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Building a Better Downtown

By Frank Gruber

Last week I wrote about how it came to pass that the City is considering changes to downtown design standards and the review process. This week I'll consider the substance.

The new proposals, which are on tomorrow night's City Council agenda, include changes to height, massing and parking requirements, and streetscape changes to Sixth and Seventh Streets.

As discussed last week, when the City Council began this process it said it wanted not only that the appearance of buildings downtown should improve, but also that everyone (developers, public and City staff) should have a more clear idea of what the City wanted to be built.

ROMA Group, the consultants the City hired who have been working for the City on downtown issues for fifteen years, came up with an initial insight, namely that to the extent there were problems with the quality of buildings downtown, the problems were the function more of the (low) quality of construction and less of design per se.

As ROMA described the problem, because developers were building wood frame buildings, instead of steel frame buildings, (i) the facades of the new buildings were less attractive than they could be, (ii) the ground-floor retail spaces were uninviting, and (iii) the apartments inside had less light and air and were built less substantially than optimal.

The reasons ROMA found that developers were building with sticks and stucco instead of steel were several. Wood-frame construction is cheaper, which was important to developers because they were spending half the cost of construction on underground parking, which the City encouraged.

There was also no advantage to build with steel, because the height restrictions in the zoning law did not functionally encourage building heights higher than the 50-foot limit on wood-frame construction.

What this meant was that the 50-foot buildings downtown have five ten-foot floors, meaning that the ground floor retail space was too low to attract retail tenants, making for less attractive buildings and defeating the City's purpose of enhancing the pedestrian environment.

The proposals include modest increases in height on most blocks downtown to conform the height restrictions to the building code for steel structures. Above 50 feet, buildings will be stepped back, so the impact on pedestrians will be minimal. In any case, the streets downtown are so wide that any fears of "canyonization" at these height levels have been dramatically overstated.

ROMA and staff also proposed a reduction in allowable building heights along the Promenade. Their view is that no one has been building facades along the Promenade higher than 35 feet because the prevailing uses have been retail stores. I oppose this reduction not because I habitually favor more density, but because effectively limiting buildings on the Promenade to large retail uses runs against the City's ongoing effort to diversify uses along the Promenade away from formula retail.

A lot of attention has been focused on ROMA's proposals for encouraging courtyard buildings. Their idea is that if developers can build higher with steel, they can incorporate more open space on the ground, in courtyards, and that by breaking up the building façade, this will benefit both the public walking along the street and tenants who will have airier apartments.

Courtyards are great, and architects have used them for these purposes in apartment buildings all over the world. In fact, there is a fine example of a three-story courtyard building at 1305 Second Street. A proud tenant there told me the building was 90 years old.

The Courtyard at 1305 Second Street (Photo by Frank Gruber)

Not only does this building illustrate the benefits of courtyards that open to the street, but also it demonstrates the importance of building materials. The building's brick façade still looks great. The building would still be great if it were two stories taller, and it wouldn't even then be as tall as the adjacent parking structure.

As beneficial as courtyards can be, they are not the be all and end all. I happen to like the use of balconies that the existing buildings downtown have. What's important to note about the ROMA proposals is that the courtyard option is encouraged but optional. Under the proposal, a developer could build something other than a courtyard building, but in that case he or she would have to submit the project to design review at the ARB.

This question of eliminating the ARB from the process of approving buildings that conform to the courtyard specs has been the most controversial aspect of the current proposals. As I wrote last week, I am sympathetic to the ARB.

I have a modest proposal for a compromise between staff, which would like to facilitate development review, and the ARB and others who want to maintain some public process. I suggest that the City Council should continue to require ARB review, but eliminate "massing" from the ARB's purview on projects that conform to the courtyard specs or any other building profile that the ordinance pre-approves.

This would greatly simplify the design-review process, but maintain the ARB's review of materials and other aspects of design.

The proposals include several sensible reductions in parking requirements for mixed-use buildings. Since street parking is so limited downtown, how much parking a building requires is best left to the developer to make as a business decision, since if his tenants are going to need more parking, this is not a cost he can "externalize." There is no such thing as free parking, especially free underground parking.

The best move the City Council could make regarding parking is to require the decoupling of the cost of parking from apartment rents. This would mean that an expensive resource, parking, would be managed more efficiently, as it is in other cities. Tenants could choose not to rent parking spaces they don't need, and if property owners could make money from parking, they might hire attendants to manage the resource, including by renting out empty or tandem spaces during the day. This might save the City from having to build more parking structures.

As for streetscape, the proposals to widen sidewalks on Sixth and Seventh are good, provided that the property owners are willing to assess themselves to pay for them. Initially there were questions about traffic flow and bike lanes, but a subsequent iteration addressed the traffic issues, and, speaking as a downtown cyclist, it's better to ride on a narrowed, traffic-calmed street without a bike lane than on a wide street with the false-security of a bike lane.

If all goes to plan, in 20 years downtown Santa Monica should have 10,000 residents living in a five and six story human-scaled neighborhood with shops on the street like those neighborhoods in Europe SMFCs (Santa Monicans Fearful of Change) like to visit and then return wondering why we can't have neighborhoods like that here.

Well, we can.

Also on the City Council agenda Tuesday night are changes to development and design standards and permit processing procedures for most of the City's multi-family districts. These are more changes required by the sunseting of an interim ordinance the City Council passed in a rush five years ago. Although these changes affect more of the city than the downtown standards, they have received less attention and engendered no controversy.

The proposals, which were also developed by planning staff with the ROMA Group, are sensible and should make the development process in Santa Monica's existing residential neighborhoods more rational and make new developments more attuned to the surroundings.
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