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Wedding Cakes and Canyons

By Frank Gruber

November 21, 2011 -- Last week, when the Planning Commission reviewed the proposed mixed-use development at 401 Broadway that I wrote about in last week’s column, Commission Chair Jim Ries stated that he did not want the commission to become the Architectural Review Board, but defended the commission for demanding high-quality design, and stated, “We should be commended for that and not questioned that we overstepped our authority.” (See "Santa Monica Planning Commission Holds Line on Community Benefits", November 18, 2011.)

Since in my column I had questioned the commission’s authority to review architecture, Mr. Ries’ comment made me think, and it wasn’t only because Mr. Ries and his colleagues are a conscientious bunch; Mr. Ries was also correct: the end result of the commission’s involvement in this project’s design was a better design. So what’s my problem?

The issue is what kind of design we are talking about. “Planning” and “architecture” are not the same thing, but they overlap. Planning creates -- yes, designs -- the spaces (literally and figuratively) in which architecture operates. These spaces affect the architecture of what gets built, but the roles of planners and architects are different (not to say that there aren’t architects who also plan).

With respect to the 401 Broadway project, the problem with what planning staff did, and with what the commission did to the extent the commission followed the blueprint laid out by staff, was actually what they did not do. Staff missed the most important planning issues relating to the development, and instead focused on aesthetic issues.

Those key planning issues involved the space between the upper floors of the new building and those of the Lido Apartments immediately to the north, and the importance of respecting the “street wall” created by the Lido and the other buildings fronting on Fourth Street.

When the Lido was built decades ago, no one must have contemplated that anyone would build on the lot to the south, since the Lido provides only a narrow gap at the property line to make sure windows in the building’s south wall would open out to air. While normally on a downtown street one wants a continuous street wall, the City’s planners should have seen that in this case having an unbroken façade above the first floor would create a light and air problem for apartments in both buildings.

At the same time, the original David Hibbert design followed what has become the City’s preferred method for dealing with the setback requirements of the zoning code -- creating a “wedding cake” on the front of the building. This approach is the result of misguided fears expressed years ago by (now former) planning commissioners that straight up-and-down frontages on downtown streets would lead to “canyonization.” Downtown “rights-of-way” are, however, wide enough (80 to 100 feet) and the new buildings are low enough (typically 55-60 feet high) that canyonization is not an issue. (Another product of the fear of canyonization was the mantra that all buildings need “articulation,” as if there aren’t beautiful city streets all around the world that are fronted by uniform facades.)

The planners, or if they didn’t believe they had enough authority, the Planning Commission, should have told the 401 Broadway developer, Steven Henry, and his architect Mr. Hibbert that they needed to solve the light and air problem on the north property line, and then forget about the canyonization bogeyman and come up with a façade that maintained the street wall of Fourth Street.

If that’s design, then the planners and the commission have a role in design, but whatever you call it, this is where the commission should be aggressive. The commissioners should scrutinize wherever a proposed development makes contact with its context. In that regard, the commission should assume more power rather than less.

If the planners had told Mr. Hibbert to fix these planning problems, and told him that it would be “okay” to adjust the setbacks and lose the wedding cake, I have no doubt he would have modified his first, neo-modern design into something that worked. Since new architect Michael Folonis ultimately saved the day by figuring this out, I hate to suggest that it should have been unnecessary for Mr. Henry to hire him, but that’s the truth.

Instead of focusing on the planning issues, staff looked at the architecture, and deemed Mr. Hibbert’s first design “too commercial.” This is where the jurisdiction issue overlaps with the competence issue. Sure, everyone has opinions about architecture, so whoever on staff said the design was too commercial, or whoever on staff even now believes Mr. Folonis’ design needs more “articulation” (an opinion the planning commissioners mercifully rejected), can say to me that their opinion is as competent as mine.

Fine, we’re all competent to say what we like, but Santa Monica has a whole board, the Architectural Review Board (ARB), that . . . reviews architecture! For that reason -- because the City has chosen the ARB’s opinions to be the ones that count -- planning staff is incompetent to review aesthetic design issues, and so is the Planning Commission (except in its role as the board that hears appeals from the ARB).

Everyone has an opinion, but you don’t get good architecture by making architects’ heads spin.

* * *

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Of course I give thanks for having such a cool town to write about.

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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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