So Sad

This is an article about the decline of a city locked into a poorly conceived code, about a city controlled by developers and the money they bring to the table. It is also about one of the storied beachfront neighborhoods in Santa Monica and a project reflective of our permissive zoning code. The homeowners in this community of 100-year-old, one and two-story cottages asked our group for advice to maintain the character and scale on Vicente Terrace at the southern edge of their neighborhood. In the face of a proposed large four and five-story project at Pico Boulevard and Ocean Avenue. Our subsequent “pro-bono” suggestions came with the City’s LUCE (Land Use & Circulation Element) in mind. This article discusses the neighbors’ appeal and my takeaway from a four hour hearing on a project that is an unfortunate reflection of our city’s larger issues.

Six years ago, the City reworked its codes under strong influence of the development community to fashion a three-tiered zoning code:

Tier 1 – by right with maximum 35 feet height limit

Tier 2 – allowed an additional story for supposedly affordable units in exchange for appropriate payment.

Tier 3 – allows still higher and denser development in exchange for a ransom amount identified as “public benefits.”

Tiers 2 and 3 income helps support staff salaries and growing underfunded pensions along with a litany of overpriced public projects ($2.3 million public restroom, $500,000 mural in an interior City Hall stairwell, a hugely overpriced City Hall expansion, $20 million contesting district voting approval, countless dollars for public relations contracts, etc., etc).

The hearing proceeded for this 83 unit apartment project over a 3 level, 277 car subterranean garage. The neighborhood did not object to 83 units but had real concern with the 50 foot height of the buildings facing their cottages – building facades over fifteen times the size of their modest homes only 50 ft away. And justifiably so, as the Shutters Hotel being developed 30 years earlier somehow influenced the city to transfer 20 feet of the public street width for their new 7 story project with only 5 feet of sideyard required. And 30 years later, is the city again betraying this community?

All the neighbors wanted was a less massive project facing their 100-year-old neighborhood. There appeared to be an easy, realistic middle ground with no loss of apartment units or square footage, just a reworking of the 4 buildings surrounding a center courtyard – one that more closely adhered to the LUCE in establishing a scale and character significantly more compatible.

Neighbors wanted the large building facade facing their homes reduced from 4 & 5 stories to 3 stories and from 1 large building facade to 2 smaller ones . A workable alternative was offered by myself and the neighbors, which would go a long way toward saving the beauty and grace of their neighborhood.

The developer’s architect suggested this alternative design was not feasible – although it absolutely is – and that his rendering of the building was computer generated and not out of scale. The width of the street appears to be 50-80 percent out of scale in contrast to the building’s height and the people shown on the sidewalk. The effect was misleading, minimizing the scale of the project relative to cottages 50 feet away. Could that have been the computer’s fault?

The alternative solution proposed is a win, win, win for city, developers, and the residents – but was not to be. Instead of honoring the residents’ wishes, Council chose to focus instead on rental details. They spent more time discussing three steps leading to the restaurant than any design alternatives.

As a result, residents will experience three years of construction – noise, trucks, dust, worker and hotel parking, only to find upon completion a building towering above their cottages, blocking sunlight with neighbors looking down on them from above. Imagine the mix of beach, hotel, delivery and residential traffic, and at times emergency vehicles all vying for space on this tiny two-lane road. And this is only one example of questionable projects happening citywide.

Appellants looked around in disbelief – was this really happening, was Council really agreeing to a 50-foot high building confronting 100-year-old bungalows across a narrow two-lane road, blocking sunlight and undermining property values, when there was such an easy solution?

Approximately 35 neighbors and concerned residents walked out saying “I don’t understand.”

Sad to realize that if the Council really wanted to help, their hands were tied by this developer sponsored zoning code they’re saddled with. And LUCE, with paragraph after paragraph protecting “height,” “sunlight,” “maintaining neighborhood character,” etc., etc., is irrelevant in providing any protection. But the Council could correct this with an emergency ordinance based on their lack of understanding when they initially approved the zoning code.

This neighborhood is reflective of problems citywide. With a burgeoning budget, crime rate, homeless, and mobility problems, maybe it’s time for a moratorium to assess where the current planning/development direction went wrong, and create a master plan and new zoning code. This project and process points to one of ineptitude and totally ignoring resident wishes. It certainly appears that council, politically appointed commissioners and city staff could use crash courses on urban planning and economics.

Just think if we had a citywide master plan focusing on actual needs analysis instead of a developer’s economic opportunities how different our development process and pattern would be. Development on boulevards with 2 stories of residential over ground floor commercial would more than satisfy the questionable “so-called” housing problem and help reduce traffic congestion while preserving our city’s low rise character and avoid overbuilding our downtown.

The majority of buildings on the boulevards are one story and with incentives, these parcels could be assembled. Instead of continuous building facades with storefront windows lining the sidewalks, variable depth building with an arcade meandering through, would create new “neighborhood centers.”

The transformation of this neighborhood is reflective of the transformation of our city as Council continuously fails to grapple with the larger issues. The only chance to rescue our piecemeal remodeled city may be the final approval of district voting – if we survive the $20m cost our Council is spending to maintain their power and influence. Council had a chance to tell developers that more sensitive design is not only encouraged but a necessity to restore trust in the city’s planning process. Sadly, this was not to be.

Our city code with its permissive 3 tiered system makes LUCE irrelevant and allows this type of project with its lasting, unbelievably harmful effects. Facts don’t seem to matter anymore, just as our country is heading down the wrong road, so is our city by the sea.

P.S. – I will make myself available to the development team in case they care to make peace with their neighbors and construct a project that will be beneficial to the city and to all who visit and reside there.

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

Thane Roberts, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Architect, Dan Jansenson, Architect, Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi, AIA, Planning Commissioner, Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission.

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