In Santa Monica politics, you’ve got to be brave to support a planning staff recommendation, and I have to extend the profile in courage award to former mayor Mike Feinstein, who did precisely that last week when, in a Guest Opinion in the Lookout, he supported staff’s recommendations for what downtown heights to study in the environmental review for the Downtown Specific Plan (DSP).
Readers might remember that in June Feinstein and I sponsored a forum to discuss the height issue. We wanted to try to focus on the momentous decision whether to change Santa Monica’s 30-year policy banning tall towers, separating it from issues that relate to development in general.
In that connection I was pleased over the weekend to hear City Council Member Kevin McKeown express the matter succinctly and well. He said that when it came to height, there were three issues: the aesthetics of height in general, the impact of height, negative or positive, on urban design at street level, and the “values” issue, i.e., whether granting more height for one purpose or another (such as high-end condos or luxury hotels) violates the way a community looks at itself.
What are not issues about height are, for instance, traffic, since a square foot of X is associated with same amount of traffic whether it’s on the third floor or the 20th, or tax revenues, since successful hotels and businesses and residential developments can be built in buildings eight floors or less, too.
As I’ve written before, I believe City Council should direct staff to expand the heights studied in DSP environmental review. Why? Because I’m curious.
But first, how high should they study? Feinstein in his article makes the point that once you decide to study higher heights, there is no logic about where to stop. I disagree. The rationale I would suggest for the DSP is to study up to the heights of existing buildings, since it’s beyond unlikely that we would ever approve going higher than what is already here. This rationale is no more arbitrary than staff’s cutoff of 135 feet, which they said was chosen to preserve views of the Clock Tower Building; I call that arbitrary, because a short, squat building is going to block more views of the Clock Tower than a tall, skinny building of the same square footage.
In fact, for most of downtown, my measure would support the staff’s recommendations, or something close to them. There are few buildings north of Wilshire or east of Second Street that exceed the 135 feet (about 12 stories) that staff says it wants to study for the so-called opportunity sites. There are quite a few buildings around that height (including the existing tower at the Miramar) and a few higher than it (such as the Huntley Hotel), but I can’t think of a compelling reason to study higher than 135 feet in those areas of downtown. (Yes, this means that my instinct is that the Miramar should go back to its original idea of capping its new development at 12 stories — but it should move the new height (after replacing its existing tower) away from California and Second Streets to Wilshire.)
For the record, I’ve always been in favor of the 1980s’ height limits and in the five- to six-story downtown that’s been under construction since they were enacted. I like the “pre-elevator” look and scale of buildings that high. And I opposed the proposal to build 22-story towers at Santa Monica Place. So, what am I curious about now?
I’m curious about the area south of Wilshire and west of Second. This is where there is already a cluster of towers. Not that they are good buildings, and it’s understandable why 30 years ago in reaction to them the newly-elected SMRR majority on City Council enacted a ban on high-rises. But the problem with those towers (aside from, in most cases, unimpressive architecture) is more a matter of scale than height itself.
For instance, I just learned that the old GTE building, 100 Wilshire, designed by Cesar Pelli, has a floor-to-area ratio (FAR) of fourteen. Fourteen! By comparison, the whole Miramar development would have an FAR of 2.9, and the hotel/condo project Frank Gehry is designing would have an FAR of 2.6. It’s impossible that those projects could create a wall like the one that now exists on Ocean Avenue from Wilshire to Arizona.
In fact, architects and urban designers have learned a lot since the ’70s. They know now not to build towers in isolated parks, and we all have learned not to build massive towers that take up whole blocks.
When urban designer Stefanos Polyzoides spoke at the forum Mike Feinstein and I sponsored in June, the first thing he said you have to consider when deciding whether to build a tower is what would it replace. When I look at the blocks along Ocean south of Arizona, where two towers have been proposed, I see some sites where replacement would be good.
There’s the site of the Gehry-designed project, which is mostly a parking lot, and there’s the old Holiday Inn. The latter is not only a nondescript box, but access to it is going to be a problem when vehicles will have to cross the ultra-widened sidewalk of the new Colorado Esplanade to get to it. It’s a site that cries out for something new.
I don’t know how high the developers should be allowed to build, but I’d like to see higher heights studied because perhaps they will allow for the building of something better than we have now. And I’d like to see these heights studied as part of the DSP, because I’d like to see the cumulative impact two or more towers would have.
As I said, I’m curious.
Thanks for reading.