SM.a.r.t: The Wall (not music to our eyes)

The Fairmont Miramar Hotel has released its revised design concept, and, not unexpectedly, the local resident responses, per several local Facebook pages, has been one of great concern and rejection, eliciting what appears to be a couple hundred comments. The project is massive, and creates a visual barrier, a wall, along 2nd Street, effectively separating itself from the adjacent neighborhood rather than transitioning in a scaled manner. In doing that it has the feel of saying to the residents, stop, the ocean views and fresh breezes are for our guests and wealthy condo owners, not for you. You get shadows and the wall.

What does our City’s Land Use Circulation Element (LUCE) say about this? Well, it states a primary goal is to:

“Maintain The Character Of Santa Monica While Enhancing The Lifestyle Of All Who Live Here.”

A rendering of the new Fairmont Miramar Hotel and Condos.

This structure is so out of scale with the “character” of our beach community as to leave one hard pressed to believe that our Planning Commission, Architectural Review Board (ARB), and ultimately our City Council, would give serious consideration to its approval. It remains to be seen what their reaction will be as it comes before them in the days ahead. Unfortunately their track record of late, for approval of inappropriate and/or over scaled projects, is not encouraging. Witness the Hines project, the Gehry Hotel and the Santa Monica College “daycare” compound on our Civic Center land, which is likely to serve precious few residents, if any. Residents were forced to petition for a referendum to stop the massive Hines development as their protestations fell on the deaf ears of City Council. This project, if approved as presented, may not be subject to referendum as the City has modified its approval process since losing Hines.

The Miramar Condo project team will argue that it is in conformance with the new Downtown Community Plan (DCP) guidelines for height and density as one of three “large” (think “spot zoned”) sites, but by all outward appearances it raises serious questions. Floor Area Ratio (FAR) calculations are allowed to exclude a significant number of square feet by definition, e.g. all stairs, elevators, ramps, mechanical and other peripheral areas…so it is conforming, but does not describe the actual FAR. While the project lists a 2.61 FAR, in reality it would be larger. Per resident responses, height is an issue for most. The DCP allows 130ft (plus another 16ft for mechanical equipment covering 20 percent of the roof, for a real height of 146ft). The site is in the Ocean Transition (OT) zone and if it were not treated with an “overlay” it would have a maximum 50 ft height limit, and would break up the 900 ft length with required wide, open, ground to sky, separations. It is a very big building for our beachfront town.

So what does the LUCE have to say about scale and heights?

“It is a conservation plan that provides for an overall reduction in building height.”

Hmmmm. Maybe there is some confusion about how to reduce heights, but I think it generally comes from lowering the height rather than raising it. And if this project receives approval, along with the Gehry Hotel anchoring the mid-point of our Ocean Avenue, we will be hearing most assuredly from other developers that they too want their piece of the sky. We see noted in the City crafted DCP that “the Clock Tower is 196 ft”, and the 300ft tall 100 Wilshire building is highlighted, etc., seemingly showing precedents for developers to use to justify asking for maximum heights. The Miramar Condos/commercial building starts along Wilshire and is 600ft long along 2nd Street and then, without a break, another 300 ft along California Avenue, replacing the existing classic one story bungalows currently there. In essence a 900’+ building on its side.

“The LUCE Framework introduces the requirement that new development must contribute to, not detract from, the community. Each future project must exhibit extraordinary community benefits as well as compatibility in scale, setting and transitions to residential neighborhoods.”

The most common comments about the proposed Miramar are that it belongs in “Miami Beach”, that it is typical of “corporate” and high end tourist resort areas, that it is “way too big”, “out of scale”, will be a “traffic disaster”, and brings nothing to our residents quality of life. One concession or “benefit” noted is that the design opens up and exposes the landmarked Moreton Bay Fig Tree. As desirable as that may be one has to question the value of that as justification for a project so out of scale to our community. What are the other “extraordinary community benefits” to the residents if the Miramar Condos are allowed to be built? There are some residential units to be built off-site, and some are said to be “affordable”, that somewhat dubious So Called Affordable Housing (SCAH). But once again a jobs/ housing imbalance is created as the number of units that a hotel worker can afford is likely to not even be close to the number of employees a massive project like this will generate. So, “Einstein’s” definition proves itself true (though he never really said it!): “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity”.

This project is designed for high-end condo buyers and the tourist trade, and provides virtually nothing to enhance the lifestyle or life experience of the existing residents. Developers can build for that demographic if built to the allowed standards of the zoning codes, but if they receive bonuses in the form of increased heights and density it should benefit the residents. The DCP was shaped to give away this site, the Gehry site, and the 4th/5th and Arizona site, to developers, not to enhance the residents lifestyle, or to reduce heights, or to be scaled as the LUCE states, to “reflect the identity, values and vision of this singular beach community”. This project does not do that.

Bob Taylor, AIA for SMa.r.t.

Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow. Sam Tolkin Architect; Robert H. Taylor AIA; Ron Goldman FAIA; Thane Roberts AIA; Dan Jansenson Architect, Building & Safety Life-Fire Commissioner; Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Planning Commissioner; Phil Brock, Arts Commissioner