A New Zoning Code

Last week’s article discussed Urban & Architectural Design ( 1/16/16) and this week’s article will discuss Process, Zoning & Conclusions as related to Urban & Architectural Design.

“The fates of cities are decided in the town hall.” Le Corbusier

As populations increase in urban areas, densification is inevitable. The question then becomes- how much and where? How can this expansion take place without degrading quality of life for current and future residents? At present, Santa Monica’s zoning would allow doubling of existing building areas in downtown and tripling existing buildings areas along our eight boulevards. This would be possible since over 80% of existing parcels along the boulevards are either vacant, or one or two stories. In the downtown area, 50% of parcels are similarly underbuilt. Taken together, 15% of our city is available for future development- providing over 20 million additional square feet – nearly twice the current downtown building area. You would think that it would be sufficient.

Is our City Planning Department aware of this? Their actions would imply not. If they were, we would expect them not to continue approving 5, 6 and 7-story block buildings that degrade both our City’s ability to function and its beachside allure. Negative impacts from increased density are overburdening our City’s fragile infrastructure, creating traffic gridlock and long shadows darkening our City’s streets and open spaces. Many residents are saying “enough”!

It has become the new “normal” that most new commercial and multi-family projects are not built within City’s zoning codes or limits. The public process has become coopted as loopholes are found and exploited. In this scenario, the Planning Department and investors negotiate “Development Agreements” behind closed doors allowing projects to be built that far exceed limits set in the Building and Zoning Codes. The results are huge profits for developers and negative impacts for residents.

This is the reason that many residents feel that our city is “for sale”. Inclusion of a few affordable units in these projects are crumbs compared to developer’s profits. Still they are enough to seduce City Planners, and some community organizations, to believe that we are getting a good deal. It’s a devil’s bargain. For example, in place of the “affordable” Village Trailer Park nestled under a grove of trees, the City approved the Millennium East Village project in exchange for $2.4 million in “community benefits”. In exchange for these benefits, the developer was allowed to double the height and density of the project. When the City asked for more, the developer claimed he would not make a profit. The City backed down. Shortly thereafter, the same developer sold his approved agreement for 68 million dollars to a second developer without ever breaking ground. The first developer made a huge profit. Residents will pay the price for years to come with increased traffic on an important cross town link as well as an increased tax burden and a project that is out of scale with a neighborhood consisting of 1 and 2 story buildings. This is a prime example of what happens when City’s codes are modified behind closed doors by staff- the City as well as residents, come out on the short end of the deal.

If codes are to be interpreted, it should not be on a case-by-case basis but once only and for everyone. We had this opportunity with the adoption of the LUCE- a planning document intended to set a new vision for Santa Monica’s future. Five years later, a revised zoning code was finally approved. Unfortunately, instead of completely rewriting the entire Code, as occurred in Los Angeles, Santa Monica chose to add provisions to a code that was already burdened with 30 years of revisions? This approach compromised the LUCE recommendations due to the complexity and contradictions that inevitably occur with such an approach.

Instead of simplifying the existing, complicated 500-page document, Santa Monica’s new zoning code is even longer, more complex and more difficult to decipher. Closing “loopholes” will become more difficult and exploiting them more common. In Los Angeles with a population of nearly 4 million residents and a land area of 470 sq. mi., an 800-page Building Code was more than cut in half. But in Santa Monica with a population of 92,000+ residents and a land area less than 9 square miles, the old 500-page code was made even larger. This was great news for developers but less so for residents and small business. Once again, the City’s Zoning and Building Codes favor those with funds to interpret Codes to their advantage. Unfortunately, most do not have means to retain such services nor the time to do so.

The LUCE and its Environmental Impact Report (EIR), adopted in 2010, didn’t anticipate the amount of growth that has occurred in recent years, or the traffic and related infrastructure improvements that would be required on account of it. Although LUCE did have a clearly stated goal of “overall height reduction,” it was never enacted. Most residents would like to see a simple 2-3-4 story (or 30-40-50 foot) height limit. Lower height limits would apply to our residential neighborhoods and higher ones to the boulevards and downtown. These limits would keep our community from exceeding its limits to growth while still providing more than ample opportunity for responsible development. We have many attractive three and four-story buildings in our downtown and on our boulevards, some historic, that would be candidates for adaptive reuse. If we limit heights across our city to three and four stories, land prices and construction costs would remain lower and the temptation to demolish becomes less tempting. This would retain the look of our beach town, make housing more affordable and the preservation of our natural environment more likely.

If we fail to act, outside developers will continue to push for six and seven-story buildings creating more mistrust, referendums and initiatives. While mixed-use development is a positive feature of the revised code, it does not go far enough with specific form-based design guidelines. Our future will depend on our ability to correct this oversight and amend or adopt a better code – one that is simple and concise. It may be the only choice if we are to preserve our City’s character.

Santa Monica residents accept the inevitability of change and welcome it. We also believe, however, that development can and must be done responsibly to preserve our unique beachfront community. If done properly, development can enhance our environment to improve the City’s draw for tourists and residents alike. If done improperly, it could destroy both the reason to live here as well as the desire to visit. In this scenario everyone loses. In this need for instant gratification, we need to transfer our priorities from “consumerism” to “community,” from quantity to quality. Plenty of opportunities still exist in the City for growth that is both economically viable and sustainable. We need to strike this balance to remain a City that can be business friendly while preserving our unique character, beautiful oceanfront and small beach town atmosphere. We would do well to appreciate more the sounds of the birds and the beauty of blue skies than the ringing of the cash register and the dark shadows that are consuming our community. To do so, will ultimately be in everyone’s best interest.

Ron Goldman and Thane Roberts for SMa.r.t.


Toward a better zoning code

A New Zoning Code

The City Council is getting ready to approve a controversial new Zoning Code. Many would describe the currently proposed code as incentivizing development instead of managing it for a more neighborly, sustainable City. While the proposed Zoning Code has many contentious parts, the most significant controversy centers on the Boulevards where the proposed changes will directly impact the adjacent residential neighborhoods. Fortunately, the City Council still has an opportunity to rectify this when they give it its final review on April 15.

A good place to start would be with the five proposed Activity Centers. These are high-intensity commercial zoning districts proposed along the major boulevards; three on Wilshire and one each on Lincoln/ Ocean Park, Broadway/Colorado, and Olympic/Colorado. All would allow special heights and densities. These “Godzillas” will rise to 70’ (88’ including roof structures) along the major boulevards crushing the adjacent residences with their traffic, solar shading and noise. Remember that on Wilshire and Santa Monica Blvd. there are already two hospital districts (HMU-Tier 2) with similar heights. These new Activity Centers will only that add to the buildings that are already out of scale with our City’s urban fabric, being more similar in size to the Beverly Center or the Westside Pavilion. Since there are already plenty of development possibilities along our mostly one and two-story boulevards, these special districts are unnecessary. In addition, since the Subway to the Sea will not reach these areas in the foreseeable future, the reason for their existence no longer exists. Even if the proposed subway to the seas were to come to Santa Monica, it will likely only provide a moderate decrease in traffic. For example, studies have shown that the proposed subway would only reduce the traffic on the 10 Freeway by 1%. This is another reason why the oversized Activity Centers are decades too early and should be eliminated from the code.

The Tier 3 projects on the boulevards should be eliminated for similar reasons. Tier 3 projects get height and area bonuses over and above the underlying zoning but suffer from the same drawbacks as the Activity Centers. Some would argue that the “community benefits” outweigh the detriment to the residents but experience has proven otherwise. The Community typically gets marginal benefits compared to the developer’s massive increase in profits and associated negative impacts. But the real problem with the Development Agreements is that they allow exceeding the current codes through secret negotiations with the City staff that are invisible to the residents. The DA’s are typically poorly written and result in negative impacts that far overshadow any meager benefits. For example the reduction in parking requirements allowed to Agensys did not, in fact, reduce their use of the automobile as they have had to rent over 100 spaces of additional offsite parking for their employees at the Bergamot Station. This shifting of a project’s impact on adjacent areas is not unusual for large projects approved under the DA process. This is the reason that Tier 3 allowed under the DA process, with all its inherent flaws, should not be included in the new code.

There are several other areas related to the Boulevards where the new Zoning Code needs significant rebalancing. For example, originally when lots were consolidated, the project’s floor area had to be reduced slightly to discourage the creation of gargantuan, monolithic buildings. Those floor area reductions have been eliminated in the current proposed code, resulting in larger buildings with their associated outsized mass and impacts. Another misplaced incentive is that Tier 2 projects (another height and area bonus but slightly less than Tier 3) require only an administrative approval, effectively, and dangerously, bypassing neighborhood input. With all this incentivized canyonization of our relatively sunny and open boulevards, the proposed code still does not mandate any required space open to the sky along our boulevards. If there were such a requirement, it would help to relieve the monotony of the marching facades by providing some visual penetrability into the fabric of the City. Additional residential protections were eliminated when the so called A-lots north of Wilshire lost their residential zoning. Perhaps the largest shift is that many of the Boulevards have gone from a Neighborhood Commercial designation to Mixed Use Commercial Zoning. This up-zoning will allow a significant jump in height, mass and impact that the neighborhoods have resisted and the City does not need. The Boulevards with their current neighborhood commercial heights should be maintained.

Finally the proposed Code has struggled mightily to try to solve the City’s transit problems. While everyone hopes to ameliorate the City’s long term parking and gridlock issues, this Zoning Code still needs to deal with current transit issues. For example it mandates unbundled parking whereby tenants do not get automatic use of their parking spaces but have to buy (or rent them) from the building owners. This is a well-meaning but uncertain experiment to solve the common problem of insufficient parking spaces with its attendant neighborhood spill-over. The idea is that persons who do not have cars, would not have to pay for spaces they don’t use, presumably making their units more affordable. In addition, shared spaces might make parking lots and structures more efficient because they could be used jointly by tenants or visitors at different times. In reality, this will probably lead to speculation by developers who now get to sell or rent two items–the unit along with its parking. Although we do need to incentivize the shift to fewer cars, some solutions should be experimental until we see if bike lanes, the EXPO line and other transportation demand management initiatives really do reduce the number of car trips.

Other significant areas for the Council to review but not addressed in this article include: 1) height reductions, decreased FAR on the boulevards; 2) limiting planning director’s authority; 3) intrusion of commercial parking into residential neighborhoods; 4) increased medical space without requiring additional parking; 5) TDM’s (Traffic Demand Management) that allow a reduction in parking … and many more! Next week the City Council has a last chance and we would say responsibility to rebalance the proposed biased Zoning Code toward a more sustainable and neighborly future. More importantly, the last day for Community input to the City Council is April 14 and you have the opportunity to help the City Council do the responsible thing by showing up and testifying for a better and balanced Zoning Code. Please be there.

MARIO FONDA-BONARDI, AIA for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

Too long in length and too short in safeguards for a better City

A New Zoning Code

As a community, we have spent more than six years establishing goals and objectives in defining the LUCE, a new general plan for our city. Then we set out to address the zoning code that codifies and implements the vision in the LUCE, but after five more years, the process failed to produce a document that achieves its stated goal.

Although it was a perfect time to write a new, simplified code, the city’s planning staff instead spent the first three years dealing with the flood of Development Agreements that took advantage of LUCE loopholes. Most of these were slipped into the final document by attorneys in the final days before it was adopted and have since provided developers with a windfall of exceptions that residents have been contesting ever since.

So the five years set aside to create a new code became two. The unfortunate result was that the planning department, instead of starting fresh and writing a new simplified code, put expediency before brevity and added still more modifications and interpretations to the existing code.
After 27 years of similar surgeries and procedures, our code has grown from a 275-page tome in 1988 to now more than 500 pages! In contrast, Santa Barbara, a community similar in size to Santa Monica, employs a simple, creative 245-page code, with a three-story height limit for both commercial and residential areas. Los Angeles, a much larger city, is re-writing their code from an 800-page document to one that will be fewer than 500 pages.

Mark Twain, among others, wrote “if I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” We did have the time, so where, why and how have we strayed so far afield? With every other paragraph stretched and altered, wading through 500-plus pages is a daunting task even for architects. Often, definitions found in one chapter are modified or open to interpretation in later chapters. Internal inconsistencies and regulation render the Code difficult to read and open to contradictory interpretations. For an architect, and any other trained professional, it represents a complex puzzle, an unsolvable Rubik’s cube.

After two years and 33 Planning Commission hearings, we see the net effect of this surgical approach is that we’re about to adopt a code that promises more height, more density, more traffic and more parking in Santa Monica. This could result in more canyonization of our boulevards, less sunlight, less open space, less blue sky, less local business, less parking, and a much lower quality of life

Santa Monica, with a daily population in the generally accepted range of 250,000 workers, tourists and residents, is already the most dense beach community in California at approximately 30,000/sq. mi., and with a residential population of 92,000, a nighttime density of 11,000/sq. mi. What is the “problem” that suggests an increase in density as a solution? Culver City, by contrast, has a density of 7,500/sq. mi., Santa Barbara 2,100/sq. mi. What is it that City staff thinks is missing that requires increasing our density even more? Perhaps we don’t have enough traffic yet, or enough demand placed on water and other infrastructure. When asked of staff, or council, or housing authorities, “what are the limits?” there is no answer.

The LUCE, at 3.25 and 2.75 FAR (Floor Area Ratio), allows “Activity Centers” on Wilshire, at Ocean Park and Lincoln, and other sites, with traffic, parking and massive structures that are 1.5 and 2.5 times the size of Santa Monica Place! The overriding goal of the general plan was to protect existing neighborhoods, not destroy them. If that is true, why does it allow overly tall buildings to extend into adjacent residential blocks, with cars that exit on residential streets? Why are six-story buildings even necessary when threestory development can provide more growth than we believe will ever be needed over the remaining 15 year lifetime of the LUCE? Why is our Planning Commission listening to developers and their attorneys and architects and not to the residents that are opposed to these plans? The result of this neglect is a code that falls far
short of its intended purpose — to protect our neighborhoods.

Mayor McKeown suggests that in the remaining two days of deliberation which the Council has set aside to correct the 500-plus pages, “there is the opportunity to weigh effects on neighborhoods and evaluate the cumulative impacts of change.” He goes on to say, “You may be surprised at how well this turns out.” That’s a big challenge for the Council, to do in two days what could not be accomplished in five years. The risks are too great, since this is a code that will affect Santa Monica for generations to come. With all due respect, Mayor McKeown, your optimism is laudatory but we can ill afford such wishful thinking. The potential negative consequences to our City’s residents are too great.

With more than two years and 33 Planning Commission hearings and with five years of listening to special interests while ignoring resident input, the process appears to have fallen far short of its intended purpose. The LUCE was supposed to protect the city. We were also told that the new zoning code would do the same. Significant changes still need to be made to this overly complex document that does not really protect residents and neighborhoods from commercial intrusion.

Can the council legally extend the deliberations, tackle the problems and not enforce an artificial one day deliberation deadline with this zoning ordinance? The council needs to meet the needs of its residents, now and in the future. Let’s not further diminish the quality of life in Santa Monica and let’s not waste this opportunity to regain the trust and confidence of residents in our city government.

Ron Goldman FAIA for SMa.r.t.