Frank Gehry’s Santa Monica Project Takes a Big Step

Frank Gehry and the Ocean Avenue Project (Getty, Ocean Avenue Project, iStock)

Frank Gehry’s much-anticipated downtown Santa Monica project took a huge step forward last week.

The city’s planning committee debated the Ocean Avenue Project—a mixed-use master plan intended to serve as a contemporary civic and cultural anchor for the affluent coastal city—for several hours at a hearing on May 18 before voting to send it farsightedly by the elected city council.

“I’ve been on the committee for six years, and I don’t think I’ve seen a more perfect project,” Commissioner Leslie Lambert said during the marathon hearing conducted via Zoom.

The 93-year-old architect, a longtime resident of Santa Monica, appeared in front of the camera from what appeared to be his company’s office, accompanied by members of the development team. At one point, Jerry pointed to a large model—an intricate depiction of downtown Santa Monica with the planned layout highlighted in a different color—to help explain his plans.

“I think that’s respectful of the environment you’re coming into,” he said. “At least that’s what I tried to do.”

The Ocean Avenue project, which ranks among the most outstanding mixed-use developments in the Los Angeles metro area, has been in the works for nearly a decade and has undergone various iterations. The project, which is being developed with Santa Monica-based Worthe Real Estate Group, will rise on two acres on the corner of Ocean Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard, in the heart of downtown Santa Monica. New designs revealed this week show a suite of highly Gehry-esque designs—reflective, modern facades, and various geometric patterns—that will redefine the Santa Monica skyline and street life.

“There has been a slow transformation on Ocean Avenue over the past years,” one commissioner said Wednesday. “This will really change interest in this part of town.”

Current plans call for a development totaling more than 300,000 square feet and including a 120-room hotel, a cultural campus, a museum, four apartment buildings, shops and restaurants with outdoor dining and a public space that overlooks. The project also includes two of the city’s iconic buildings, a Spanish Colonial style house and a Queen Anne style house, which will be “appropriately rehabilitated, repositioned and reused” as part of the museum component.

The planned hotel, which was due to rise nearly 250 feet — a height that drew fierce objections from some residents — was now set to rise 130 feet and would include a spa and meeting space. The cultural space will include an architecture museum displaying the work of both Gehry and emerging artists. The apartment buildings span approximately 120,000 square feet and include 100 units, of which 64 are market rate units, 11 are rental units and 25 are affordable housing units; A member of Gehry’s team said that the varying heights of the buildings are designed to enhance the elements of light and air.

He told the committee, “It was sure that consolidating all of those in one building would be cheaper, but that’s not what this office would do.”

Proponents of the project also cite the planned rooftop observation platform, which will be open to the public at a nominal cost, as well as its commitment to fully using green energy, including through rooftop solar panels. The closed style design is designed to be pedestrian friendly.

“This was one of the leadership design principles that we pay particular attention to throughout the process,” Roxanne Tanimuri, chief city planner, said Wednesday.

At a planning board hearing, which lasted more than five hours, the committee discussed various details of the project, with particular emphasis on water use, and recommended several planning modifications. (The city’s interim deputy approved the project’s recycled water plans.)

Santa Monica residents also spoke out for and against the building: one resident hailed the building as a “cultural gem” that would revive the city and inspire future architects; Another said she lives in an apartment building that will demolish the building, calling it “brutal” and saying that residents who will be displaced have received no answers from the city. The project site currently includes 19 housing units, according to planning documents.

A city council hearing on the plans is tentatively scheduled for July 12. The project budget, including minor costs, is estimated at approximately $350 million, and construction, once started, is expected to take approximately three years.

Gehry’s design firm did not respond to an interview request. Nor did the city of Santa Monica respond.

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