly the rules of the “housing game” changed in three significant ways:

  1. In 2017 the State mandated that people could, by right, add an ADU (Accessory Dwelling Unit) to any lot with a single-family residence. These units could be up to 1,200 square feet, or big enough for a 3-bedroom apartment, significantly larger than the typical apartment currently being built downtown. This essentially rezoned the entire city to a 2-unit baseline eliminating the single-family zone as largest area in the city.

In 2016, Santa Monica had about 9,720 single family residences. It would not be surprising if 10 percent of those single family homes over the next 13 years took advantage of this new State law since no additional parking for the second unit was required if you are within 1/2 mile of public transit, which in Santa Monica’s case is the entire city. Faster, cheaper to build and rent, and more desirable than a typical downtown apartment, these so called ADU’s will propagate much faster than large multistory apartment projects. They provide many social benefits such as economically serving current students, returning students, Air BnB opportunities, live in maids, retiring family members, etc etc. It would not be surprising if their propagation was even faster, but about 972 units, or about 1/3 of our 13 year housing plan, could be met by the new ADUs.

  1. There has been a feeding frenzy of apartment approvals with about 850 new units being approved over the last two years. So only two years into the Downtown Plans’ life, we have already approved a third of our target housing. Although just approved, they still need to be built, but with the heroic effort needed to get those approvals, the developers are very likely to follow through to construction.
  2. Last November the generous citizens of Santa Monica imposed a ¼ percent sales tax increase which, combined with the affordable housing fees charged to new projects and possibly the late Redevelopment Agency’s loan repayments, will generate somewhere on the order of $16 million per year. This translates to about 32 units a year or 416 units till 2030. While the amount of money that is available fluctuates depending on the funding source, approximately half of the funds will be generated by the sales tax which is relatively stable each year and will continue to increase with inflation. All the funds thus earmarked for affordable housing provide fully affordable units as opposed to the relatively small number of affordable units that are required by the City’s affordable housing regulations in a typical market rate project. Note all these affordable units can be downtown or anywhere land becomes available.

With these three game changers, we will have over the next 13 years, realistically, about 2236 units in the pipeline. This already represents about 90 percent of the 2,500 units that were supposed to be produced downtown. In short, we are very close to meeting our regional housing goals and can look at our downtown differently than we originally did years ago when the Downtown Plan process started. Some may argue that the need for more housing is so great that even if we are already close to our regional goals, we should still produce as much as we can. The problem with this is that we cannot build our way to affordability. The end result would be to simply fill the downtown with more expensive units that would crush our already impacted downtown, endangering our sustainability goals and not really increasing the affordability for a full range of residents. In short the problem we face is not the number of units produced, but how many of them we can make truly affordable. Now any prediction spanning 13 years is subject to substantial volatility, so we can always debate the accuracy of any specific number, however the important thing is that their order of magnitude has significantly changed before the Plan is adopted so we have time to adjust it accordingly.

The path to affordability can be spread out over the whole city with ADUs and the sales tax increase rather than just piled on to the downtown. This means the Downtown Plan can be freed from the shackles of just optimizing for housing numbers. Other important goals can now be considered. For example we could easily reduce the allowed building heights by 10’ to create much more sustainable and resilient buildings, and more spacious appearing, safe and gracious streets. We could thus keep and enhance our downtown’s uniqueness while still meeting all our important housing goals. With such small shifts, we could make the Downtown Plan a truly great plan and not just a machine for housing production.

by SM.a.r.t. Santa Monica architects for a responsible tomorrow. Robert H. Taylor AIA, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA planning Commissioner , Ron Goldman FAIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Thane Roberts AIA, Architect, Samuel Tolkin AIA, Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission.

Why Indeed!

Downtown Community Plan

“Santa Monica is already so built out, an enormous tourist center, a huge regional office hub, with significant multi-family housing, home to a 30,000-student college, two major, growing hospitals, with our streets and sidewalks overtaxed, and more.

Yet, the Downtown Community Plan (DCP) never adequately answers “why” so much more rapid development – more than 3 million sq. ft., an excessive amount – much of it luxury hotels and very expensive rentals, and more office space, is good for residents or the City. We are not a big city and our downtown is relatively small. Wouldn’t more moderate growth be better?”

The above quote is from the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) in referencing their analysis of the Downtown Community Plan (DCP).

As pointed out, the “why” is what is missing in the DCP. The DCP is the presumed design “solution” for our beach town’s Central Business District (CBD) and should reflect the results of an analytic and creative design process of the planning problems that exist and need to be resolved. The “design” should result in a planning solution that will not further exacerbate the “problems” it was ostensibly designed to solve. But if the resulting design is based more on the desire and want of creating a city ‘image’, rather than solving specific problems, then we are simply trying to put hipster clothes on an out of shape body.

We have written before about what Prof. Horst Rittle described as “Wicked Problems,” to describe the nature of problems that are in a constant state of flux with many moving parts and stakeholders. The problem of planning a city is not a simple task to analyze and define, or to find a best solution. Rittle taught that there is a need to “define the solution space” by identifying and analyzing as many missing or needed elements (parameters) as possible. As more of the issues and problems are clearly defined the smaller the “solution space” becomes, and the number of possible solutions become fewer and more focused.

We’re not suggesting that the planners in preparing the DCP haven’t considered many of the issues confronting our town, but we are suggesting that it appears there are areas that may not have borne as much weight as we think they deserve. An example is the several sites downtown, now referred to as “established” opportunity sites. “Established” by who, and when? There is no such description in the Land Use Circulation Element (LUCE), which is the guiding document. The downtown, along with Bergamot and Memorial Park are very large areas that were left out of the multi-year LUCE effort that produced what some would call the City’s incomplete master plan. The LUCE not only does not describe “opportunity” sites, it does not give those, or other, locations special rights to exceed the new zoning code that was prepared, mostly following the guidelines of the LUCE.

One site that continues to live in the planning process is the city owned land at 4th/5th and Arizona. The council continues to allow the developers to modify their proposals thru a request for a Development Agreement (DA). So how is a 10- to 12-story, 500,000 sq. ft., mixed-use commercial structure, with a nominal 48 residential units, a solution to the well-known jobs/housing imbalance that exists in Santa Monica? That project, as presented, could produce upwards of 2,000 workers on site, yet provides only 48 apartments. It is allowing this type of project that makes one seriously question the analysis that led to the DCP as a solution to our needs. And one should remember Santa Monica City Councilmember Davis’ statement, as quoted in the local press following a candidate’s forum, that “we are a built out city.” The City’s own planning consultant echoed that same “you are a built out city” statement, yet the council has voted 7 to 0 to continue going forward with developer negotiations on this excessively large project, and they continue to champion excessive development. Why?

By contrast, the DCP is bounded by the east side of Ocean Avenue to Lincoln Boulevard, and from the freeway to Wilshire Boulevard, and it should be noted that within those limits there is no public open space, save the commercial/tourist oriented Third Street Promenade. Does it not seem that analysis of open space needs, considering that the DCP is suggesting growth of some 4,000 residents, might suggest 4th/5th and Arizona would better serve the neglected residents as a public plaza/park, rather than the proposed 10- to 12-story 500,000 sq. ft. commercial structure. A plaza, with small peripheral services providing cultural and food services, maybe a downtown post office, the beloved ice skating rink, fountains, and small green areas. In general, providing residents with a downtown central plaza like just about every other small city and town in the world.

It is simply unclear how the DCP, as currently proposed, is an adequate representation of a solution based on an analytically defined set of problems that needed a solution. It appears to be a proposal guided more by a set of specified wants and desires (by whom?…doesn’t seem to be the residents), and that in itself is a wicked problem.

Bob Taylor AIA for SMa.r.t.(Santa Monica Architects For A Responsible Tomorrow)

Sam Tolkin Architect; Dan Jansenson Architect; Ron Goldman FAIA; Thane Roberts AIA; Robert H. Taylor AIA; Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Planning Commission; Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission

SMart and Final

City Character, Common Sense, Downtown Community Plan, Learning from Mistakes

Santa Monica is at a crossroads. Will speculators or residents determine our city’s future? Since developers tend to think short term, focusing on profitability, it is important that residents, with their emphasis on the city’s livability, also weigh in to balance the discussion. At present, it appears that our City leaders have chosen to put the interests of those that would exploit our resources above those in whose interest it is to preserve them. This strategy is both short sighted and unsustainable in the long run.

Our downtown is currently “ground zero” – where the battle for our city’s soul is playing out. Although the new downtown plan will reduce height somewhat from the current allowable levels, more densification and height of the downtown is still likely. If the new regulations are enacted as proposed, property values are likely to go up and many of our historic downtown buildings would likely come down.

Since our city is only 8.4 square miles, and our downtown a small fraction of that (5 percent), it will not take long before we run out of space for new growth. Our dependence on new construction to generate income is both unsustainable and short sighted. Our land area is limited and the inevitable negative impacts on the city could be irreversible. Our main source of income, tourism, is bound to suffer if our city were to become overbuilt. Gone will be our “beach town charm” as the city falls into shadow and gridlock.

Another reason to reconsider a more sustainable approach is that retail and office space, currently in demand, may not be so in the future. Retail sales have diminished markedly with the advent of on-line shopping. Many “brick and mortar” establishments are going out of business, downsizing or shifting their marketing and sales to the Internet. The hospitality industry might also decline as tourists choose “home shares” over hotel suites. It may not be long before office rentals also start to fall off as well if more employees elect to work from home and forgo their daily commute to the office. The City may be “betting on the wrong horse” as business models change. In the not so distant future, our City’s choice to promote development at the expense of tourism may backfire.

While tourism is sure to continue, it is likely to diminish if our “beach town” character is lost and our city is mired in traffic. Perhaps now is the time to stop and ask ourselves what our current needs are, and in what kind of city do we want to reside in the future? Should we build on our past success as a small community or trade our beach town ambiance and scale for an urban dystopia – a “West Coast Miami Beach”?

So, what are the alternatives? What type of development might enhance rather than degrade our city? A good place to start would be maintaining our low-rise scale and beach town ambiance – the primary reasons for our current success. Secondly, we might consider focusing on new cCultural venues that promote the Arts and Entertainment to broaden our appeal, . sSince the alternative, relying on outdated commercial development, is more likely to diminish it. Lastly, we should follow the prescriptions in the 2010 Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) that recommended that high-rise development occur at our eastern border with Los Angeles, not adjacent our cCity’s primary assets – our beaches, downtown and The Promenade.

Our City currently owns several large parcels that can be developed as world-class venues for the arts, exhibitions, entertainment etc. For example, the Civic Center remains an ideal venue for a large cultural center. If the current structure is no longer viable, we could preserve the historic entry but replace the antiquated building with a large, tented amphitheater. This would be a performance venue similar to that in Aspen for their annual Music Festival. Daytime uses do not require artificial lighting or air conditioning, as does our current venue. Bergamot Station must become a center for the visual arts, with galleries, a museum and an open-air performance space. The airport site could become a college campus in addition to a world-class park. Perhaps we should be incentivizing the construction of more sustainable and adaptable uses rather than energy consuming, outdated ones.

We need an inspired vision for Santa Monica’s future, one that builds on our past success rather than diminishing it. We need to find the proper balance between preservation and innovation, such that each compliments the other. This is the surest path to enhance the unique qualities that define our cCity in the context of a rapidly changing world. If successful, we will assure our financial viability and our livability for many years to come.

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

Robert H. Taylor AIA, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Thane Roberts AIA, Architect, Samuel Tolkin AIA, Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission.