To Study or Not to Study

Tuesday night’s City Council meeting is going to be the latest big meeting on development standards in Santa Monica. The topic will be the scope of the environmental review for the Downtown Specific Plan (DSP).

Planning staff, in the staff report, takes a conservative approach, recommending that the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) cover only small changes to existing standards for both building heights and the amount of permitted development. Nonetheless, by including in the report two alternative actions that the council could take, staff has invited the council to expand the scope of the EIR to study the impacts of taller heights proposed in current pending projects and possible density bonuses for uses that generate fewer car trips.

Because the purpose of environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is to give decision-makers more information, not less, to inform their decision-making, the council should accept this invitation and expand the scope of the EIR.

Having said that, my instinct is that much of the staff’s conservatism is warranted, at least for most of downtown.

Regarding density, staff analyzed the current levels of development downtown and found that because of the density bonus for housing adopted in the ’90s to encourage residential development in commercial zones downtown, development in downtown Santa Monica often exceeds an floor-area-ratio (FAR) of 3.0 (meaning that on the average a given parcel of land could be 100% covered with a three-story building) and can approach an FAR of 4.0. (Because of requirements for light and air, and sometimes for setbacks, buildings in real life always require more stories than the theoretical average number of stories allowed under a given FAR.)

In general, consistent with what the reality has been over the past nearly 20 years, staff recommends FARs of between 2.5 and 4.0, but recommends dropping most of the density bonus for housing, intending that housing can be incentivized by other means (some of which are required by state law).

While an FAR as high as 4.0 should be rare in downtown (an FAR over 3.0 is difficult to work with on the small parcels that characterize most of downtown Santa Monica), where higher densities (within the range) might make sense would be on the western (Ocean Avenue) and southern (freeway) edges, because the density that you would be putting in those locations would not be “reflected” by density “across the street.” I don’t mean that you could double the density, but there could be more — but that would require more height to get appropriate light and air for the building and avoid boxy massing.

Which brings up the height issue. Given how controversial the three hotel/condo towers proposed for west of Second Street have been, I can understand the staff’s reticence about studying heights that high in the EIR, but not to study them would be ignoring the elephant in the room. It’s not, however, only (or even primarily) the environmental impacts that need analysis; aesthetic impacts are even more important. For height, we need an “AIR” – “Aesthetics Impact Report.”

And a “Meaning Impact Report” — we also need to analyze how higher heights affect the “meaning” Santa Monica has or the meaning — or values — that we want Santa Monica to have. Santa Monica has never been only a resort — we were once equally famous for the aircraft built here — but the beach and its attractions (both natural and human-made) have been an important part of our identity as a world famous place. Unusual for resorts, for a long time we’ve also been the edge of a metropolis. But how urban do we want that edge to be?

That’s a debate worth having, and one we need to have before the City Council makes its final decision about heights. To have that debate, and to make that decision, the community and the council need to see appropriate visualizations and models.

It’s hard to resist dipping a toe into the substance of that debate. Planning staff claims that there is less support for taller buildings west of Second Street than east of it, but that’s not what I’ve heard. Admittedly, I don’t have a scientific sample (nor does staff), but what I’ve heard frequently is that given that there are already many tall buildings along Ocean Avenue, that’s where new towers (if any are to be allowed) should go. Also, skinny tall buildings overlooking Palisades Park (densities being equal) will block breezes and views less than squat short ones.

We should be more conservative with the 20 or so blocks east of Second Street and north of Colorado. There are few buildings above six stories there and tall buildings would stand out more. In this I am being influenced by what Stefanos Polyzoides said at the forum Mike Feinstein and I hosted June 22, namely that towers are best when they are clustered, rather than scattered about. The five- and six-story height limits have worked well on what have become primarily residential blocks on Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh.

See you Tuesday night — and thanks for reading.

4 thoughts on “To Study or Not to Study

  1. Pingback: Memo to Planning Commission: You can handle more knowledge | The Healthy City Local

  2. Frank, can you say something more about Mr. Polyzoides’s thinking here? I’m not saying you’re necessarily wrong about Ocean Ave being an okay place for new high-rises, but that ‘towers are best when they’re clustered’ seems like a huge generalization. If one is designing an urban area from scratch in the Chinese hinterlands, and has a fixed x number of high-rises to distribute in it, I can see that clustering would have an appeal over even and equidistant distribution. But the problem here is rather different. We have a fair number of preexisting high-rises, and we want to determine if any more, at specific candidate locations, would be okay. The thing about the pre-existing ones is that they by and large *are* scattered about, and it works quite well: they do give occasional interest and punctuation to the landscape without being looming or blotting out too much sky. Think of the one across from Reed park. Adding another one very near would seem obviously wrong. And while I’m inclined to think a genuinely slender tower that worked could be designed for the Miramar property, my assumption’s been that the presence of the preexisting towers across the street on three sides is a reason against having a tower there, and makes its design more problematic.

    (I do live in one of those preexisting towers, which probably prejudices me a bit; but then again, only a bit. And it also makes me familiar with the geometric and spatial dynamics of the the place.)

    About the aesthetic and values or symbolism studies, I can only agree! EIRs have an aesthetics section but its utterly rudimentary. We should have panel of recognized academic architectural historians and critics assess the issue in the DSP and the high-rise proposals we have so far. Maybe we could make a reality-TV show out of it…

    • David — I can’t adequately summarize all of Stefanos’ thinking about this, but the success of cities (from a form standpoint) depends a lot on repetition and rhythm; from an aesthetic perspective from afar, clustering towers can create a skyline that people appreciate. Isolated towers look — isolated. (For an extreme example, think your garden variety suburban office tower.) On the ground, there’s a similar response — an isolated tower in a park is typically desolate (the failure of modernist urbanism). Work out a system where the towers and their bases, plazas and the streets and sidewalks work together, and you can get something better. Similarly for infrastructure — it’s easier to match the infrastructure to the need if the need is consistent in a given area. BTW, last Saturday I walked the whole of Ocean Avenue taking pictures and looking closely, and would not say we have much rhythm along there — as you say, they are scattered about. (For the most part.) But there are a lot of big buildings one way or another — it’s not like it’s the Mendocino coast.

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