For decades, local officials have appointed architects and preservationists to watch over Santa Monica’s changing cityscape.
That could change as the city of Santa Monica makes deep budget cuts amid the coronavirus recession.
The city is proposing suspending boards and commissions not required under the city charter to evaluate their purpose and value, said city spokesperson Constance Farrell. Board and commission members are urging the city to preserve the volunteer bodies and are proposing ways to reduce the costs associated with them, which include city staff time and printed materials.
The potential loss of the Architectural Review Board and Landmarks Commission could jeopardize Santa Monica’s architectural character, board and commission members said.
ARB chair Therese Kelly said the board, which is made up of working architects with various areas of expertise, often makes design decisions about large projects that will define Santa Monica’s look for decades to come.
Frequent recommendations the board makes to architects include using higher-quality materials for a building’s facade, making design adjustments that help a building fit into a neighborhood or changing a building’s lower floors or landscaping to create a better pedestrian experience.
Kelly said the city can’t let design review fall by the wayside as it approves hundreds of new projects over the next decade to meet a state mandate to accommodate nearly 9,000 housing units by 2029.
“We are currently in an emergency situation, but our cityscape will endure far beyond this crisis,” she said. “A lot of new buildings need to be built to house everyone who needs to be housed, so we really can’t risk the city fabric being compromised by rushed or capricious design decisions.”
The board also provides an avenue for residents to provide input on the design of new development in their neighborhoods. Without a public design review process, residents may resort to appealing projects, Kelly said.
“Less transparency can lead to more public opposition,” she said. “When people feel left out of the process, they’re more likely to appeal projects to the Planning Commission or City Council, and projects can’t move forward when there’s an appeal pending.”
Kelly said the board is willing to cut costs by allowing smaller projects to go through administrative review, reviewing design materials digitally and simplifying staff reports to require less staff time.
“We are eager to find a balance that ensures economic recovery while also preserving the multivoiced public design review process that the city deserves,” she said.
The Landmarks Commission also plays an important role in shaping Santa Monica’s cityscape.
The commission decides which buildings or districts should be given historic designation, which protects them from significant alteration or demolition.
Under the proposed budget cuts, the commission would be suspended and city staff would review applications to designate historic resources on a delayed timeline. Applicants would have to pay for an assessment from a preservation expert to support their application and would also be billed for a report from the city’s consultant.
Preservation advocates say the budget cuts would make it harder to prevent historic buildings from being demolished.
Buildings could already be torn down or radically changed by the time staff reviews landmarking applications, said Nina Fresco, a board member of the Santa Monica Conservancy and a member of the Planning Commission. The Conservancy is a historic preservation nonprofit unaffiliated with the city, although some of its board members sit on the planning and landmarks commissions.
“(The city) is basically not going to do any historic preservation under this plan,” Fresco said. “We have to keep preservation at least on life support … if we ignore a potential landmark or historic resource and let it go, it’s gone forever.”
Fresco said landmarking applicants have never had to pay for an expert report, let alone two. The application is supposed to be accessible to anyone regardless of their background in preservation, she said.
She said the Conservancy has proposed creating a volunteer team of researchers to write assessments for landmarking applications, which would also reduce the workload the city’s consultant would have to take on and therefore reduce costs.
Conservancy vice president Carol Lemlein said the preservation community hopes the city can limit the cost of the landmarking process to both the city budget and applicants without doing away with the Landmarks Commission.
“We understand that to a certain extent has to be cost recovery, and we’re looking at ways to reduce costs,” Lemlein said. “But we have to have some vehicle for expressing our opinions (about demolition and landmarking) so these decisions are not being made behind closed doors.”