Elevated Thinking?

Last week I wrote a post about the political conflict over the issue of the height in downtown Santa Monica, focusing on the fight between the Miramar and Huntley Hotels and the motion three councilmembers brought forward to table consideration of projects taller than 84 feet until after the adoption of the Downtown Specific Plan.

But I didn’t say much about the issue itself. As I have written before, I am still making up my mind about height. I’d like to explain why I am still undecided.

Thirty years ago Santa Monica made a momentous decision to restrict heights. Since the days of the Arcadia Hotel Santa Monicans had built large buildings on the beach; today, when people profess nostalgia for an unchanging “sleepy beach town,” it’s important to recall that the decision to restrict heights represented big change.

I was not involved in politics then, but it’s a decision that I’ve always thought was a good one. The city made it in response to a series of towers, both downtown and in Ocean Park, that were built in the ’60s and ’70s. For the most part these towers were unattractive and projected an exclusionary gestalt offensive to many. The decision to lower heights also had the side benefit of spreading the demand for development around downtown Santa Monica to more properties, helping to create the more balanced downtown that we now have.

My own views in general about skyscrapers for a long time have been that other than in exceptional locations the best form for most urban centers was the form that cities took before elevators – capping out at five or six stories, with courtyards and good connections to the street. While I love modern architecture, I agree with the consensus that developed in the light of the writings of Jane Jacobs and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown that the modernists’ concept of the “tower in a park” had been a failure.

Then a few years ago I took a trip to Vancouver (my wife had a conference there – it wasn’t as if I was looking for a new perspective) and saw how in that beautiful city on the water they were building “skinny” high-rises, mostly for residential purposes, that worked well with their streets. I began to reconsider my position about height. But for any given place, such as downtown Santa Monica, I haven’t made up my mind. Every place is different.

What Santa Monica needs and deserves is a robust community discussion about the issue. A generation has passed since Santa Monica restricted heights, and while the momentous decisions of the past have weight, they aren’t necessarily binding on the future. Change happens. Still, the burden of proof is on the proponents of more height – they need to explain why towers today won’t create the problems that towers in the ’60s and ’70s created. At the same time, the proponents of the status quo have to give reasons for opposing height that go beyond “we decided this back then,” or “developers are greedy.”

Personally, I want to hear all sides, but I also want to see models and graphics to give an idea of what tall buildings would look like from different angles, including from the beach. I haven’t seen those yet.

Having expressed all that angst, I will venture a few thoughts about the three specific hotel/condo projects that developers have proposed.

The Miramar was the first proposed project, and being first didn’t help them or anyone else. To be fair, let me remind everyone that the Miramar’s initial proposal did not include heights much above the height of their current 12-story tower (although the design presented other problems). It was only when the City Council at the float up hearing, ironically in response to ideas from an opponent of the project, suggested that the council would be open to a taller, skinnier tower (to help preserve the views of neighbors), that the Miramar devised a taller plan.

In my view the architecture for the proposed tower was uninspired, but in any case the Miramar has had a hard row to hoe because it has neighbors on two sides. Still, the amount of building proposed for the Miramar (a floor-to-area-ratio of less than three) is not so much as to preclude a good design. Even with lot coverage of only 50%, the average height of development will be only six stories. It seems to me that with a good architect and good urban design, the Miramar should be able to come up with a plan that its neighbors (at least those with open minds) wouldn’t object to.

I suspect that if the other two projects, the hotel designed by Frank Gehry and the new hotel proposed for the site of the old Holiday Inn, had come up before the Miramar did, there would be a lot less controversy about them. Both of those projects have top-flight design architects (and that shows in the proposals), neither is in a residential neighborhood, and both make use of land that adds little to the downtown now – respectively, the parking lot at Second and Santa Monica and the godforsaken wedge of land between Colorado and the freeway.

But still these projects need to pass a fundamental question: are Santa Monicans okay today with tall towers downtown?

Thanks for reading.