On the breezy, busy streets of downtown Santa Monica, many buildings look the same: They’re big, boxy, and banal.
That’s because, for 20 years, stringent city codes put architects in a corner. “What we heard from the design community was, ‘You’re stifling our ability to do great buildings,’” says Jing Yeo, the city’s planning manager.
On Fourth, Third, and Second streets, for example, the rules dictated precise “setbacks” for the facades of buildings taller than two stories. That old requirement—most famously used on Manhattan skyscrapers—gave buildings a bulky base thats gets progressively narrower. It’s an old, and, some might say outdated, style that’s supposed to allow in sunlight and make structures look less dense.
In downtown Santa Monica, buildings can only go up to seven stories, so the city didn’t end up with anything that even closely resembles the spectacular Chrysler building. Instead, the city got squat, stumpy boxes.
The standards were so specific, city planners say, that once architects finally pieced together a compliant design, they replicated it over and over. As a result, the neighborhood looks uniform and uninspired.
It’s not a problem confined to the beachside city. But Santa Monica is finally doing something about it.
Under a new plan adopted in July to guide development in downtown, the rules were relaxed to give architects more freedom to get creative.
Now, Yeo says, the focus is on architectural concepts. The new design guidelines tell architects to break up the shape of buildings with differing heights and widths so they’re not “monolithic.” They call for “visual rhythm along the street” using “regular breaks on the facade” and “varying materials or colors and architectural ornaments.”
Santa Monica didn’t entirely ditch having rules. But the new rules are focused on different priorities. One of the biggest is making new buildings inviting to pedestrians, especially on the first floor, because it’s through the ground floor of buildings, Yeo says, that “people truly experience downtown.”
To make the streets more walkable, the city is encouraging developers to carve pathways through buildings that stretch more than 300 feet.
The rules also say that at least 65 percent of the front of commercial buildings have to be “transparent and include windows, doors, and other openings.” For non-commercial buildings, no more than 20 percent can be “continuously blank or featureless.”
“There’s some really progressive thinking going on with those codes,” says architect Hank Koning. His firm, Koning Eizenberg, designed a building that inspired the new guidelines, a mixed-user with 249 apartments planned for the corner of Fifth Street and Broadway.
The project is called 500 Broadway, and the architecture won praise from the City Council and the public from the get-go. Every one of the 21 residents who weighed in the first time the council reviewed the plans in 2014 favored the project, councilmember Kevin McKeown remarked at the time. “I can’t remember that happening in City Hall in quite a while,” he said.
Koning and his team were able to bypass the old, prescriptive codes, because the project was negotiated through a development agreement, contracts which allow developers to break zoning rules in exchange for “community benefits,” usually money that’s earmarked for affordable housing, parks, and transportation projects.
If they had been required to adhere to the old rules, Yeo says, “they wouldn’t have been able to accomplish this design. It pushed us to evolve the standards.”
500 Broadway is a series of four vertical “bar” buildings that sit atop a continuous row of glassy shops and restaurants. The apartments are separated by 27 to 30 feet of open space—through which sunlight and ocean breezes can pass—and are connected via bridges draped in greenery.
Erecting four separate buildings, instead of one giant one, allows many more of the units to have balconies and views. There are advantages for passersby, too. Instead of looking at one giant wall, they’ll see texture and sky.
“The problem with some of that old code is that it generally thinks of public space as a single, identifiable park setting, says Nathan Bishop, Koning Eizenberg’s lead designer on the project. “Here, we have a series of public open courtyards that visually link up to the podium level and to the housing above.”
It looks drastically different than the stepped-style of buildings (also known as “wedding cake”) that invaded downtown for decades.
“This is the kind of project that will change the way people live,” councilmember Gleam Davis said when the plans were first presented in 2014. “We get wedding cake building after wedding cake building. When you have someone who wants to do a creative and, I think, really quite lovely architectural design, and it doesn’t fit in the little box we give them, that’s the problem we have.”
Not anymore. In August, the city’s architectural review board signed off on the plans for 500 Broadway, clearing the way for construction.