A long-awaited Frank Gehry project in downtown Santa Monica took a major step forward last week.
The city’s planning commission discussed the “Ocean Avenue Project” — a major mixed-use plan intended as a kind of contemporary civic and cultural anchor for the affluent coastal city — for several hours at a hearing on May 18 before voting to send it along for consideration by the elected city council.
“I’ve been on the commission for six years,” one commissioner, Leslie Lambert, said during the marathon hearing, which was conducted via Zoom, “and I don’t think I’ve seen a more perfect project.”
The 93-year-old starchitect, a longtime Santa Monica resident, appeared on camera from what appeared to be his firm’s office, accompanied by members of the development team. At one point Gehry gestured toward a large model — an intricate depiction of downtown Santa Monica with the planned build highlighted in a different color — to help explain his plans.
“I think that’s pretty respectful of the environment that it’s coming into,” he said. “At least that’s what I tried to do.”
The Ocean Avenue Project, which ranks among the Los Angeles metro area’s most significant pending mixed-use developments, has been in the works for roughly a decade and gone through various iterations. The project, which is being developed with Santa Monica-based Worthe Real Estate Group, would rise on a two-acre site at the corner of Ocean Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard, in the heart of downtown Santa Monica. New renderings revealed this week show a collection of very Gehry-esque designs — reflective, modernist facades and with varying geometric patterns — that would redefine both Santa Monica’s skyline and street life.
“There’s been a slow transformation of Ocean Avenue over the last number of years,” one commissioner said on Wednesday. “This is really going to change the interest in this part of town.”
Current plans call for a development that totals over 300,000 square feet and includes a 120-room hotel, cultural campus and museum, four residential buildings, shops, restaurants with outdoor dining and a public overlook space. The project also incorporates two of the city’s landmark buildings, a Spanish Colonial Revival-style home and a Queen Anne-style home, that would be “rehabilitated, repositioned and adaptively reused” as part of the museum component.
The planned hotel, once slated to rise nearly 250 feet — a height that drew loud objections from some residents — is now planned at 130 feet tall and will include a spa and meeting space. The cultural space will include an architecture museum that displays the work of both Gehry and emerging artists. The residential buildings span roughly 120,000 square feet and include 100 units, with 64 reserved for market rate, 11 for rent-controlled units and 25 for affordable housing; the buildings’ varying heights, one member of Gehry’s team said, are designed to enhance light and air elements.
“It certainly would have been cheaper to combine all those into one building,” he told the commission, “but that’s not what this office was going to do.”
Supporters of the project also cite the planned rooftop observation deck, which will be open to the public at a nominal cost, as well as its commitment to using entirely green energy, including through rooftop solar panels. The enclosed-style layout is intended to be pedestrian-friendly.
“That was one of the driving design principals that we have been paying special attention to through the process,” Roxanne Tanemori, the city’s senior planner, said on Wednesday.
At the planning board hearing, which lasted the better part of five hours, the commission discussed various project details, with a particular emphasis on its water use, and recommended several planning amendments. (The city’s interim city attorney endorsed the project’s recycled water plans.)
Santa Monica residents also spoke both in favor and against the build: One resident praised the build as “a cultural jewel” that would enliven the city and inspire future architects; another, who said she lives in the apartment building that the build would demolish, called it a “monstrosity” and said residents who would be displaced had received no answers from the city. The project site is currently home to 19 residential units, according to planning documents.
The city council hearing over the plans is tentatively scheduled for July 12. The project’s budget, including soft costs, are estimated at roughly $350 million, and construction, once it begins, is projected to take approximately three years.
Gehry’s design firm did not respond to an interview request. The City of Santa Monica also did not respond.