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Is Gelson’s Our Future? Bigger Is Not Better!

It’s appalling to see what’s happening in our city – projects recently built or about to be approved – in downtown, along the boulevards, and throughout our multi-family and single-family neighborhoods! A tsunami of these projects will destroy our urban fabric and quality of life. Santa Monica over the past 30, 40, and 50 years was so rich with landscaped setbacks along sidewalks, buildings designed with articulation and offsets, courtyards and terraces, and most importantly a human-scaled environment! But we are destroying this urban fabric and quality of life with projects like this one. Planning decisions of late have been strictly oriented to developers’ financial pro-formas. And in this light, it’s not hard to understand why we have a zoning code and specific area plans that don’t include basic design goals.

I’ve been extremely worried in recent years to see the direction, the density, and the design of the project’s being approved and built in our community. How can one not feel sad about Santa Monica’s future with 5, 6, 8 & 10 story, block office and apartment buildings taking root throughout the city while hugging sidewalks and property lines.

And equally unbelievable is how our planning staff didn’t include the 4.67 acre “Gelson’s” site at the SE corner of Lincoln & Ocean Park as one of the “suitable sites” for state required housing when the proposed 521 units alone would account for 6% of the city’s required number of units. This proposed development is a poster child for what’s quickly happening to Santa Monica with a zoning code that clearly allows developers to totally disregard our design and environmental heritage.

This week’s article will discuss the relative economics of building within our basic code or taking advantage of increased density allowances which lead primarily to economic benefit for the developer at significant expense to the community. Next week, we’ll illustrate what’s possible within our basic code without 50% density increases – a future for Santa Monica where good design is also good economics while maintaining, if not enhancing, our beachfront lifestyle! And not so incidentally, these 50% density gift bonuses don’t require an increase of even one more affordable unit! Is this even logical – shouldn’t additional “bonus units” also require 15% to be affordable? Is our city living a lie? Moreover, this project does a stellar job in blocking views and casting shadows on the neighboring buildings immediately to the SE and NE!

But can a project that stays within basic code limitations, without bonus increases, compete financially as well as from a design perspective? I’m a retired architect with development experience who has designed over 4,500 units of multi-family housing, both affordable and market rate, and the answer to that question is yes!

The tabulations below showing return on invested money (r.o.i.) suggests that a less dense project is economically on par with the higher density plan. In other words, the savings jn lower development costs for the 351 unit development more than compensates for the reduction in revenue. So why are we willing – in fact encouraging this 50% increase in density – a solution that in no way benefits affordability, the neighborhood, the city, or even the developer!? And without an increase in affordable units, why is this “giveaway” even in the code? Residents and visitors don’t come to our city to see ugly block buildings, they come for a sense of place – one that allows 2, 3 & 4 story courtyard buildings along with retail that allows for “mom & pop”, as well as corporate commercial. C’mon Santa Monica, we’re better than this – at least I think so?

The tabulations accessed by clicking on this link showing return on invested money (r.o.i.) suggests that a less dense project is economically on par with the higher density plan. Basically, the lower development costs of the 351 unit project offsets the higher rental revenue of the 521 unit project. So why are we willing – in fact encouraging this 50% increase in density – a solution that in no way benefits affordability, the neighborhood, the city, or even the developer!? And without an increase in affordable units, why is this “giveaway” even in the code? Residents and visitors don’t come to our city to see ugly block buildings, they come for a sense of place – one that allows 2, 3 & 4 story courtyard buildings along with retail that allows for “mom & pop”, as well as corporate commercial. C’mon Santa Monica, we’re better than this – at least I think so?

Next week’s article will study this project from a visual and environmental perspective with the differences even more alarming. We expect to have an alternative analysis that combines 2, 3, & 4 story – an approach that graphically illustrates what’s possible within the basic code – a design that is both good economically while maintaining a sense of our Santa Monica beachfront lifestyle – stay tuned.

Ron Goldman FAIA for SMa.r.t. 

(Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

Sam Tolkin, Architect, Planning Commissioner; Robert H. Taylor, Architect AIA; Ron Goldman, Architect FAIA; Thane Roberts, Architect; Dan Jansenson Architect, Building & Safety Life-Fire Commissioner; Mario Fonda-Bonardi, Architect AIA, Planning Commissioner; Marc Verville, MBA,CPA (Inactive); Michael Jolly, AIR-CRE. For previous articles see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writings.

in Opinion
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