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S.M.a.r.t Column: ARB (NOT Ready to Build!)

Santa Monica City’s Architectural Review Board (ARB), established in 1974, acts “…to preserve existing areas of natural beauty, cultural importance and assure that buildings, structures, signs or other developments are in good taste, good design, harmonious with surrounding developments, and in general contribute to the preservation of Santa Monica’s reputation as a place of beauty, spaciousness, and quality.”

So, the ARB is asked to evaluate structures that presumably fits within all of the other regulatory conditions, such as height, floor area, percentage of lot coverage, setbacks, and approved uses.  And, in the case of a “housing” project that states 15% of the units will be “affordable,” it is, therefore, able to become a beneficiary of State HCD (Housing & Community Development) “development bonuses.” Gelson’s is such a project at the intersection of Ocean Park Blvd. & Lincoln Blvd.  

By State laws, the developer can pick three code requirements they don’t like and simply ignore them. They can “request” any number of waivers of additional code requirements they don’t like, though I haven’t found anywhere it says such waiver requests must be agreed to or approved by the City. 

The ARB is basically there to assure the taxpaying residents that the project will “preserve existing areas of natural beauty,” be “harmonious” with “surrounding developments,” and “preserve Santa Monica’s reputation as a place of beauty and spaciousness.” One might wonder if an existing market and a few one-story neighborhood-serving shops on a lot that was graded flat 70 years ago, being replaced by a complex of twelve multi-story structures with heights up to about 116 ft. above that flat lot, fulfills that criteria. What will the members of the ARB think, and decide when the project is presented to them on January 29, 2024? Two months from now.  

It is interesting to see how a developer’s profit motive, and no doubt their campaign donations, can seemingly persuade those in the State Legislature to write and support legislation that overrides local zoning codes and controls on height and density, etc., and allow for essentially the doubling of units and density that the City has written into our codes. The State and City will tell you there is a “housing crisis,” and we must build more and more housing units. But the existing crisis is one of affordability, not of a lack of units. In fact, during the last four years, Santa Monica’s population has decreased by 1611, while the number of units increased by 1033, and the number of empty units increased from 4977 in 2020 to 5502 in 2023.  An increase of 525 empty units of the 1033 added is a 50% empty rate. Keep in mind if the issue is affordability, one might think of family housing affordability.  But, of the 521 units proposed for Gelson’s, only 53 are “affordable” units, 10%.  And, of the 521 units, only 12 are two bedrooms, so family is certainly not a design criteria or goal of the developer or the City’s approval process, it would seem. (The noted data above is per the California Department of Finance – Demographics 2020-2023) 

The driving ideological politics of the City Council, the Planning Commission, and the planning staff over the last 15-20  years is to reduce the number of cars, increase the number of bikes, and increase density, i.e., build more, to create a ‘walkable” city. But, as the Planning Commission pointed out in a hearing several years ago when the three local neighborhoods (Ocean Park, Sunset Park, and Pico) pushed the City to design an improved Lincoln Blvd streetscape, known as The LiNC, the intersection of Lincoln and Ocean Park was already an F intersection, failed, with long delays. This project projected adding 880 cars to the site, a likely increase of about 2000 car trips per day. In addition, if the intent is to encourage everyone to walk or bike to shop, why would the City, with no requirement to do so, agree to waive the code required “commercial only” on the ground floor on both boulevards, reducing by half the amount of neighborhood shops currently on site. It’s important to know that there has been a concerted effort by vested parties to the project to eliminate the required shopping on the ground floor for some time. However, it was determined during the city process and zoning update that it should remain and is still active in the code. In addition, as the project is required to comply with the code in place at the time of their preliminary application, it also specifically states that residential on the ground floor on the boulevards is not permitted.

So, since the City has given its “Administrative Approval” to the project, despite the various codes, shall we say deviations, it will now go, as mentioned, to the ARB for review. What will the ARB do? An alley separates existing one and two-story neighborhoods adjacent to and across the street from the proposed twelve buildings, casually referred to as six stories, ignoring the additional heights of up to 18ft for rooftop access, mechanical, stairs/elevator,/solar panel uses, roof decks for entertainment, etc., and the 33ft non-existent slope of the site which was graded flat in 1954 but the city has determined still exists with the allowable heights to be measured from up to 33ft in the air!  

Will the ARB members speak to any of the issues and say they don’t find this project complies with its mandate to “…preserve existing areas of natural beauty, cultural importance and assure that buildings, structures, signs or other developments are in good taste, good design, harmonious with surrounding developments, and in general contribute to the preservation of Santa Monica’s reputation as a place of beauty, spaciousness, and quality.” Ok, maybe it can be agreed that the current Gelson’s site is not one of “natural beauty,” but the rest should count. Consider the audacity of the design teams identifying the narrow spaces between the 85ft+/- tall buildings as the “Garden Neighborhood.” I’m not sure the ARB has any ability or authority to actually require, effectively, any of these issues to be addressed or changed, given State mandates and planning staff control with no say allowed by the City Council or Planning Commission, but it would be encouraging to hear them speak out as residents overwhelmingly have against this project.

Bob Taylor, AIA

For SMa.r.t Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow

Robert H. Taylor, Architect AIA; Dan Jansenson, Architect & Building and Fire-Life Safety Commissioner; Thane Roberts, Architect; Mario Fonda-Bonardi, Architect AIA; Samuel Tolkin, Architect & Planning Commissioner; Michael Jolly, AIR-CRE.

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

in Opinion
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