Attending a meeting last Saturday, the point was made by a Santa Monica architect that FAR (floor area ratio) allows 84-foot-tall block buildings as seen in construction on Ocean Avenue, but high rise would be better, allowing space and light around and between. I strongly disagree. A revised Downtown zoning code can easily correct this without defaulting to mid-rise or high-rise construction.
Tell a developer he‚Äôs allowed to build a box, he will build it. City Hall must outline what is required to make this box artistic and welcoming, along with non-negotiable community benefits if he‚Äôs given additional height and density.
As expected, business interests at this meeting ragged on the city for not losing its business friendly manner while capturing additional income with more density. Santa Monica is inherently business friendly with its beachfront location/atmosphere; we don‚Äôt need to prostitute ourselves to developers or the Chamber of Commerce.
And we don‚Äôt need higher buildings to get more light, air and landscape into Downtown. We simply need a zoning code that requires sidewalk setbacks, distance between buildings above the first floor and significant terracing above three and four stories if we are to maintain our beachfront community.
An interesting remark was made that, similar to Santa Monica, Paris and Barcelona have only a handful of high-rise buildings, so why do we need more? Do we want “Gay Paree” or Densityville? And if we have an “opportunity high rise,” [it should be approved] only if it‚Äôs an iconic form such as water cascading down and billowing out at the base of a waterfall.
Santa Monica should not lose its beachfront character for an urban Downtown. Current 84-feet limits should be confined to a limited area, terracing to three and four stories at Downtown‚Äôs perimeter. This terracing will help retain the fabric of existing two- and three-story buildings, allowing opportunity sites to have some added height, but only with exceptional community benefits and exceptional architecture determined by a panel of architects and art critics from outside the Santa Monica area.
If a public survey on heights is to be beneficial, it must show the public what an 84-foot building looks like as a block similar to Fifth Street or Ocean Avenue, what it looks like as a 10- to 12-story building, and what it looks like with a minimum of creative thought and zoning.
The sideshow regarding a public survey on heights reminds me of a remark heard recently that “there are people who pray in Vegas and those who pray in church, but it‚Äôs those in Vegas who are really sincere.” Hopefully the public won‚Äôt be hoodwinked with meaningless hyperbole.
In this regard, it is people who attend Planning Commission and council meetings that understand what‚Äôs happening to this city. It took a project next door for me to wake up in disbelief. The city required a developer spend $125,000 on an EIR and then proceeded to process a project that wasn‚Äôt even allowed by code! It was revised, again processed, and still didn‚Äôt meet code. How does this happen? Did it help that the architect sat on a city commission?
Village Trailer Park was rushed through with a 2.8 FAR when weeks later the council approved an area plan with reductions to 2.0 FAR, terracing to three stories in scale with one- and two-story residences across Colorado!
It took me a series of individual meetings with the city manager and planning director to realize they cordially listen, but don‚Äôt act. Will a silent majority of the city understand this quagmire we‚Äôre in? Enough said. I‚Äôm off to pray in Vegas.
Ron Goldman, FAIA