By Vince Echavaria
A proposed 244-foot-tall hotel designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry in his hometown of Santa Monica has some residents enthusiastic about the name attached to the project but anxious about the height it reaches overlooking the ocean.
The so-called Ocean Avenue Project at Santa Monica Boulevard and Ocean Avenue, which includes a 22-story, 125-room hotel, residential units, retail and restaurant space as well as a 36,000-square foot museum campus, is the first building designed by Gehry in the coastal city in 25 years. The residential portion features 22 condominiums, 19 replacement rent-controlled units and five affordable housing units, and a rooftop observation deck will be open to the public.
Proposed by Worthe Real Estate and M. David Paul Associates, the project is one of several properties identified as an “opportunity site” in the proposed Downtown Specific Plan. Such an identity could allow the site to be considered for more density and height if the project incorporates significant community benefits.
“We thought (this site) deserved something special, and frankly we thought that this firm is about as special an architecture firm you can find in the world. It just so happens that (Gehry) is a resident of Santa Monica as am I, so we thought it’d be a perfect marriage,” said Jeff Worthe, president of Worthe Real Estate Group.
While the project plans were announced weeks ago, the residents of Santa Monica got their first chance to hear from the applicants, including Gehry, and provide input on the wave-like exterior design of the hotel at a community meeting March 21. The applicants stressed that the designs are still being worked out and the public meeting is one of many that will be held as the plans progress.
“We don’t take lightly bringing a project like this to the city,” Worthe told the audience. “We think we’ve done a really good job to get to this point, but we appreciate that this is a community process and we need to hear from and work with the community to make this project better.”
Gehry, who has lived in Santa Monica for 40 years, noted that the Ocean Avenue site has stood out to him as the “face of the city” and he is excited to design another project in the city after a quarter of a century. Other buildings the architect designed in Santa Monica include his house, the former Santa Monica Place and the Edgemar Center for the Arts. Gehry told the audience that his firm is working to give the hotel structure character and pointed out that the design will likely go through other modifications throughout the process.
“Believe me, it’ll get more sculptural, more nicer as we go along,” the architect said.
Asked about his inspiration for the building’s current design, Gehry responded, “It’s very hard to give humanity to a building, especially a commercial building.”
“Santa Monica has a particular character and I’m trying to relate to it. I’m not going for a Bilbao effect,” said the architect, referring to the famous titanium-covered Guggenheim Museum he designed in Spain.
Many speakers were quick to give praise to Gehry’s work across the country and internationally, expressing excitement at the chance to have another of his buildings added to the city landscape. “I think the city should be very honored to have an architect like Frank Gehry doing this and I think it’ll really benefit the city,” resident Jerry Rubin said. Resident John C. Smith told the architect, “It’s an impressive design, and coming from you I’d expect nothing less.”
But some residents’ encouragement to have the commitment of a world-renowned designer seemed outweighed by their concern over the building’s height. Resident Liz Bell, who lives nearby, said she is concerned about the “increasing Manhattanization, Miami Beach process of what’s happening on the oceanfront.”
John Murdoch asked why the developer is not building within the area’s current 4-story height limit and suggested that allowing height limit exceptions could set a precedent for others to bring tall buildings to Ocean Avenue. Another speaker, a fellow architect, said 22 stories is extreme and that Gehry is more than capable of building a beautiful project in a smaller scale.
Gehry noted that he considered smaller-scale models but it’s difficult to create something special with that profile and still have the amenities offered.
“It can be done but it’s just not a profile that’s going to allow this kind of development which brings jobs and revenue to the city, and when you do that there’s a trade-off,” he said.
Worthe said the 22-story height is being driven by the museum campus and open space area as well as the context of the Second Street portion of the project. Tensho Takemori of Gehry Partners said the tallest section covers just 12 percent of the total site, and they believe that the rooftop observation deck that will allow the public to have panoramic views of the ocean makes the height a public amenity. Worthe said admission fees to the observation deck will go toward the local school district. The Ocean Avenue Project will provide 460 subterranean parking spaces.
Takemori said the museum campus will incorporate two landmark buildings, a Spanish-Colonial and a Victorian structure, and will include a cultural building with exhibition space and a museum plaza. The project is projected to generate $72.7 million per year in direct and indirect spending, 1,394 operations jobs and $4 million in new tax revenue to the city annually.
Project spokeswoman Marie Garvey said the developers are trying to deliver maximum community benefits while addressing the height issue in a thoughtful manner, but she added that there will be numerous other meetings where the community can voice its concerns.
“If the community doesn’t want this it’s not going to happen,” Worthe said.