Ocean Avenue Project integrates housing, retail, hotel rooms, a museum and historic landmarks

By Gary Walker

Gehry hopes to top his multi-building Ocean Avenue Project with a 130-foot public observation deck

It was after midnight, but celebrated Southern California architect Frank Gehry hadn’t lost his stamina or his sense of humor.

Gehry, 89, and his associates at Worthe Real Estate Group waited through a marathon June 12 Santa Monica City Council discussion about electronic scooters to present the latest iteration of their transformative multi-building development proposal for the 1300 block of Ocean Avenue.

“I’m kind of old for this. I’ve been through a few of these before,” said Gehry — perhaps best known for the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown L.A. and the titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain — after Santa Monica Mayor Ted Winterer thanked him for waiting hours for his turn to speak.

The nearly two-acre residential, retail, hotel and museum complex designed by Gehry Partners features a 40,000-square-foot museum space, 24,700 square feet of retail, 115 boutique hotel rooms and 79 apartment units (19 of them rent-controlled and 18 designated as affordable housing). The 12-story hotel structure features a 5,000-square-foot public observation deck 130 feet over the city.

This, believe it or not, is a massively downscaled version of the original project, which at 22 stories (244 feet) would have been the second tallest in Santa Monica after the 300-foot office tower a block and a half north at Ocean and Wilshire Boulevard.

One of Gehry’s major selling points for his revised project is the integration of two existing landmark structures, a 1906 Victorian home at 1333 Ocean Ave. and a 1926 Spanish Colonial Revival commercial building at 1337 Ocean.

“We’re trying to get the façade of the museum to incorporate the two historic buildings so that they’re made a part of the project and each supports the other visually,” Gehry told the council as he looked at the new design on the council screen. “It’s really been carefully thought out, and I think it’s a special opportunity for the city.”

Council members are expected to vote on final project approval later this year, and in the meantime recommended that the Worthe team focus on including more deed-restricted affordable units as part of their community benefits, work on a transit plan to reduce single-occupancy vehicle trips, and incorporate local hiring provisions.

City leaders had delayed considering the project until last year’s completion of the Downtown Community Plan, which governs density and height limits for the downtown and oceanfront development and emphasized pedestrian-friendly streetscapes, public transportation access, protection of historic structures and construction of affordable housing.

The Ocean Avenue Project, as it is known locally, would be one of three exceptions to the community plan’s height limit of 84 feet. The other two are a planned project at Fourth and Arizona avenues and the makeover of the Fairmont Miramar Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard.

First unveiled in 2013, the Ocean Avenue Project has been largely well-received at City Hall and has support from the city’s Planning Commission and Architectural Review Board.

“Through all of the meetings that we’ve had and through all the discussions, we’ve listened to [Architectural Review] and to Planning to give it more gravitas and make it more exciting. So what you’re seeing is the beginning of that idea,” Gehry explained.

The Wilshire Montana Neighborhood Association objects to some elements of the Ocean Avenue project, including the rooftop deck, the mobility plan and especially the height limit.

“The 130-foot height continues the belief that we should build a wall in front of Santa Monica Bay and the Pacific Ocean for a few, and to be truthful mostly for tourists — 115 rooms in the hotel, and only 79 residential units. This 130-foot project keeps out ocean breezes, light and views and builds an ocean wall, not an Ocean Boulevard,” the association’s board of directors wrote in a letter the council.

Downtown Santa Monica, the nonprofit that manages and operates the downtown business district, believes Gehry’s attachment to the project
will stimulate tourism and cultural interest.

“Importantly, the proposal preserves and integrates the two landmark buildings on site. Frank Gehry’s iconic architecture and the proposed community and cultural uses will be
a major draw to the neighborhood for locals and visitors alike,” Downtown Santa Monica CEO Kathleen Rawson wrote to the council.

Co-chair of Climate Action Santa Monica Chris Gutierrez spoke in enthusiastic support for Gehry’s vision and urged Worthe to consider implementing LEED Platinum standards into the building.

“The Ocean Avenue project can stand as an icon of sustainability. Athens has the Parthenon, Florence has II Duomo [di Firenze, the internationally known Florence Cathedral] and Santa Monica will have the Gehry,” she said.

Outside council chambers, Gehry said the Ocean Avenue venture was a labor of love, as he is building it in the city where he has lived for decades.

“It’s a very special project to me,” he said.