The future of Santa Monica: will developers or residents rule? – Part 4 Our living quarters

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This is the 4thth of a 5-part article detailing serious issues facing Santa Monica residents and the City Council.

the 1St article clearly outlined where developers come first, then tourists and finally residents! And the article went on to describe that the commercial and residential buildings that the developers were building will severely damage and needlessly transform our low-rise beach town!

the 2nd article addressed the increasing “canyonization” of our 8.3 square mile downtown area (4% of Santa Monica’s total area) and the urgent need to recreate a pedestrian and resident-friendly environment.

the 3approx article discussed the importance of our boulevards, the structural and visual fabric that holds our city together and makes up 10% of our urban area. With the greatest potential for development, including 30% mostly vacant lots and another 40% single-story buildings, it discussed the feasibility of converting our boulevards into parkways lined with three- and four-story mixed-use courtyards and terraced development.

this 4th articlealongside discussing our zone code, paints a picture of our multifamily and single family neighborhoods, which cover a significant majority of our city and, like our downtown and boulevards, are changing rapidly and significantly—a change that can still be changed, but not without a pro -active city council, city administration and city planning staff who act inspired and creative!

Corporate America and the housing industry benefited from increased housing demand and record rents seen early on with the rapid growth of the tech industry in the Bay Area and Tesla’s move to Nevada and Texas, and potentially rising homelessness across the country. Whatever the reason, housing production is paramount, funded by American corporations and foreign investment. And Santa Monica’s response was a quick transition from a history of courtyard housing to beach barracks stacked in log cabins! And that speck of Santa Monica has spread to off-the-shelf, affordable housing. The photos accurately express the broken, faceless and broken direction of our apartment buildings – whether they face streets or alleys – without the greenery of a front yard setback, courtyard or patio! This can’t be what you buy for $3,500-5,500 a month! And unfortunately, these developers are hiring lawyers and architects from Santa Monica to help implement this disaster.

The Land of Lincoln Boulevard is an important part of Santa Monica’s history but is fast becoming the 6 and 8 story Wall of Lincoln. And the Gelsons project in Lincoln and Ocean Park fits right in there. It is Exhibit A relating to the future of our city – 521 apartments in ten 5 and 6 story buildings, an 880 car garage and courtyards 20 to 40 feet wide bordered by 55 to 65 foot tall buildings – many of these rooms not much wider than the width of the alleys.

Although the Gelsons project is 90% commercial housing, it is much denser than most FHA projects and reminds me of the crowded government projects in more urbanized areas. I speak from experience having designed over 3,500 affordable FHA units in the western states. These 2, 3 and 4 story villages always contained significant and usable green spaces! And in view of the lack of transparency in the unlimited official approval process, if someone in our planning department was responsible for it, it should be ended immediately. And any Councilman involved in approving the staff recommendations that permitted such zoning and consolidation should be voted out at the first opportunity.

We need to rethink how we deal with affordable housing! Years ago a deal was made with the devil to provide 20-30% affordable housing in commercial projects in exchange for more height and density. But in this marriage we were certainly deceived by the developers who realized only 8-10% affordable units instead of 20 or 30%, while the units with 90% market price paid significantly higher rents to make up for the increased land and construction costs as well as financing cover, he added to our citywide gentrification problem. This completely unsuccessful marriage with the development partners greedy for more height and density could have been avoided. The city could have simply used a percentage of its sizable land holdings for setting well designed Affordable housing on public land and with extensive green areas – Savings of +/- 35% of the total project costs with zero land costs, reduced construction financing and property tax savings! And those communities of affordable housing and workers’ housing could also include preschools, as a local resident recently suggested to me. This would have reduced gentrification, council squabbles etc etc and even allowed for the potential transition to ownership via a 20 year mortgage write-off – adding value to tenants rather than developers! Shame on the developers and on our city for allowing this to happen for so long!

But must we allow the growth that state laws under the influence of the big $s now require, and if so, can we still sustain our garden city? The December 20, 2021 LA Times headline reads “California’s Population Continues to Decline”. If so, why do we have to build 8,800 housing units? especially with around 4,700 vacant units? And there hasn’t been a significant increase in population – only 4,000 in the last 60 years! Could the housing crisis be an affordability issue and not a supply issue? State housing must not be used to manipulate the planning and future of our city!!

And what can one say about a zoning system that allows for oversized, faceless and characterless prison blocks. Buildings need to be less “copy & paste” and more original. We must abandon our current path of trading environmental quality for buildings on steroids with little, if any, open space! And we need planning decisions based on principles, not special interests. And there was no need for recent up-zoning to meet state-dictated growth numbers, as our zoning willingly accommodated four times the required 8,800 units on underdeveloped land. Upzoning with a percentage of inclusive housing is not the answer. We can no longer pollute our environment.

So the question remains: should Santa Monica be a dense, high-rise city in the shadow of downtown LA, or a low-rise city with a laid-back beach and garden setting? We need a code that requires courtyards and sunlight instead of corridors and shadows, one that’s infused with sensible design requirements, and that encourages low-to-medium sized building development by leveraging tax and processing benefits. Let’s change our zone code from a negative to a positive. We need to rid the code of DAs (Development Agreements) that developers often use to take advantage of our city. However, Gelson’s project is a “rightly” sanctioned permit resulting from staff/council manipulation of the code and has serious support from politicians backed by Sacramento developers. And while we revise our code, let’s educate the mayor and city council on design and planning issues, and seriously review the planning board and director!

Rather than canyonize our city, we can still be a low town with a relaxed beach and garden setting and accommodate any growth that is our reality, so stay tuned for next week’s Article 5 – which explains a roadmap to get around those goals to achieve and maintain. Thank you for listening!

Ron Goldman FAIA
for SMa.rt (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

Thane Roberts, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Architect, Dan Jansenson, Architect, Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi, AIA, Planning Commissioner, Marc Verville, CPA (inactive ), Michael Jolly, AIRCRE. For previous articles see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writings

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