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Last of a Series

By Frank Gruber

I began this intermittent series on design review in August by looking at how "Santa Monicans Fearful of Change" ("SMFCs") have turned their delusion that our burg on the bay is so special that all architecture must be "world class" into a political argument against new development.

For another example of how SMFCs distort reality to prevent change, consider the ordinance that the City Council recently passed, on first reading, to make permanent the City's "Construction Rate Program." This program prevents, with certain exceptions, the building or even remodelling of an apartment building closer than 500 feet to another multi-family construction project within fifteen months of the first project's having received a building permit.

City Council enacted this program in March 2000 on a temporary, "emergency" basis. Why? There was a crisis of over development. Between 1996 and 1999 there was a 533 percent increase in development activity in multi-family residential districts.

A 533 percent increase sure sounds like a crisis. But not if you look at the actual numbers. In 1996 there were three projects. In 1999 there were sixteen.

Sixteen projects. According to the current Housing Element of the City's General Plan, in 2000 there were about 38,300 apartments in the city. That's 38,300 apartments, sixteen new projects in a year, 1999, that was the very height of an economic boom, after most of a decade during which almost no apartments were built. An overdevelopment emergency?

It's Orwellian. City Council declares an emergency and so there is an emergency. Peace is war.

Most of those 38,300 apartments are built of sticks and stucco. More than 75 percent of the city's housing is more than 30 years old. Much is sagging and decrepit, food for termites. These buildings will be replaced or "substantially remodeled" several times before Santa Monica even approaches the end of its urban evolution -- a few centuries hence.

Leaving aside the SMFC critique that no development could ever be good enough for Santa Monica, what if we wanted to improve the design review process so that Santa Monica might evolve with good design? I have a few suggestions.

The first is procedural. When a project requires Planning Commission development review, the city should eliminate separate Architectural Review Board review, and combine aesthetic and development decisions at the Planning Commission level. Separating architectural from development review has not worked.

Why? Because the Planning Commission is hobbled when it cannot consider design issues, developers are unable to use design to deal with potential development problems, the process is extended and made much more costly, and the ARB, when it finally reviews a project, is often stuck with de facto design decisions made by the Planning Commission (or City Council).

Both the Planning Commission and the ARB -- and developers and architects -- are justifiably confused when they have to apply concepts, such as "neighborhood compatibility" or "massing," that mean one thing in the zoning/development context and something else in the architectural context.

When a project is big enough to require development review, the City should follow the practice it used for expedited earthquake replacement projects. When the Planning Commission considers the project, have one or two ARB members sit with the Commission to consult on architecture and landscaping.

Regardless where and when design review takes place, the subjective nature of aesthetics and the conflict between encouraging both individuality and neighborhood compatibility, which are both stated goals of design review, make the process problematic.

Perhaps design reviewers should think more about good buildings, and less about good architecture. "Architecture" is a loaded term, overburdened with ideas about art and beauty. Yet few buildings, even in the world's most beautiful built environments, are the product of the self conscious intellectual discipline and high art that is architecture.

Certain elements are common in good buildings. Good buildings are built to last. How many buildings in Santa Monica do you expect to be around in 100 years? How many would you want to be around in 100 years?

Beauty is subjective, but people can agree on objective standards for quality materials. If we require developers to build to last, with high-quality materials, then we will have won half the battle.

Good buildings also suit their environments. The Taos pueblo is beautiful sitting there in the desert. It wouldn't look so good in a rain forest, and faux French chateau don't look that good in Santa Monica.

Speaking of context, why does the ARB consistently require landscaping in between store windows and the sidewalk on streets where the city wants to encourage shopping and pedestrian ambiance?

Sooner or later, we have to deal with the beauty issue. When we do, let's show some respect for architects and architecture. I was appalled during the approval process for Howard Jacobs' Main Street apartment projects that both the Planning Commission and City Council doubted that anyone could design a block-long building that would not be "monolithic." They required that the architect break the building up, to look like little buildings, each in a different style.

What does it say about our being a "city of the arts" that we don't believe an architect can or should make a unified statement over one block? The architect in this case did his best, but if we want good architecture we have to give architects some elbow room. There's no reward without risk.

Then there is the whole question of "styles." Styles are the crutch used by the design handicapped to try to understand architecture. They can't be used willy-nilly. You can't just throw "Spanish" or "Craftsman" onto the facade of a multi-story apartment block and expect Santa Barbara or Pasadena. There is nothing criminal about genre architecture, but unintentional post-modernism -- of which Santa Monica has so much -- is a disaster.

Notwithstanding how easy it is to complain about design review, it's worth considering those instances where the process has worked well or, at least, where good and innovative design has survived the process. With the exception of single-family houses in multi-family zones, which traditionally receive more leeway from the ARB, most of these success stories are City projects, such as the beach improvement projects, the re-do of Palisades Park, and the Pico streetscape.

The City is a special client. It has the money and the design confidence to weather the process by accepting good suggestions and avoiding compromise with bad ones. Few private developers have either the City's money or confidence.

The City wants developers to make better architecture, yet it has created a design review process that more than anything makes developers waste money and lose confidence in their architects.

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This is the fourth of a series of columns on design review. Following are the three preceding columns:

"World Class City of the Self-Deluded," August 26

"More Architecture, More French," Sept 3.

"Inoperable," Sept. 23

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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