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Maine, Ohio, and the Corner of Fourth and Broadway

By Frank Gruber

November 14, 2011 -- If President Barack Obama wins reelection next November, people will look back at the events of the past six weeks as crucial. The results of last Tuesday’s elections in Ohio, Mississippi, Arizona, Maine, and elsewhere, where voters emphatically repudiated antiunion, anti-abortion rights, anti-immigrant, anti-voting, etc., planks of the right-wing platform, provide evidence for a remarkable shift in the political winds.

I only occasionally write about national politics, and the election is a year off and anything can happen, but it is hard to resist commenting on such a dramatic change.

Specifically regarding President Obama, advance polling on the election itself has also shown that something is up. In the bellwether state of Ohio Obama has gone from being tied with likely opponent Mitt Romney in mid-October to having a 50%-41% lead last week.

Politics swing like a pendulum do, but they often get pushed, and in this case the pushes seem to have come from three sources. One is the President’s own offensive to have Congress enact his jobs bills, which has put Republicans on the defensive for the first time since at least the summer of 2010. The second is the Occupy Wall Street movement and its progeny, which have reconnected the Left to populism.

The third push is from . . . the third is . . . okay, thank you Jon Stewart for that joke, but the third push of the pendulum comes from the Republican presidential debates, and the shenanigans and goofiness of the candidates. Cain, Perry, et al., have tarnished the Republican brand, particularly among independent voters.

* * *

Getting back to all things local, many Santa Monicans I talk to are distressed that City Attorney Marsha Moutrie has had to advise dedicated and knowledgeable board and commission members, the latest being Michael Folonis of the Architectural Review Board, to quit their posts because of her department’s new interpretation of Government Code Section 1090. It’s hard, however, fault her: the risk to the board members and commissioners is too great not to be ultra-cautious.

Board members and commissioners could be charged with felonies under §1090, and it is not difficult to imagine that in the context of Santa Monica politics, someone unhappy with a board member or commissioner might file a complaint. Here, certainly, discretion is the better part of valor.

* * *

It is too early to predict just how the Santa Monica-Malibu School Board will resolve the issue of disparities in private giving to district schools, but it looks like we are headed towards a system that centralizes all or nearly all donations.

The idea of sharing appears now to be more agreeable to parents in Malibu and the wealthier neighborhoods of Santa Monica than it was when then-Superintendent John Deasy proposed and ultimately implemented a 15 percent sharing program in 2003. Mr. Deasy, now superintendent of L.A. Unified, didn’t always make things easier with his rhetoric. (See Harmonics and Disharmonics, Points and Counterpoints”, December 15, 2003.)

I also wonder if this increased support for fairness is a byproduct of the support that the City of Santa Monica and the taxpayers of both cities have given to the schools, including last year’s vote in Santa Monica on Meas. Y to pass the half-cent sales tax, half of which will go to the schools. Santa Monica’s contributions to the district (about $8 million in general fund contributions and $5.5 million from Meas. Y), not to mention $10.4 million in parcel taxes paid in both Santa Monica and Malibu, and property taxes for construction bonds, dwarf in size the private contributions to the schools in even the wealthiest neighborhoods.

* * *

Last month I wrote a column praising how Santa Monica has handled commercial development in the 30 years since the Left, in the form of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights, took over city government. (See Don’t Give it Away”, October 17, 2011.) To contrast that, this week the Planning Commission will review a project that epitomizes how badly Santa Monica deals with residential development, particularly in the post-LUCE era.

The project is a five-story building with four floors of mostly studio apartments over ground-floor retail to be built at 401 Broadway; that’s the northeast corner of Fourth and Broadway, currently the location of an auto repair business. Four-stories-of-apartments-over-retail is the format of many buildings that have been constructed in downtown Santa Monica over the past 15 years. These have brought residents to downtown in considerable numbers, exemplifying the values of the LUCE before there was a LUCE.

This particular project exemplifies the LUCE even more, because the developer is not building parking. The project is located in the downtown parking district, where parking is not required. This will discourage tenants from having their own cars.

While downtown mixed-use projects used to receive administrative review followed by review by the Architectural Review Board (ARB), under the post-LUCE Interim Zoning Ordinance the 401 Broadway project needs a development agreement because its height will exceed 32 feet. This means it needs to wend its way through the Planning Commission and City Council, only then to be reviewed again by the ARB.

The Planning Commission first reviewed the project October 19, and did not send it on to City Council: the commissioners did not like the proposed building’s look. Now the developer is coming back after having hired a new architect. This is a travesty of the process: except for some basic urban design issues, the most important of which planning staff and the commission ignored, neither staff nor the commission should be evaluating the architecture of this project or projects like it.

Once a project enters the world of development agreements, the issue of public benefits comes up, because under the LUCE development rights are predicated on them. At the present time in Santa Monica that approach makes sense for office development, but it is ludicrous when applied to residential development, particularly when applied to an apartment building without parking in downtown Santa Monica that will replaces a car repair shop and a parking lot.

Why? In a city and a region, the Westside of L.A., where there isn’t enough housing, this whole project is a public benefit.

The project will provide housing for new residents, few of whom will have cars. Based on other studio apartment developments in the city, many of these tenants will be students at Santa Monica College, thus reducing commuting to SMC’s campus. These new residents will walk around, enlivening the streets and spending money in downtown Santa Monica. Many of them will ride bikes, which will serve the purposes of the City’s new bike plan. The new project will pay much more in the way of property taxes than the old repair shop, which under Prop. 13 probably pays next to nothing.

Yet all the city planners want to do is lard the project up with expensive “public benefits,” such as: a transportation demand management program (for an apartment building without parking?); bike parking and bike facilities for tenants and employees that will take up much of an expensive underground floor (why can’t the cyclists park their bikes in the City’s parking structures like the tenants and employees with cars will have to do; and why do the employee-cyclists need two showers?); a contribution of more than $3,000 per unit to transportation infrastructure (the property owner will already be paying special assessments for doing business downtown and in the parking district, isn’t that enough vigorish for the City?); LEED certification for a project that is inherently green because of its location and because it doesn’t provide parking; and a bizarre requirement, considering the City’s interest in reducing reliance on automobiles, that the developer lease 20 parking spaces off-site for tenants who have cars and are too simpleminded to make their own arrangements to garage them.

These requirements are in addition to the general requirements of all multi-unit residential developments that the developer provide low-income affordable units, 5.6 of them in this case, and contribute approximately $1500 per unit to funds for childcare and “cultural arts.”

Does the City want more housing or not? If the developer chose to avoid the development agreement process, he could build a box retail building up to 32 feet high, and the City wouldn’t get anything except more sales taxes. (But maybe that’s the point; sometimes I get the feeling the City operates like a big cash register. Planning staff says in the project’s staff report that the non-development agreement alternative is an apartment building half the size, but that’s misleading because no one would build it.)

But the public benefits scam is not the worst of it, which is how the Planning Department has inserted itself and the Planning Commission into the design review process. What shocked me, as an old Planning Commissioner, in the Oct. 19 staff report was to read how the staff made the developer and his then architect, David Hibbert, change their design -- for aesthetic reasons, not for reasons of urban design -- before they even reached the commission.

The staff report includes conceptual renderings of both Mr. Hibbert’s original design and the one he revised in response to staff’s comments. Yes, appreciation of architecture is subjective, but in my opinion the first design, a fairly clean neo-modern one, was better than the revised design, a somewhat postmodern reworking. In staff’s opinion, the first design looked too “commercial” for a residential project, as if staff had never seen floor-to-ceiling windows in a house or apartment in L.A. Here’s the “before” version in the staff report:

Hibbert Original (renderings from staff

In his redesign, Mr. Hibbert evidently tried to appease staff with some shallow “Juliet-type” balconies and recessed windows, and the result was this:

Arhitect David Hibbert's Revised version

Nonetheless, or perhaps predictably, Mr. Hibbert’s revised design did not go over well with the Planning Commission. As mentioned above, the commissioners told the developer to come back with changes. The developer dropped Mr. Hibbert and hired a new architect, Michael Folonis (now formerly of the ARB). Mr. Folonis has himself developed a clean neo-modern design (but with balconies to reassure planning staff that, yes, these are apartments). Here it is:

Architect Michael Folonis' version

I have little interest in comparing the designs; my question is what business planning staff and the Planning Commission, and later City Council, have getting involved at this stage in aesthetic decisions, when the ARB is responsible for design review?

Nor do staff’s comments about the designs, and the comments the Planning Commission made, inspire confidence. Aside from finding the neo-modern design too commercial for apartments, the staff reports are full of gibberish about more “articulation” and pathetic micromanagement -- such as agonizing about where to locate three columns. There’s also a strange comment about how the designer needed to use architectural elements “to reduce the height and scale of the 18 foot ground floor height” as a means of “providing a stronger connection between the ground floor and upper levels,” as if in the ordinary world of good urbanism a high-ceilinged ground floor isn’t something to flaunt.

While I’m trying not to make aesthetic evaluations, Mr. Folonis’ design is “objectively” an improvement over the previous designs in two respects. Ironically, they both involve urban design and zoning issues that were properly within the purview of planning staff and the commission but which, based on the staff reports, they ignored.

As seen in the images above, Mr. Folonis improved the form of the building by getting rid of setbacks on Fourth Street that Mr. Hibbert included in his design in conformity with zoning code requirements. Mr. Folonis’ straight up-and-down façade continues the “street wall” created by the Lido Apartments immediately to the north, which, continuing to Santa Monica Boulevard, is the defining feature of that block of Fourth Street. That change is good urban design, within the purview of planning. It runs up against the usual interpretation of the zoning code’s setback provisions, which are also within the purview of planning.

What appears to have happened -- although it’s not explained in the staff report -- is that Mr. Folonis took advantage of zoning law provisions that allow the averaging of setbacks. You see, he also widened the gap between the building and the Lido Apartments to allow more light and air between the buildings (the second good urban design element that staff and the commission might have picked up on if they weren’t obsessing over the look of Mr. Hibbert’s design), and he added balconies; by making these changes it appears that he took care of the setback requirement.

Planning staff and the Planning Commission want better architecture in Santa Monica, but does anyone think we’re going to get better architecture if designs are subject to multiple reviews? Does the phrase “too many cooks” ring any bells?

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If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email 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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