File photo
File photo

CITY HALL — Local architects criticized the evolving Downtown Specific Plan for being too specific at the Planning Commission meeting Wednesday night.

During the public portion of the meeting, in which commissioners were discussing the framework plan for the first time since its approval in September, three local architects spoke and took questions from commissioners about the plan as it stands.

“Right now, we have a municipal code that is more complicated than other jurisdictions’ municipal codes and it dictates, pretty much, what the buildings are,” said architect David Hibbert, who’s designed numerous buildings in the city. “We refer to buildings in Santa Monica as zoning envelopes. This goes further than that and makes decisions for you as the architect, other than maybe the wrapper that we put on it.”

David Hibbert, Hank Koning, and Michael Folonis opined for a combined 40 minutes on what they are calling overly strict standards.

City officials are studying floor area ratios of both 4.0 and 4.5 for the Downtown plan.

Floor area ratio, or FAR, is the ratio between the total floor area in a development and the amount of the parcel that a building uses.

Architects were not concerned with the FAR requirements alone but with a combination of all the proposed standards, which regulate, among other things, the percentage of open space required per lot and the maximum percentage of total area allowed per floor.

“Developers, when they come to us, they have the expectation of getting maximum FAR and if that means that the top floor can only be 50 percent, they’re going to want it to be 50 percent,” he said. “You’re going to define what all these floors are.”

This, he said, would make all the buildings look the same. He recommended imposing only maximum height and FAR requirements.

“We can’t just give you that because based on what you said earlier, which is that property owners are going to maximize the box they can build to,” said Commissioner Jim Ries. “You might want to make the nicest design in the world but you’re applicant wants to maximize profit which does not include doing a very creative building.”

Hibbert responded that city officials, planning commissioners, Architectural Review Board, and City Council reviews should be approving developments on a site by site basis.

“But if we don’t give standards how are we going to say, look, this doesn’t meet our standards?” Ries responded. “Because then their attorney is going to say to us, ‘it meets the FAR and it meets the height.’ You can’t make up design issues.”

Hibbert argued that design issues could be included as “guidelines,” which are less binding than “standards.”

Neal Payton, a consultant helping to form the plan, acknowledged that the standards can limit greatness.

“There’s this thing about design standards and design guidelines: They don’t result in great architecture,” he said. “They prevent lousy architecture. That’s what it’s all about. There’s no substitute for a great architect.”

Still, Payton said, he could think of seven or eight examples off the top of his head of specific plans in California that are “way more specific in terms of their regulatory development standards,” than the one presented by city officials on Wednesday.

“The statute certainly allows for a specific plan to be regulatory,” he said. “It’s very clear.”

Among the cities with more detailed specific plans, Payton pointed to Ventura, Santa Ana, Fresno, and Hercules.

Commissioner Sue Himmelrich said that Ventura, Santa Ana, and Fresno would not be her “model cities for what Santa Monica should look like.” She suggested more flexibility in the plan, saying that most projects built under the current standards look like wedding cakes, with each floor getting progressively smaller.

“It might be a wedding cake with a courtyard in the middle, but it’s still a wedding cake,” she said. “I think we need to give the really great architects who come into this city the flexibility to do the great things they do.”

City officials will present a draft of the final plan, with changes based on suggestions from the commission, early next year.

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