Editor’s note: Last week’s SMa.r.t. column discussed urban and architectural design. This week’s column  discusses process, zoning and conclusions as related to urban and architectural design.

“The fates of cities are decided in the town hall.” —Le Corbusier

As populations increase in urban areas, densification is inevitable. The question then becomes: How much and where? How can this expansion take place without degrading quality of life for current and future residents? At present, Santa Monica’s zoning would allow doubling of existing building areas in downtown and tripling existing buildings areas along our eight boulevards. This would be possible since over 80% of existing parcels along the boulevards are either vacant, or one or two stories.  In the downtown area, 50% of parcels are similarly under-built. Taken together, 15 percent of our city is available for future development- providing over 20 million additional square feet — nearly twice the current downtown building area. You would think that it would be sufficient.

Is our City Planning Department aware of this? Their actions would imply not. If they were, we would expect them not to continue approving 5-, 6- and 7-story block buildings that degrade both our City’s ability to function and its beachside allure. Negative impacts from increased density are overburdening our City’s fragile infrastructure, creating traffic gridlock and long shadows  darkening our City’s streets and open spaces. Many residents are saying, “Enough!”

It has become the new “normal” that most new commercial and multi-family projects are not built within City’s zoning codes or limits.  The public process has become co-opted as loopholes are found and exploited.  In this scenario, the Planning Department and investors negotiate “Development Agreements” behind closed doors allowing projects to be built that far exceed limits set in the building and zoning codes.  The results are huge profits for developers and negative impacts for residents.

This is the reason that many residents feel that our city is “for sale.” Inclusion of a few affordable units in these projects are crumbs compared to developers’ profits. Still they are enough to seduce city planners, and some community organizations, to believe that we are getting a good deal. It’s a devil’s bargain. For example, in place of the “affordable” Village Trailer Park nestled under a grove of trees, the City approved the Millennium East Village project in exchange for $2.4 million in “community benefits.” In exchange for these benefits, the developer was allowed to double the height and density of the project. When the City asked for more, the developer claimed he would not make a profit. The City backed down. Shortly thereafter, the same developer sold his approved agreement for $68 million to a second developer without ever breaking ground. The first developer made a huge profit.

Residents will pay the price for years to come with increased traffic on an important cross town link as well as an increased tax burden and a project that is out of scale with a neighborhood consisting of 1- and 2-story buildings. This is a prime example of what happens when City’s codes are modified behind closed doors by staff — the City, as well as residents, come out on the short end of the deal.

If codes are to be interpreted, it should not be on a case-by-case basis but once only and for everyone. We had this opportunity with the adoption of the LUCE — a planning document intended to set a new vision for Santa Monica’s future. Five years later, a revised zoning code was finally approved. Unfortunately, instead of completely rewriting the entire code, as occurred in Los Angeles, Santa Monica chose to add provisions to a code that was already burdened with 30 years of revisions. This approach compromised the LUCE recommendations due to the complexity and  contradictions that inevitably occur with such an approach.

Instead of simplifying the existing, complicated 500-page document, Santa Monica’s new zoning code is even longer, more complex and more difficult to decipher. Closing “loopholes” will become more difficult and exploiting them more common. In Los Angeles with a population of nearly 4 million residents and a land area of 470 square miles, an 800-page building code was more than cut in half. But in Santa Monica, which has a population of 92,000-plus residents and a land area less than 9 square miles, the old 500-page code was made even larger. This was great news for developers but less so for residents and small business.  Once again, the City’s zoning and building codes favor those with funds to interpret codes to their advantage. Unfortunately, most do not have means to retain such services nor the time to do so.

The LUCE and its Environmental Impact Report (EIR), adopted in 2010, didn’t anticipate the amount of growth that has occurred in recent years, or the traffic and related infrastructure improvements that would be required on account of it. Although the LUCE did have a clearly stated goal of “overall height reduction,” it was never enacted. Most residents would like to see a simple 2-3-4 story (or 30-40-50 foot) height limit.  Lower height limits would apply to our residential neighborhoods and higher ones to the boulevards and downtown. These limits would keep our community from exceeding its limits to growth while still providing more than ample opportunity for responsible development. We have many attractive 3- and 4-story buildings in our downtown and on our boulevards, some historic, that would be candidates for adaptive reuse. If we limit heights across our city to three and four stories, land prices and construction costs would remain lower and the temptation to demolish becomes less tempting. This would retain the look of our beach town, make housing more affordable and the preservation of our natural environment more likely.

If we fail to act, outside developers will continue to push for 6- and 7-story buildings, creating more mistrust, referendums and initiatives. While mixed-use development is a positive feature of the revised code, it does not go far enough with specific form-based design guidelines. Our future will depend on our ability to correct this oversight and amend or adopt a better code — one that is simple and concise. It may be the only choice if we are to preserve our City’s character.

Santa Monica residents accept the inevitability of change and welcome it. We also believe, however, that development can and must be done responsibly to preserve our unique beachfront community.  If done properly, development can enhance our environment to improve the City’s draw for tourists and residents alike. If done improperly, it could destroy both the reason to live here as well as the desire to visit. In this scenario, everyone loses. In this need for instant gratification, we need to transfer our priorities from “consumerism” to “community,” from quantity to quality. Plenty of opportunities still exist in the City for growth that is both economically viable and sustainable. We need to strike this balance to remain a City that can be business friendly while preserving our unique character, beautiful oceanfront and small beach town atmosphere. We would do well to appreciate more the sounds of the birds and the beauty of blue skies than the ringing of the cash register and the dark shadows that are consuming our community. To do so will ultimately be in everyone’s best interest.

Ron Goldman and Thane Roberts for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Bob Taylor AIA, Dan Jansenson Architect, Ron Goldman FAIA, Thane Roberts AIA, Sam Tolkin Architect, Armen Melkonians Civil & Environmental Engineer, Phil Brock Chair, Recreation & Parks Commission. SMa.r.t. is a group of Santa Monica Architects concerned about the city’s future. For previous articles, see santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writings.