Adaptive re-use. Re-purposing. Remodeling. Addition. Re-habilitating. Restoring. All these phrases are terms that describe breathing new life into older buildings. Some developers and building industry professionals talk of buildings as having a fifty year life cycle, because maybe the floor creaks and windows leak, or pipes drip, and energy efficiency is way down. Maybe not unlike looking in the mirror at age 40, seeing a bit of a bulge here and there, lines around the eyes, feeling lethargic and lacking energy, etc. I imagine many of the readers would be disturbed to view themselves as having only a fifty-year lifecycle and therefore say it’s time to demo the body. More likely, with the best of intent, it is off to the gym to re-build the body and to restore the energy through a healthy diet.

While working in London, I was project architect on the restoration of a 450 year old building at Christ Church College, Oxford. We found a lot of life in that structure, and it stands today re-purposed and serving its users well. Not all buildings merit designation as landmark or are historically significant, but almost all probably have a lot of life left in their bones and can be updated and upgraded to continue serving useful lives, probably for more than just another fifty years.

Others seem to find it easier and simpler, to just demolish and re-build new. A reflection of what was an American uniqueness, that of being a ‘disposable’ society. We didn’t so much fix things, as throw them away and buy, or build, new. Well, that 450 year old stone structure had a lot of life in it and it still stands and serves a useful purpose, fully functional, and so no doubt do most of the buildings that line our boulevards.

So what about Santa Monica? Do we have to approach our zoning code with language that tends to say tear it down so it can be taller and more dense? Seems so when analyzing the proposed new zoning code. But what about incentivizing new life for the buildings of 1, 2 and 3 stories that make up the fabric of our beach town. There are very few buildings that can’t be economically updated and made energy efficient, and by not tearing down and hauling away debris to a landfill, much more sustainable. There is this trend to justify building new to LEED standards of gold and platinum, etc., and building to those standards is good, but suffice it to say ‘the greenest building is the one not torn down’. Additions, energy efficiencies, and seismic upgrades can generally be managed and economically implemented. Given that the majority of our boulevards are lined with low-rise structures, it seems much more sustainable to create a code that encourages and incentivizes breathing new life back into them in lieu of tearing down and building new. Developer desires and ‘text book planning’ should not dictate tearing down just to build taller and bigger.

A current project in the works shows clearly the benefits of adaptive reuse, and while not perfect, it could or should be a case study of how an incentivized code might’ve produced a win-win project for the developer and for our beach town. The new owners of the Papermate building on Olympic (previously known as the Hines project) recently applied to re-purpose the building for office use. The large single story structure contains about 200,000sq.ft. A small second building on site will be removed, and a one-story subterranean parking structure is proposed to replace it and provide the required on-site parking. The existing building will be broken into two structures, thereby reducing the very long single structure into more pleasing proportions and massing, as well as allowing an on-site pedestrian passageway, possibly open for pass thru to access the light rail at the Bergamot Station. Additionally, it was reported that the corner of the site is to be developed as a plaza. So it sounds like the current developer is applying a reasonable and design sensitive approach to his adaptive re-use project in a laudable manner. The only missing element is housing. In this instance more office use is being added in place of previous manufacturing uses, without helping to balance the city’s jobs/housing imbalance, and creating an added opportunity for workers to be able to live here. Had we had a zoning code in place that contained language that encouraged re-purposing those buildings to include a percentage of housing that project could have become the perfect poster-child for what ideally should occur on the boulevards. Adaptive re-use is probably the most efficient and ‘green’ way to produce more housing. (More about that next week.)

We need a new, healthy and trim, zoning code that says “go to the gym and re-invent, get fit, re-energize, breath deep, and increase the durability, endurance, and life span of our buildings.” Simplify the code, encourage, and incentivize existing office uses to be re-purposed for housing when the opportunity arises. The buildings on the boulevards do not have to face a ‘mid-life’ crisis with the only option one of being removed and replaced by something 4 or 5 times as large that is going to crowd everybody out to the sidewalk and to the surrounding residences, looming over them and casting them in shade for good parts of the day. A healthy environment is one with fresh air and blue skies, especially in a coastline beach community such as ours.

Bob Taylor, AIA for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

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

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