Seven years ago I wrote a column for SMa.r.t. titled “Beach Town or ‘Dingbat’ City” and a relevant portion of the article is reproduced below, in italics, as a refresher of what seemed at the time, the destructive planning/development course our town was steering itself toward.
In the late 1950!s, 60!s and into the 70!s, there was an architect in Los Angeles that picked up the sobriquet of Crammin’ Jack. This architect seemingly could cram one unit more than anyone else into any apartment project he was asked to maximize. And he designed a lot of them, two stories, open parking under the second floor, often open to the street. Sometimes some stone or brick element would be stuck on the stucco facade, or maybe a big starburst or palm tree and emblazoned with a name like #Riviera” or $The Palms! to create a hoped-for illusion of the Southern California dream. Small units, with one or two bedrooms, one bath, small kitchen open to the living room, and often not more than four to eight units per building. These apartments came to be known years later, as they began to deteriorate, as #dingbats.” They are ubiquitous and exist in Santa Monica as well as throughout the greater region.
#Good design” is often very subjective and emotional, and as such people are not always in agreement as to what constitutes #good design.” If one measure of good design is the success with which the clients needs were solved, then some may say that the #dingbats” were successful, since the usual design criteria was simply to get as many units on the typical single or double lots as possible so a developer could build fast and cheap and maximize a return on his investment as soon as possible. By that measure, one might credit Crammin’ Jack with #good design,” because he seemed to always get that $one more! unit crammed in.
But if the design criteria are expanded even a little, to include such desirable elements as light and air, scale and proportion, sustainability and energy efficiency, privacy and sound separation, then maybe the #dingbats” were not such good designs. In fact, pretty poor on the scale of most people!s sensibilities.
Don!t most people want and need to live in a healthy environment that includes the elements missing from the #dingbats?” Shouldn’t light, openness, blue sky, scale and proportion, privacy, sustainability, and amenities such as courtyards with trees and landscaping that enhance ones quality of life, be included in any client!s project?
We think these criteria are necessary for solving city design problems as well. Open/green space, and other physical adjacencies such as commercial/residential, concern for shade and shadow, impact of artificial lighting on neighbors, noise, paths of travel, heights, density, blue sky and more, are all factors that must be considered if one is to create/maintain a beach town that we might describe as being of #good design.” We don!t think those elements are achieved with increased heights, lot coverage and density, especially in our town, which in the daytime is already the most densely populated and used beach town in the State…”
Well, it appears that massive negative development has arrived, in vivid form, reflecting the community risks that arise from development that seemingly unrestrained profit driven densification produces.
Just imagine how excited Crammin’ Jack’s clients would have been had their projects not been limited to two stories, but instead have been allowed 6 or more like many of the new projects seen throughout downtown Santa Monica, and other current ‘in the works’ projects, such as at Ocean Park and Lincoln Blvd. and other locations throughout what used to be a be our low-rise beach town, with heights in the 65 to 80 ft range. And why worry about designs that would be family-friendly, just unleash designs predicated on housing only one or two occupants, thereby crammin’ mostly single- and one bedroom units into the developments. More ROI per sq. ft. of building.
What could be better for a developer? Well, city planning staff working on a revision to the zoning code, unaware that certain code changes being ‘suggested’ may be enhancements to specific projects, might innocently be persuaded to “adjust” the zoning code to deal with some of the sticky issues which if didn’t exist would allow crammin’ even more units in to and on to that specific project, and any other given site.
A developer would be ecstatic if the code preparation and revision period produced such “suggestions” that “help” with heights, interpretations of where heights are to be measured from, required uses on ground floors “adjusted” to allow additional high return residential rents in lieu of currently required neighborhood serving commercial, and where and how driveways might be located to serve mixed use projects, all of which
contribute to allowing more and more units to be crammed in to such a development. An almost perfect way to design for maximizing a site if or when code changes can be implemented to justify the design solution, and without costly and time consuming public and variance hearings, etc..
Of course, all this would obviously be viewed by developers as ‘good’ design, the kind I wrote about seven years ago. But what about those other important elements of light, open space, blue sky, scale, impact of shade and shadow, sound, etc.? 65-80ft tall structures 20ft or so apart suggest much more shade and shadow than blue sky. And, how much sound reverberates thru such close quarters? Shouldn’t such zoning code changes, if incorporated, be required to actually enhance sustainability and livability, and be carefully crafted to not destroy neighborhood compatibility, scale, and commercial services. The LUCE thought so.
Ten years ago, as per State laws, the city had to re-write its General Plan, which is made up of different elements, one of which was the Land Use Circulation Element (the LUCE). One of the primary goals and intents of the LUCE states: “The LUCE framework introduces the requirement that new development must contribute to, not detract from, the community. Each future project must exhibit extraordinary community benefits as well as compatibility in scale, setting and transitions to residential neighborhoods.” We haven’t seen much attention paid to scale and compatibility in the development frenzy of the last several years and now, sadly, getting even worse enhanced by some egregious State laws and a past city council that wasn’t seen as resident friendly, though the Council at least has gratefully undergone a positive shakeup in the past year.
The LUCE thought open space was a necessary element, both as parks and within residential projects, with open space for everyone, and for children to play in/on. But, on the other hand, if a development was predominately single- and one-bedroom units, designed with the premise that families with children aren’t going to be living in them anyway, then who needs play areas. Kids can always play on the asphalt driveways and turn arounds. Right? Wrong. Sadly, the negative aspects of development at any cost, in lieu of the sustainable, livable, environmentally sensitive, design elements the LUCE attempted to address and implement ten years ago, have not only been given new life, but it feels like unfettered development has been given a free and controlling rein to run rampant over the. community.
A cascade of such projects throughout our town, like the one described above, and others already built, and in construction, and in the approval process, are now confirming that in the not-too-distant future, Santa Monica will indeed pick up the nickname of ‘Dingbat City”. If the City were to create and implement a comprehensive master plan, it may not be too late to reverse this slide, but putting brakes on it would at least lessen the depth of the rabbit hole we are in, and while rabbits are cute they do have a reputation of rapid pro-creation. For the sake of our residents, and the generations of residents to come, this town needs to practice safe planning.
Bob Taylor, AIA for SMa.r.t.
Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow
Ron Goldman, Architect FAIA; Dan Jansenson, Architect, Building & Fire-Life Safety Commissioner; Robert H. Taylor, Architect AIA; Thane Roberts, Architect; Mario Fonda Bonardi, Architect AIA Planning Commissioner; Sam Tolkin, Architect; Marc Verville, M.B.A., CPA-inactive; Michael Jolly ARECRE
For previous articles see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writing References: