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To Review or Not to Review

by Frank Gruber

"It redounds to the beauty of the city of Siena and to the satisfaction of almost all people of the same city that any edifices that are to be made anew anywhere along the public thoroughfares... proceed in line with the existent buildings, and one building not stand out beyond another, but they shall be disposed and arranged equally so as to be of greatest beauty for the city." From a 1346 ordinance of the Siena City Council, as quoted in Spiro Kostof, The City Shaped (1991).

This past Saturday I attended the annual congress of my local neighborhood organization, OPCO -- the Ocean Park Community Organization.

Fortunately, no great controversy is rocking Ocean Park this year. Compared to past congresses, this one was sedate.

Howard Jacobs, the developer, discussed his proposal to build rental housing and retail at the old Boulangerie site, but that project seems not to generate high emotions for or against.

Some residents vociferously denounced the city's failure to ticket, harass, arrest, imprison, exile to Siberia and otherwise throw the book at poor people who rummage for recyclables, but that was towards the end of the meeting and most people had left.

However, last year a new house in the neighborhood and some proposed construction raised questions about the application of Ocean Park's design guidelines, and on Saturday's agenda was a presentation by a local architect, and city planner, and a member of the Architectural Review Board, on how those guidelines work.

The discussion was provocative and there was much talk about the role -- proper and/or improper -- of design review.

Santa Monica has essentially three kinds of design review:

* No review, which is the case in the R-1, single family zones.

* Review by the Architectural Review Board ("ARB"), established in 1974, but with no specific standards beyond that buildings be of "good taste, good design, harmonious with surrounding developments and in general contribute to the preservation of Santa Monica's reputation as a place of beauty, spaciousness and quality." This level of review applies to all construction outside of the R-1 zones, including single-family houses in those other zones.

* Review by the ARB, in accordance not only with the basic standards, but also with district-specific guidelines. One residential district, Ocean Park, has special guidelines, and there are also guidelines for commercial districts, such as the Third Street Promenade.

The Ocean Park guidelines cover many issues, but the best known requirement is that all new construction conform to one of three architectural styles: "Craftsman Bungalow," "Spanish/Mediterranean," or "International."

While there is no district in Santa Monica with the kind of rigid architectural controls common in some planned developments, the three levels of review and how they work offer a basis for considering what might be done in a built-up area to improve aesthetic qualities.

"Not much," you might say. Clearly, 26 years of design review have not turned Santa Monica into Portofino, to think of another hillside, seaside town.

Consider the big new hotels: neither the forced nostalgia of Shutters, the confused post-modernism of the Loews, nor the bland nothingness of Le Merigot, hold a candle to the formidable, 1920's Casa del Mar.

I do not know if the ARB is to blame, but the most common architectural strategy in Santa Monica for commercial and multi-family buildings is to graft an inappropriate historical style onto stucco and 2 by 4's and hope for the best.

Yet what the ARB has approved could be worse. The most awful architecture in the city consistently occurs in the R-1 districts where there is no design review.

A couple years ago residents in the R-1 zone north of Montana raised a great hue and cry about "monster mansions." They stormed City Hall and the city adopted a more or less painless down-zoning. Notwithstanding the mutual back-patting that ensued, the down-zoning will not solve the problem, because almost no attention was paid to issues of design.

Not surprisingly, the homeowners refused to countenance any form of design review, even though their real problems lie in the grandiose architecture and cheap materials of new houses built mostly on spec.

At the OPCO meeting one resident made the point that architectural review, especially with guidelines like those in Ocean Park, is a form of censorship.

Other people have said that cities must grow "organically" and it is a mistake to intervene in that process with too much planning.

I worry about censorship and I am concerned about the limits of planning, but, as evidenced by the 14th century ordinance quoted above, the people, through their governments, have for a long time been controlling private decisions that affect the quality of public space. And often -- in such cities as Siena -- to good effect.

Yet, the words, "good taste, good design" in Santa Monica's ordinance empowering the ARB sound hollow, even cynical, in a culture of throwaway buildings.

And then, whose good taste? Can we build a beautiful city when there is no agreement on what beauty is?

The OPCO discussion ended with more questions open than answered. This column will end the same way, but these are important questions.

Why? Because many times people are frustrated with the built environment and the tendency is to look hard at the amount of it, rather than the quality. People lash out at "over-development" or "monster mansions." Politicians promise relief, development standards are reduced, but -- what do you know -- a few years later people are still unhappy.

Of course they are unhappy -- there is so much ugliness.

Design matters.
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