It’s time to stop the madness in Santa Monica! Even with the adoption of the new zoning code, the battle over height and density continues. This Zoning Code, along with the Land Use and Circulation Element, has formed an imperfect blueprint for the future growth of a significant portion of our bayside city. Still to come will be verbal volleys and pitched battles over the Downtown Specific Plan and the Memorial Park Neighborhood Plan. The passionate discussions over the height, density and positioning of future change are not cooling down. Indeed, as one newspaper editor opined recently, we are a balkanized city. Rife with special interest groups, all concerned with small fiefdoms, our residents are not taking a holistic view, a “big-picture” view, of our combined destiny as a community.
The pressure to be more like our behemoth sprawling neighbor Los Angeles has become more intense. We hear cries to build higher, build denser, add more commerce to our neighborhoods, add private enterprise to city-owned land and, generally, to increase the intensity of our Santa Monica. We hear that we must blend into the metropolis, we must add more housing, add more buildings, more office space, more attractions, more, more, just more.
Visitors to our city treasure our world-class ambiance with its breezy beach town feel. We residents treasure these elements as well, and we have a deep love for Santa Monica. That’s the reason so many of us are incredibly passionate about this special place. And with that love, with that passion, comes responsibility. Every one of us must become a responsible steward of Santa Monica’s future, a future where we do not allow more height, more density, more stress on our infrastructure, and more traffic. We now have an opportunity — an obligation — to control the form and shape our city will take. We can take control of our shared future, our destiny.
In our 2014 columns of May 20 and again on July 23, SM.a.r.t proposed that Santa Monica height limits be set at four stories or 50 feet in the densest zones (downtown), three stories or 40 feet in the mid-density zones (boulevards) and two stories or 30 feet in the low-density zones (streets and avenues). Today, we call on our residents to take the choice out of developers’ hands, to stop relying on the ever-changing voting alignments in the Planning Commission and City Council to safeguard our interests.
We can follow the success of other small cities in Southern California, which have protected their ambiance and quality of life through the ballot box. In 2008 the citizens of Sierra Madre voted for strict downtown height limits. Their Voter Empowerment Ordinance states that, “No City Council or City Staff can possess the necessary community-wide sensitivity to make decisions to ensure that the small town character…will be preserved.” The document concludes, “development decisions that could deviate from our long standing goals should be made by the entire city after a public debate and election, and not by a few city hall insiders.” These are brave words by the organizers in this San Gabriel Valley city. The measure won!
The cities of Yorba Linda and Encinitas have followed up with their own voter-mandated initiatives limiting height and density in their cities. The crafters of the Encinitas Right To Vote Amendment state, “It is the intent of this measure to protect our natural resources, our children’s lives and future generations, prevent the urbanization of our small town character and maintain the individual character of our … communities.”
Any developer in these three cities who wishes to build higher and denser than the ordinance allows, has only one choice: turn to the voters of their community to ask that their project be exempted. The SMa.r.t. group urges that we let the voters of Santa Monica decide whether to approve the next huge “Hines” project, the next “Miramar Hotel” skyscraper expansion, or the next proposal to build tall, dense buildings on city land. We’re no longer willing to let our Planning Department and City Council make those decisions.
We know this: our current planning codes are too confusing — for city personnel and for developers, and these codes provide too many loopholes. An overly large and cumbersome Planning Department bureaucracy exists in City Hall. If we put simple height and density guidelines in place it would reduce the number of necessary city staff and it would make decisions simpler for developers, staff and residents. Limiting height and density would reduce speculation and would foster a livable, human-scale beach community. These new guidelines would enable us to encourage the adaptive reuse of buildings, include verifiable open space requirements in each development envelope, demand creativity in the design process, and endeavor to preserve our existing housing stock. Our activists would be able to devote more time to charitable pursuits and less time to bird-dogging planning meetings. And, significantly, as residents, we would be able to breathe.
Santa Barbara, Manhattan Beach and other Southern California beach cities have even lower height limits than we are proposing for Santa Monica. Their established limits have proven reasonable and effective. The proposed building heights that would be adopted in our voter approved initiative would be the maximum allowable heights and not subject to modification without voter approval.
We want to be clear. This is not a no-growth, no-change initiative. It would champion intelligent, smart growth. The heights we recommend would allow developers to profit from their purchase, and would promote the natural evolution of housing and commercial stock and thus the economic health of our city. If we reduce the amount of “cramming” a developer can bundle into a property, speculative buying and selling would both be dampened.
As one of the densest cities in our state, Santa Monica can no longer sustain more people and more traffic with the infrastructure we currently have in place. Far and away, the absolute best way to prevent even more densification in our city is to limit the height and floor area ratio of new construction. Rather than let our quality of life be corrupted, rather than see our city become urbanized to “blend in” with the Los Angeles metropolis, the height initiative we propose would allow Santa Monica to continue to be a distinct and refreshing environment.
Remember, those who come to our city to invest in and develop property are likely to put their business interests ahead of preserving our beach town ambiance and quality of life. They will not see the significance of protecting the unique authenticity of place that we value in Santa Monica. It’s time for the residents of our city take a strong stand.
SMa.r.t. believes it’s time establish a clear and definitive “line in the sand.” It’s time for the “2-3-4-No More” Initiative to blossom!
Phil Brock for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)
Thane Roberts AIA, Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Armen Melkonians Civil & Environmental Engineer, Phil Brock Chair, Parks & Recreation Commission. For previous articles, see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writings.