Density and Building Heights are Not the Same Thing

Between 2004 and 2010 Santa Monica updated the land use and circulation elements (LUCE) of its general plan, but the LUCE didn’t include downtown. Instead, downtown has been the subject of a separate, “specific plan” process.

As the same time, property owners on three important Ocean Avenue sites have announced or indicated plans to develop high-rise hotel and apartment/condominium projects. (The three projects are the Miramar Hotel renovation, the project Frank Gehry is designing for the corner of Ocean Avenue and Santa Monica Blvd., and the replacement of the Wyndham Hotel (formerly the Holiday Inn) at Ocean Avenue at Colorado.)

The three projects would not conform to current downtown zoning, but the downtown specific plan being developed anticipates eight “opportunity sites,” including these three sites, where various development standards, including heights, would be flexible.

These plans have been controversial. Opponents of the specific plan, as it has been developing, say that it would allow too much in the way of density and height. To allow for an airing of views, the Planning Department has scheduled a special “Town Hall” meeting of the Planning Commission, for tonight (Monday, May 6), from 6 to 9 PM at the Civic Auditorium’s east wing.

The two issues of density and height are often lumped together but are separate. The former should not be a problem downtown, while the latter deserves a robust community discussion.

Regarding density, the amount of new development, as well as the kind of development, proposed for downtown, even on the opportunity sites, is generally consistent with the direction downtown has taken quite successfully for almost 20 years, since the mid-’90s when the City Council adopted the last major revision of downtown zoning. If you look at the list of development projects that The Lookout published last week, you will see that they are all for hotels or housing, either apartments or condominiums (with ground floor stores).

For a long time the City has encouraged residential development downtown because there was a consensus, among even development skeptics like the late Ken Genser, that building housing instead of commercial development downtown helped with traffic, kept development pressures out of neighborhoods, and created a real community in Santa Monica’s core. Santa Monica also needs housing, particularly affordable and workforce housing, and nearly all of the housing downtown has been rental apartments, much of it deed-restricted affordable.

The City has also favored hotels, especially downtown, because they are consistent with Santa Monica’s character as a travel destination, they generate considerable revenue for the City and local businesses, and they, like housing, don’t generate as much traffic as other commercial uses.

The proposed amount of development in the list of projects, as measured by “floor-to-area-ratio”, also is generally consistent with the standards downtown.

The amount of net new development, after taking to account the existing development that will be replaced, is also significantly less than the total development. For instance, downtown apartment projects typically replace existing commercial uses, which likely generate as much or more traffic as the residential developments that replace them.

One also needs to keep the context in mind. Santa Monica already has about 50,000 housing units and more than 3,500 hotel rooms. Even cumulatively, and even if they all get built, the apartment and hotel rooms being proposed for downtown are not going to have significant impacts on traffic. Downtown, with all its transit resources, is the best place to locate development, and downtown traffic is not caused by the housing that’s been built there.

But height is different. Santa Monica needs to have a deep and wide-ranging public conversation before the City changes policies that were adopted 30 years ago to prohibit more high-rises.

For a long time I have opposed high-rise development here. For one, places that don’t have heavy rail transportation infrastructure can’t handle the transportation needs generated by large floor plate skyscrapers: without subways, you get the auto-sewers of Bunker Hill in downtown L.A. I also never liked the “tower in a park” modernist urban design philosophy that isolated so many high-rises from the public on the street. Unfortunately Santa Monica has a number of examples of that from the ’60 and ’70s.

In downtowns and other areas where there is sufficient demand, I have always liked the traditional urban design standards of five and six story buildings — the kind of cities that were built in the pre-elevator era. For this reason I opposed the 22-story towers proposed almost 10 years ago for Santa Monica Place.

But I have been rethinking this, at least in certain circumstances. The reason is that a few years ago I visited Vancouver, where they have created a format for urban development that relies a lot on skinny residential towers to provide the density they want while at the same time making the streets more open to air and sunlight and view corridors than what would be the case if development were concentrated in low-rise buildings. Vancouver solved the “tower in a park” problem by putting the towers above low-rise bases that connect with the street, while also providing for good quality public open spaces.

As I said, I have not yet decided whether to support breaking Santa Monica’s 30-year rule against high-rises to allow the three Ocean Avenue projects. The keys are keeping the amount of development (density) more or less the same, but also the quality of design. Urban planning is often about numbers, but aesthetics are important, too. These projects are going to change the skyline overlooking the beach, and they need to look good.

Like a lot of people in Santa Monica I started thinking more positively about the high-rises when I saw Frank Gehry’s preliminary models for the Ocean and Santa Monica Boulevard project. I was unimpressed by the work at the Miramar, but Gehry’s proposal reminded me that beauty can have value all on its own. I’m going to reserve my judgment until I see a better model that would show how all three projects would work (or not work) in concert.

See you tomorrow night, and thanks for reading.

3 thoughts on “Density and Building Heights are Not the Same Thing

  1. Pingback: Downtown Development: The Train has Left the Station and is Arriving Soon | The Healthy City Local

  2. I also liked the thin high-rises in Vancouver. But I have heard that here in the US there are building codes that require two elevators at either end of a building, while in Canada, you can build both elevators in the center, making it possible to have housing with incredible views and light. Those codes should be challenged.

  3. I hope that the planning commission and city council can make good decisions on these high rise proposals without being overwhelmed by activist opponents.

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