Shady Deals, When “Less is More”

In a recent article about Santa Monica’s Boulevards, SMa.r.t. wrote that new buildings along our boulevards could rise up to 6 or 7 stories. While this might be possible for buildings west of 7th Street, where there is an 84′ height limit in the downtown district, this height would not be possible for the area shown in our previous drawing without a Development Agreement (DA) and General Plan Amendment (GPA). East of 7th Street, the maximum allowable heights are 60′ without such approvals.

We have revised our massing sketch from the first Boulevard article to reflect the 55′ height as per the proposed code. There are presently more than 30 DA’s in the pipeline of which four or more have requested a GPA that, if approved, would allow increases in height that are 2 or 3 times in excess of the current Zoning Codes (e.g. 320′ for Miramar Hotel). We believe that “allowable heights” is a misnomer especially when the community sees projects approved through the DA process with “special conditions”.

For example, the new “Plaza at Santa Monica” at 4th & Arizona where the developer has been given a green light by the City Council to study a new building with a height of 148′ — 64′ taller than the 84′ allowed. To make matters worse, this building will extend the length of a football field (300′) in the middle of our downtown area spreading its shadows far and wide. Development Agreements that exceed zoning are allowed under State law, but they can be rejected by local authorities. However, when DA applications are approved to move forward, it is understandable how citizens become confused and take “maximum allowable heights” with a grain of Pacific Ocean salt … particularly on City owned land where residents would have expected the City to set a better example for our future growth and quality of life.

In the case of new structures at the City’s eastern boundary, the shadows from even a 55′ building are likely to put the entire street into shadow for a good portion of the day. SMa.r.t. proposes a maximum height of 40′ for all of the City’s Boulevard, with step backs on the upper floors to reduce shading on adjacent buildings. We think the proposed zoning code has inadequate setback provisions that do little to reduce over shading and create architectural interest.

Currently, 87 percent of our Boulevards are comprised of one and two-story buildings. If a significant portion of these structures were allowed to be 60′, the visual impact and shading would dramatically alter the pedestrian experience at street level, and as discussed in our previous article, even a 40′ height would more than double the existing square footage. In the downtown area, we recommend a maximum height of 50′, and in the residential areas a maximum height of 30′

We believe that height limits cannot be discussed in a vacuum. Heights should be considered in the context of the neighborhood being served, as prescribed in LUCE. Additionally, the orientation of the streets should be considered. Santa Monica’s street grid, with few exceptions, are oriented in a NE/SW direction — from the ocean to West Los Angeles. This orientation results in the greatest amount of direct sunlight during the afternoon hours for most of the year.

Direct sunlight often does not reach street level until the early afternoon during the winter months. The higher the buildings on the southeast side of the street, the longer the street will remain in shade. This situation improves during the summer when the sun is higher in the sky but creates another issue — additional heat and glare during the warmest hours of the day — the late afternoon. Setting different heights for each side of the street could be considered, especially where residential neighborhoods are in the shade of the larger buildings. This is another reason to keep both sides of our streets sufficiently low so that the winter sunlight can reach the street and adjacent structures as early as possible and remain there for as long as possible.

Having a more nuanced approach to shading might be worth pursuing in the residential areas, particularly those that abut the higher commercial zones. Regulations limiting the amount of shading allowed between adjacent structures are already in the State’s Energy Codes. Our use of solar energy is increasing, it behooves the City to draft regulations ensuring all buildings have the right to a specified amount of sunlight throughout the year. Available sunlight is important for both residential and commercial streets if we are to have a ‘green city’ with trees, parks and gardens. Most residents would prefer a city where they can experience, nature to purify the air, to power their homes, and to brighten their lives.

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

Ron Goldman FAIA, Thane Roberts AIA, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Samuel Tolkin AIA, Armen Melkonians Civil & Environmental Engineer, Phil Brock Chair, Parks & Recreation Commission. For previous articles, see

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *