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SM.a.r.t Column: ARB Courage (Part 2 of 2)

Last week we discussed the numerous flaws of the Gelson’s project as a perfect example of what not to do in providing new housing in Santa Monica. Fueled by the artificially inflated “need” to build more housing, it is too big, is visually monumentally boring, with the wrong unit mix, has too few affordable units, has fatal traffic consequences, and is an ecological albatross on the City’s neck. Gelson’s is a case study of how development will unfold in Santa Monica, where the ARB (Architectural Review Board) is the last and only public hearing a project will face. That ARB public hearing inevitably happens when it’s too late for effecting any real change or input, thereby feeding the cynicism of the residents. This is not a bug of the system but a design feature specifically allowed (so far) by Sacramento to give the citizens the appearance of democratic control but to make sure any public review Boards and Commissions are actually neutered from the get go. When enough residents figure out the game is rigged against them, they will stop their pesky whining and shut up, giving developers free rein.

A Convenient Fig leaf

What has happened is that Sacramento, over the last five years, has passed dozens of bad laws designed to increase the value of the land of existing property owners by stripping away any local control, effectively up-zoning the entire state. Naturally, Sacramento knew there would be serious local resistance to this land grab (you saw the public resistance at the Gelson’s March 4th ARB hearing), so a convenient fig leaf was wheeled out to cover this land grab: these bad laws would allegedly streamline the construction of more housing some of which might be affordable. Who could oppose more streamlined housing? It just required residents to believe some lies: that more housing makes it automatically more affordable or the lie that there is no limit to our water supply, among many, many other lies. Essentially, Sacramento wanted you to believe that making more Ferraris makes your Ford cheaper?  These bad laws also had perverse interlocking effects: for example, once a parcel was up zoned, it could never be downzoned, or that a housing project cannot be required to provide an environmental impact report, or there is no required parking for housing projects, or if a City did not meet its Sacramento targeted unit buildout after four years (in Santa Monica’s case about 4500 units), every parcel in the City can then be built to any height or density (so called builder’s remedy) a developer desires. This last one is a ticking time bomb that practically no City can avoid, given current market forces. In Santa Monica’s case, we have to build 9000 new units in 8 years for a nominal 20% population increase which simply cannot happen in a depopulating County.

Essentially, Sacramento, by removing all development constraints, moved Santa Monica to Houston, a place with virtually no zoning codes, and then to China, a place with vastly overbuilt empty housing skyscrapers (can you say Evergrande?).

But won’t we get more affordable housing?

Yes we will get, from Gelson’s, a few more affordable units. Every permanent affordable unit is a good thing. But it’s not necessarily true that we are getting more permanently affordable housing. First, affordable apartments are typically only mandated to be affordable for 55 years and then can go up to market rate. So today, affordable apartments built in 1969 will come up to market rate, and Gelson’s affordable units may offset that loss, but in turn, Gelson’s will be predictably part of the 2079 housing crises when its 52 units will go up to market rate.  Second of all, building more housing skyscrapers often requires the demolition of some existing housing, often older, typically more affordable housing and businesses. Gelson’s 521 units don’t, fortunately, demolish any existing housing; they do eliminate neighborhood commercial services (cleaners, restaurant, pharmacy, etc.) that may never come back or may not come back at the existing price point since they will have to pay the inflated rents of new construction.  Third, while this minuscule 10% amount of affordable housing is built,  existing affordable rent controlled apartments inexorably continue to be taken off rent control (vacancy decontrol) and get pumped up to market rate every time a tenant moves out. This inevitable process of vacancy decontrol of previously affordable units may be possibly offset by Gelson’s affordable units, but at the end of the day, it’s uncertain we will actually get a net increase in the number of City wide affordable units.  Fourth, there is a considerable body of literature that building massive projects in one area increases the rents in the adjacent areas. So Gelson’s most likely will raise the rents in a nominal 2-3 block radius as local landlords point to the new Gelson’s rents as a justifying basis for their own rent increases. This adjacency effect further reduces the affordability of the neighborhood. 

Relying on honest developers

Finally, insuring that all apartments approved as affordable are kept that way, with no service reduction, for the entire 55 year period is almost impossible. The City has virtually no long term auditing capacity to restrain unscrupulous landlords from secretly converting the apartments to higher rents or Air Bnb uses. While the City may mandate affordable units, the scrupulous honesty of the developer or of all subsequent owners is the best and only guarantee of the 55 year affordability requirement. So, requiring 10% of the units to be affordable is a necessary but minimal and very marginal and vanishing benefit. However, the proposed massive twelve towers, with their gridlock, visual dominance, and water/power drain, are unfortunately permanent. 

Making 10% of the new units affordable will never lead to an affordable City. Given the economics of land values and construction costs, Santa Monica cannot build its way to affordability using the 10% affordable formula. SMart (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow) has written extensively that there are four things that actually create affordable housing: 1) DOLLARS (subsidies of some form are required: land, cash, or tax breaks are needed). 2) DEED restrictions (limits of 55 years are too short), 3) DISTANCE (construction and land is cheaper farther from urban centers), and, unfortunately, DISASTER (San Francisco’s rents actually got cheaper during Covid). Notice that DENSITY is not one of the sources of affordability.

Limited options

One of the key bad laws effectively says that no city process or codes can limit or reduce the number of units these new State laws entitle a developer to build.  So, in the case of the Gelson’s project, the ARB could not require them to reduce the density or number of units or type of units, etc. In fact, the City staff at the hearing continually reminded the ARB they had no power over anything: over water, over traffic, over parking, over, over power generation, or over any other significant variables. The biggest variable of course, was how boring it is: massive buildings wedged together presenting a uniform deadly wall on Lincoln Blvd and a gloomy sunless prison for the rearmost lower tenants.  It was Pruit Igoe 2.0 (see: https://smmirror.com/2022/03/sma-r-t-column-the-development-at-ocean-park-lincoln/) except with less open space and certainly does not have the differentiated grace of Park La Brea. Many good architects are on the ARB, but with their hands tied, they did the best they could with a losing hand. They tweaked balconies, corner conditions, walkways, and colors but eventually ran out of lipstick to put on this pig. What they could also have done, knowing they could not significantly alter the project in any case, would be to at the least expressed, for the record, a legitimate critique of the project and all of its negative impacts and then either vote no or at the least abstain. But they do have some limited design options. 

What they should have done is lower the back of the project’s buildings: even 5’ would help its boring skyline and would be friendlier to the alley neighbors. Then, they could have raised the central building one story, adding about eight units to the project. This would only crowd visually slightly more the biggest open space to its north. Raising the center building(s) could reduce the visual mass of buildings at the edges. Those “added” units would then be removed, for example, along the Lincoln facade, making it more interesting and less overbearing.  Or, for example, removing the 4 unit stack at the noisy corner of Lincoln and Ocean Park, making it a more gracious corner of the intersection of these two important boulevards.  Then, sprinkling the remaining subtracted four units along the top 7 units on Lincoln so as to articulate more that facade.  The ARB while limited in so many ways, still has the tool of massing (where to put the project’s mass) that would not reduce unit count and thus not run afoul of the State laws. Unlike smaller parcels, in projects of this size, there are many opportunities to distribute the project’s mass, and the ARB should not be afraid to use that limited power. While the ARB should not negotiate from the dais, alternatively, it should have continued the project and invited the architect to come back with a redistribution of, say, eight units where they felt would have the greatest benefit and least negative impact. A larger redistribution of units might have been entertained, but even eight would have significantly improved the project.

A Courageous ARB

In the future, I hope to see the ARB, which is currently the only public hearing approval required for many of these monster housing projects, has courage to extend their limited power and ask for massing changes or at least go on the record with their design critique.  So, while we will certainly be burdened with flawed projects, the ARB could still have an impact by mitigating somewhat their worst tendencies. 

By Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA

S.M.a.r.t Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow
Thane Roberts, Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Architect, Dan Jansenson, Architect & Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission, Samuel Tolkin Architect & Planning Commissioner, Michael Jolly, AIR-CRE Marie Standing. Jack Hillbrand AIA For previous articles, see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writing

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