April 15, 2024 Breaking News, Latest News, and Videos

Landmarks Commission Back From the Dead

For over three years, SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow) has consistently warned that recently increased intense development pressures are bringing massive changes to Santa Monica. One of the primary causes of the current development frenzy is the State mandated Housing Element on steroids. A Housing Element is part of a City’s General Plan and includes the goals, codes, policies, incentives and programs that direct decision-making around housing development. 

The State of California has required all cities to prepare a Housing Element showing how they will accommodate new housing over the next eight years. Santa Monica has been mandated to permit about 9,000 new units in that period, including about 6,000 affordable units. This mandate, along with interlocking state laws and a requirement for excess capacity, means that we must alter our zoning to actually show a capacity to build about 13,000 new units. 

This extra amount is because not every potential lot will be developed in eight years, so a surplus of up-zoned lots increases the probability that the 9000-unit target will be met or even approached. Needless to say, the City always had enough zoning capacity in its current zoning code without the State’s coercive up-zoning. The realistic foreseeable population growth for the next eight years only requires about 1100 units.

The penalties for not up-zoning in a timely manner to meet the State mandate and for not actually permitting sufficient units are severe, including, among other penalties, the draconian so-called “Builder’s Remedy,” which allows a builder to place any size project on any lot as long as 20% of the units are affordable. Two (from the originally threatened 15) outsized projects are still in the works that took advantage of the “Builder’s Remedy” during a one-week window when the City’s Housing Element approval process had inadvertently created an opening for this exemption to be exploited. The City staff and Council deserve credit for negotiating a satisfactory solution to an otherwise disastrous outcome.

A 9000 unit increase corresponds to about a 20% percent increase in our population or about 18,000 new residents. To put that number in perspective, Santa Monica took nearly seventy years to increase its population by 18,000 to our current nominal 91,000 residents. Now in only eight years, we are supposed to do what took seven decades? This massively anticipated buildout will presumably be occurring while the statewide population of California and Santa Monica is actually declining, including throughout Los Angeles County, which has seen a population decline of 200,000 people in the past eighteen months due to the interactive effects of Covid, the lack of affordable housing, the fear of crime, and the high cost of living. 

The result of this exodus is that Santa Monica’s rental vacancy rate has ballooned to over 10% (with, of course, no real rent reductions visible). The combination of declining population, high-interest rates, a possible impending recession, high cost of construction, and scarce land availability means that it’s highly unlikely that the entire 9000-unit target will be reached in 8 years.

Certainly, no credible scenario will create 6000 new affordable units. Nonetheless, things can change suddenly, so we still expect massive development to take place. Massive development in a built-out city like ours inevitably involves the demolition of many existing buildings including, unfortunately, valuable historical buildings possibly worthy of permanent landmarking protection.

Researching which impending projects will threaten which historic buildings is an intensive ongoing project requiring countless volunteer and professional hours of research and advocacy. This is where the City’s Landmarks Commission and non-profit organizations such as the Santa Monica Conservancy have a vital role. They can mitigate the potential damage of runaway development by identifying and advocating for sterling historical projects that are worth saving.

Image Courtesy Of The Santa Monica Conservancy

However, as you can see in the graph, the City’s ability to protect its historical assets has functionally collapsed in the last five years. This was a problem even before Covid when the City raised its landmarking fees, putting that essential process out of reach of most owners, so people stopped applying to landmark their significant buildings. In addition, the City’s Landmark application process was unnecessarily too lengthy, involving months of delays. But this collapse was exacerbated when the City demoted or froze many Commissions, including the Landmark’s Commission during the Covid dark ages of budgetary devastation. 

The Landmarks Commission, through no fault of its own, has not been able to perform its historical review role. Fortunately, last week the City Council reactivated the Landmarks Commission, so they can now return to their natural oversight role of reviewing demolition permits. This resurrection was possible through the advocacy of residents and, thankfully, the Council’s unanimous positive response to this advocacy.

Graph Courtesy of The Santa Monica Conservancy

Landmarking is a process of finding the few qualified structures and removing them permanently from the typical churn of how cities renew themselves as old buildings are demolished and new (hopefully better ones) take their place. While landmarking can remove a few properties from development, it frees the vast majority for demolition with a clear conscience that history is being preserved and celebrated. It only takes a few landmarks to tell the story of a neighborhood and maintain its link to the past. Whether a building is worthy of landmarking is always a matter of debate, as there are many countervailing interpretations. As you can see from the graph, many applications are submitted, but only a few are actually designated as landmarks.

In the same vein, another area requiring our continuous encouragement to the City Council and the State is not to upzone the Neighborhood Commercial (NC) zoned boulevards. The State is
considering this option for the final approval of our Housing Element, which would still meet the 9000 units target without this extra proposed demolition along Ocean Park, Main Street, Pico and Montana.

Specifically, most of these neighborhood boulevards are proposed to go up to a height of 55’ (up to 88’ possible for 100% affordable projects) when today they have a base height of 32’. In downtown, Bergamot and other specific areas, heights will be permitted as tall as 84’. In the NC zones especially, the additional height of the up-zoning would incentivize massive construction with the attendant demolition of many small beloved affordable businesses and buildings of historical importance (e.g., the charming blocks of Main Street between Ocean Park and Marine), further reducing the authenticity of these important neighborhood-serving and pedestrian-friendly corridors.  

SMa.r.t. would like to thank the 700 citizens who wrote to our City Council this past March to urge them to write a letter to the State Housing and Community Development Department asking that the Neighborhood Commercial zones not be up-zoned as required by the City’s new housing element. 

The State may or may not approve this request, but we will know soon because by October, the State will have to officially bless our updated Zoning Code and the development frenzy will be formally unleashed. The trick will be to snatch the significant historical assets before the bulldozers disappear them forever. We look forward to a reinvigorated Landmarks Commission to help preserve the historical resources that may be in harm’s way.

By Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA
S.M.a.r.t Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow
Thane Roberts, Architect; Robert H. Taylor AIA, Architect; Dan Jansenson, Architect & Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission; Samuel Tolkin, Architect & Planning Commissioner; Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA & Planning Commissioner, Michael Jolly, AIR-CRE.

For previous articles, see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writing

in Opinion
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