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SM.a.r.t Column: Can California ARBs Balance Affordable Housing with Community Character in the Face of New Housing Laws?

By suggestion, I attended the March 4th ARB (Architectural Review Board) meeting that addressed the Gelson Lincoln Boulevard Project.  After the session, I came away with thoughts about the process that the state has initiated and has seemingly tied the hands of our ARB. Particularly the ability to provide professional guidance within the ARB member’s capabilities.  This meeting highlighted how California municipalities face a pressing (affordable) housing crisis, and state lawmakers took action to increase housing production, though seemingly not with providing affordability as a guiding light.

These state actions clashed with citizen concerns about preserving design quality, the environment, quality of life, and community character. I want to explore the role of our ARB to navigate this complex network, in light of recent State Senate Bills (SBs) aimed at streamlining development approvals with a focus on objective criteria. We all understand how our city attorney would want to avoid potential lawsuits from developers who may rely on the state’s expedited housing development bill. Such court contests are the last thing the city wants to spend money on. Yet, the leading question becomes, what objective standards, on a city’s record, shall best meet SB330’s need for ‘a preponderance of the evidence’ (sic)?

State legislators passed said bill to streamline approvals by emphasizing that cities comply with applicable, objective general plan and zoning criteria and show clearly defined (measurable) criteria as evidence when reviewing new housing proposals for approval. The bill seeks to remove time-consuming hindrances in a city’s review of housing proposals.  Apparently the state felt all city ARBs took too long to approve projects and that subjective opinions and CEQA reviews were the culprit.  As such, the state required that city ministerial review processes (aka ‘by-right permits’) were to replace existing non-objective zoning and design guidelines with the requirements in SB330 Housing Crisis Act that include a broad set of objective standards to be used by an agency to regulate development.  

For example, the City of Santa Monica has a ministerial review process for all 100% Affordable and Housing Accountability Act compliant projects, and the approach to using SB330 standards has been understandable for simple projects that clearly and easily fit narrow objective criteria. Unfortunately, the missing ‘objective’ for more complex projects is the one needed to solve the ‘affordability crisis.’ Specifically, SB330 seeks to simplify review of complicated issues in requiring all existing zoning and design criteria be applicable as meeting the new required standard within a new timeframe, and if not met, then cities not approving housing projects are threatened with court penalties by lacking ‘applicable’ zoning and design criteria in place prior to the bill’s passing. 

In this way, SB330 raises concerns for complex developments as witnessed by our city’s public audience, many of whom were frustrated that the ARB members were to ignore important topics in reviewing the Gelson project.  What may help us all avoid feeling contentious during public presentations may be a redirection for the city’s ARB by starting a conversation with the state on SB330. For example, streamlined ministerial reviews based on pre-set criteria are not going to capture all potential issues in large-scale complex projects; these include traffic, shadow, and visual impacts, as well as interior and exterior user comfort levels.  In fact, this list can use reworded language to provide objective and mandatory data for new housing units and site amenities, and thereby be inclusive with new housing bills. As SB330 limits a city’s ability to consider design elements beyond their strictly interpreted ‘substantial evidence’, it also reduces a city’s influence for the overall character of new developments. It is true that the state passed SB330 with an understanding that affordable housing had to be expedited. Yet, while fast approvals are desirable after years of lapsed attention to affordable housing, it is also true that neglecting design quality, livability, and actual affordability is leading to long-term negative consequences at the expense our city’s international reputation for well-built, thriving neighborhoods, beach town influence, and inviting urban core. 

The state legislature’s choice to enforce a new definition of objective reviews on affordable housing ignored factors like appropriate natural light, ventilation, noise control, thermal performance, and design harmony, leading to cramped and uncomfortable living spaces, both in the units and within the landscaped site ‘hang-out’ areas. The sole focus on limited functionality can result in bland and unappealing buildings that then decrease property values and disrupt the visual harmony of a neighborhood. It is no coincidence that these are exactly the points raised by ninety-plus public letters to our ARB. To their due diligence credit, the ARB read the letters and thanked the public for their thoughts; to their diligence discredit, the ARB chose not to be bold and embrace the public concerns by simply pointing out or comment on the many planning and design failures, which should at least have been mentioned in the face of the ARBs exempted purview items.  

As a path forward, Santa Monica should dialog with the state on the possibility to achieve both faster approvals and good design such that when we recognize a space, we recognize the entire community. That is, the city should begin a SB330 state dialog for these topics:

  1. Expand the objective criteria for complex project requirements to include verifiable factors like building scale, compatibility with surrounding architecture, and user comfort factors by comparing each concern to quantifiable data. 
  2. Begin a two-step objective process with an initial ministerial review followed by a more comprehensive review, ensuring complex projects have both efficiency and thorough, objective evaluation within the state’s dictated timeline. 
  3. Incentivize innovative approaches by creating new and well-defined zoning codes exemplifying objective criteria within design standards to guide ministerial reviews while encouraging good design. 
  4. Find efficient ways to encourage collaboration with public input to foster design, affordability, and streamlining goals, ensuring objectively integrated developments with a neighborhood’s ideals.

This dialog would ensure the role of any ARB is to challenge a balance of approval speed with design quality as crucial for residents when complex projects are proposed in their neighborhoods. By engaging in the review process and advocating for objective language to reveal well-designed developments, our community can play a vital role in shaping neighborhoods in compliance with state housing bills into the future. Despite limitations imposed by recent SBs, the ARB may be able to leverage them as opportunities, thus advocating for the importance of ARB experienced reviewers in complex projects. For instance, by objectively identifying potential issues early during ministerial reviews, ARBs shall be able to prevent costly delays later, leading to future faster project completion. 

Santa Monica’s current ARB has several licensed architects (as experienced reviewers) trained to maintain a Standard of Care for their area during project reviews.  Together with the City Attorney and Planning Department, the ARB can seek to aid in reducing the risk of lawsuits and liability issues for the city.  By incorporating a focus on user comfort and environmental considerations, even within limitations, an ARB can help ensure that newly developed design standards will lead to environments built to connect people with surroundings they live within and with each other, creating a sense of belonging for both the occupants and passersby.

Our ARB can gather objective data on the number of potential negative design issues identified during past and recent reviews. This data can be implemented in future objective reviews, inclusive with our state’s ‘substantial evidence’, which would otherwise not be available for use. Worse yet, negative issues may be noted by the ARB, but since those were not perceived as being required by the state, developers would be allowed to ignore the collected data and contribute to more unsightly, discomforting developments. When properly collected and used, this data can stand to objectively demonstrate the value of our ARBs’ experienced reviewers in preventing problems and delays by having timely procedural reviews. 

We are experiencing how recent housing related SBs are presenting challenges, but they also create an opportunity for ARBs to advocate for their crucial role. Clear early communications with developers on new city design standards (which are passed as minimum requirements and not recommendations) can streamline approvals while allowing concerns to be addressed and identified by our experienced reviewers. In effect, this approach would change the burden of proof to the developer. The ARB would emphasize how their role in ensuring verifiable high-quality design standards also mitigates environmental impacts, encourages neighborly interaction with community engagement, while balancing essential goals in delivering effective developments on-time and garnering public support in a win-win collaboration. 

In conclusion, California faces a pressing need for affordable housing, but this need must be balanced with the concerns of local residents about preserving design quality, the environment, quality of life, and community character. ARBs can play an important role in this process by helping to properly frame a new city minimum design standard to assist in carefully reviewing housing developments and ensuring that they comply with all applicable state standards. However, ARBs also need to be given the flexibility to use their professional judgment to ensure that new housing developments are compatible with the surrounding community. SB330’s focus on objective criteria is a positive step, but it is important to ensure that these criteria do not prevent ARBs from considering the full range of factors that are important to local residents. The solution is for a city to develop objective criteria that take into account elements of design that protect the character of the surrounding community.

However, if, for varying reasons, our city decides that dialog with the state about expanding objective criteria to improve the ARB involvement is not possible, then perhaps it is best to disband our ARB for residential reviews altogether and pass on to our planning department’s purview the easily followed, state housing bill’s restrictive objective criteria tied to existing city guidelines.  

Jack Hillbrand AIA, Architect

for SMa.r.t.

Send comments to santamonicasmart@gmail.com

Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow

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

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

in Opinion
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