DOWNTOWN — “If you go to Krispy Kreme and get a glazed donut and walk over to Lincoln Middle School and throw it, the first kid you hit can make a 3-D model and 10 versions of it just by opening their laptop.”
Such was the challenge issued by resident Neil Cohen at the July 9 City Council meeting when city planners could not produce an electronic model of Downtown Santa Monica upon request.
The model is part of a contract with Torti Gallas and Partners, an architectural and design firm, to help with the Downtown Specific Plan, an effort to guide development in Downtown until at least 2030.
It’s also been the focus of a group of residents and at least one council member who hoped to see it so they could get an idea of the heights and densities of developments planned for the area, which include three hotels and five other sites that were at the heart of that council meeting.
A week later when the Planning Commission took up the same issue, one-time City Council candidate and civil engineer Armen Melkonians answered Cohen’s call.
Melkonians revealed a digital version of Downtown displayed on SketchFab.com, a site that allows people to publish and embed interactive 3-D models. With the click of a mouse, the user can spin the map 360 degrees, taking in views of buildings and even a nice rendering of the Santa Monica Pier.
In the place of eight “opportunity sites,” large parcels in the city that planners feel could support additional height and density in exchange for community benefits, Melkonians filled in pink, boxy-looking buildings.
They reached either the height of the developments proposed for the sites — between 148 and 320 feet, depending on the site — or the maximum height suggested by planners for study in an environmental document.
Some residents have been asking for the model for roughly a year. Melkonians put his version together in just days, albeit without access to some of the detailed information that Torti Gallas and Partners have included in theirs.
That’s not important, Melkonians said. His model demonstrated what buildings of certain heights would look like in the context of Downtown, and proved that it was possible to do in a short time frame.
“I did it in two days without having their model, without having the plane,” Melkonians said, referring to data picked up in a 2010 fly over that helped form the firm’s 3-D renderings.
The model developed for the Planning Department has a lot more going on than just rough approximations of buildings. Each building is rendered with both height and density, meaning how much floor area it holds compared to the overall size of its parcel.
They also take a bit more care with the design of the buildings to include architectural elements like setbacks required by Santa Monica codes so that the model reflects something that could actually be built, said Francie Stefan, community and strategic planning manager with City Hall.
“We’re not designing the buildings, but for each proposal, we’re putting together some theoretically real option as opposed to something that wouldn’t meet basic building parameters,” Stefan said.
It has already been used to look at the shadows cast by buildings in Downtown, and will be used further down the line for subsequent analysis required by the environmental and planning processes, Stefan said.
Melkonians felt compelled to make the model after the July 9 council meeting in which Councilmember Tony Vazquez asked for a visual of what a 120- or 135-foot building actually looked like.
He was told that it wasn’t available, and that planners needed to know what heights they should study for the environmental impact report that goes along with the Downtown Specific Plan so that they could be modeled at all.
Melkonians, and others in the audience that night, had their doubts.
In fact, he believes he can change the relative heights of the buildings in his rough sketch with ease.
“Maybe three minutes was an exaggeration,” Melkonians said. “I could do it in 10 minutes.”
Melkonians and others believe that the model they were asking for — one that just showed relative heights of buildings, including the opportunity sites — could have been revealed long before without all of the additional bells and whistles.
“I think it shouldn’t be left to a resident to do this work, especially when the city is paying for it,” Melkonians said.
Those who would like to take a look at Melkonians’ work can check out his Facebook page, Residocracy, which has a link to the SketchFab site.