Santa Monica Reaches for the Sky

Santa Monica Reaches for the Sky

Buildings could get a few feet taller in Santa Monica, and the public is actively debating the merits of such a change.
Mike Flores

As part of a larger revision of the city’s zoning codes, the Santa Monica Planning Commission voted in favor of increasing the city’s maximum building heights last month, a move it claimed would improve the city’s architecture and make buildings more green. Building heights could rise an additional two to six feet, which may not seem like much, but the impact on the city is likely to be big, which has both supporters and critics out in force.

If approved by Santa Monica City Council, the change would be part of the first comprehensive alteration to the city’s Land Use and Circulation Elements (LUCE), a set of policies and programs that blueprint the city’s physical development, since 1984. With the updated version set to take effect this month, it has the potential to reshape the city for decades.

Proponents of the change argue increased building heights would not diminish Santa Monica’s cityscape, and that taller buildings would even help the environment: higher ceilings allow for more light to seep into a room, thus reducing utility costs.

Neighborhood activists have said that these recommendations are coming too late in the game—community members do not have enough time to evaluate the pros and cons of the height increase. In a letter about this and other changes to LUCE, seven local groups accused the commission of “engaging in a blatant attempt to derail the core vision and policies of the LUCE,” adding pro-development items after the fact.

LUCE sub-committee chairman Chris Harding told the Santa Monica Daily Press that the moves were meant to improve local building design and to make development more practical. "If the vast majority of people in these [neighborhood] groups knew the facts and knew how inaccurate their letter was, they would be embarrassed by it," Harding said.

Some architects are scrupulous about the monetary concerns behind Santa Monica’s plans. “Developers want to squeeze as much square footage out of a project as possible,” said architect Jennifer Liu, adding, “I’m sure they’ll make any argument to get the planning department to give them more develop-able space.”

But even though developers have their own agenda, Liu agrees with those advocating taller buildings. “Taller buildings can mean higher density, which when done appropriately, is more sustainable—less sprawl, more landscaped area,” she said.

“It’s not just about the building height,” Liu continued. “It’s also about where it sits, and what’s appropriate for downtown San Francisco is probably not appropriate for Santa Monica.”