Gehry Building Delights Some, Gives Others Heartburn

At the first public meeting on the project, residents react to a 244-foot tall tower designed by Frank Gehry. It's proposed on Ocean Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard.

Residents said they feel "lucky," "delighted" and "thrilled" to have famed architect Frank Gehry designing a new building in Santa Monica, but not all are sold on his plans.

Gehry, the Santa Monica resident who designed the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, has drawn up plans commissioned by Worthe Real Estate Group for a 244-foot tall hotel and condo tower on Ocean Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard.

"I'm delighted that one of our own residents is designing the building," said Amy Aukstikalnis, a member of Northeast Neighbors. But, she said, the height is giving her neighbors heartburn.

At a community meeting Thursday night to get public feedback on the proposed project, property owner and developer Jeffrey Worthe tried to assure the approximately 50 people in attendance he would heed their concerns. He promised it would be the first of many such meetings.

"If the community doesn't want this, it's not going to happen," Worthe said in response to residents upset over the building's proposed height.

Some said they did not believe Worthe. Resident Ellen Hannan said other unwanted new development has been shoved down their throats.

If built to 244 feet, the Gehry tower would be one of the tallest buildings in Santa Monica. Two other mixed-use hotel high-rises are proposed on Ocean Avenue, and residents said they fear the projects will worsen gridlock.

"I live next to Whole Foods, and that screwed my life up a bit," Gehry quipped in response.

Others said they are worried about the loss of ocean views.

"I have concerns about the increasing Manhattan-ization, Miami Beach happening on the ocean front," said resident Liz Bell. "I'm mainly concerned about the loss of ocean breezes, but that doesn't look like a problem here."

Like a couple of other speakers, Bell said she liked the skinniness of the building. It's proposed to take up about 12 percent of the 1.9-acre site.

"It's a very slender, delicate building," said resident Christian Schultz, a designer who has apparently worked with Gehry. "I'm excited to see what comes forth."

The height limit downtown is currently four stories, but the city is updating the requirement in a new Downtown Specific Plan. The plan, which is still in a draft phase, identifies seven "opportunity sites"—the Gehry building among them—that can exceed the codes if they offer a number of so-called community benefits, such as public artwork and parking, in exchange.

Gehry said his firm created about 30 models of the building using Worthe's requirements that it contain 125 hotel rooms, 22 condominiums, ground-floor shops and restaurants and public green space. The design plan submitted to the city incorporates a three-building museum and exhibition campus to the north.

Being able to keep the museum and open space while retaining 125 hotel rooms—the minimum number he said he needs to make the project profitible—are what's driving the height, Worthe said. With the museum, especially, the height is "essential," he said.

Aukstikalnis asked Gehry to show the different models to the public at future meetings. "It would be interesting to see some of the lower models you said you have explored," she said

"It's pretty difficult to do something special with [a lower] profile," Gehry said.  "I've been here since '72 no one has come to me to do a lower building that's architecturally significant."

The design is still a work in progress, Gehry said. "Believe me, it will get more sculptural and more nice as we go along."

RJ March 22, 2013 at 12:38 PM
.....let’s hope the "busy bodies" looking to make themselves important don't ruin the chance we get to have a "home town son" (and a world famous one at that) create something that will be known around the world. The original SMPlace by Gehry is gone except for his huge faded/dirty “Santa Monica Place” chain link letter signage (that use to be bright white) mounted on the parking structure chain link fence facing City Hall that has been obscured by overgrown trees and car exhaust dirt for 20 plus years. The Third Street Promenade is getting old as the "item" we are known for now. Considering we have such a large international tourist base it would be great to have something for the world to see besides row after row of overpriced retail in the downtown area. Fortunately we do have the pier. BTW, what will it take to get those “Santa Monica Place” letter cleaned, repainted, and trees trimmed so it can be seen again? With all the new development, new park, new City Hall landscaping, etc. having the SMPlace sign come alive again so as to be seen again driving up Main Street north from Pico would fit right in. Why have all the new development in the area only to stare at a dirty sign that one can barely read because the overgrown trees block the bottom half of the sign. Don’t see why a “refurbished” Santa Monica Place sign/graphic wouldn’t fit right in with all the new downtown “graphics” for the Metro or any other large city backed project.
Paul Rich March 22, 2013 at 02:19 PM
The tenor of the town hall gathering was surprisingly tame, much respect and admiration given to our local resident and celebrity architect, Frank Gehry. Though by far the greatest applause came whenever the 22-story elephant in the room was addressed, and that is how the heck can an already gridlocked downtown Santa Monica accommodate such a huge development? We are told to rest assured, the answer will come later in the process during the Environmental Impact Report hearings. We were told the hotel would have a scant 125 rooms, the absolute minimum for a hotel to turn a profit. Any less and it simply wouldn't be financially feasible. When asked "Why?", we were told the 125 rooms were needed to make the numbers work for support staff. Any finance heads want to chime in here? Would not less support staff be needed if the hotel was smaller? Or are they speaking of support staff needed to manage the proposed museum park, a required expense to move existing landmarks such as the Gussy Moran House? And if this project is granted an exception to existing height-restriction laws, what's to keep other developers from turning the oceanfront into hotel high rise row? There's no question Santa Monicans support practical urban development that promotes jobs, revenue and quality of life. But it only makes sense that if you're designing a pair of jeans for example, no matter how stylish, they'd have to fit a city that's midsection is already bursting at the seams.
NicoleBartelme March 22, 2013 at 03:18 PM
Frank Gehry's building should be commended --but the height of all buildings in the area should be restricted - why foster what will create an eventual canyon of darkness if other buildings are allowed to sell their air rights - the other focus for the community should be allowing for non-chain stores to have precedence over renting - to many communities in America have lost their interior shell - as for exterior - the Gehry building is what defines American cities - creativity and innovation - Santa Monica has a chance to show it's feathers much like Spain's Barcelona's architecture - this is a stimulating direction
Frank Fields March 22, 2013 at 03:55 PM
Can we please not go all weak-kneed just because a few people got some celebrity face time? Let's remember that this project was designed by Gehry to sit on Bunker Hill, alongside some of the tallest skyscrapers in downtown L.A. It is neither the right scale, nor does it serve the right purposes, for Santa Monica (pop. 90,000). I mean, seriously...raise your hand if you think we need more luxury hotel rooms and luxury condos.
Frank Fields March 22, 2013 at 04:00 PM
Yes, wouldn't it be lovely if non-chain stores could take precedence? Unfortunately, the rents that developers like this tend to envision are *far* out of reach for anything but the biggest corporate tenants. Makes you wonder whether tourists actually "shop" on the Third Street Promenade. What would be the point, since they have all the same stores back home?
Stan kaplan March 22, 2013 at 06:40 PM
It's obvious you weren't there to see the presentation. This is a building still in the design faze and specific to the Santa Monica site. You do not value facts. I will make it a point never to trust anything you write, Mr. Frank Fields.
Greg Fry March 22, 2013 at 08:48 PM
So you suggest that we should all burst with pride that a "home town son" has designed a building that will adversely affect those "busy body" residents who do not wish to give developers a blank check to ruin our community?
Dan Charney March 22, 2013 at 09:23 PM
I am all for Mr Gehry and all fine architects - just not the over-development and take over of Santa Monica to become Santa Miami because developers feel like it - that is the issue- that and the clever way the city has to rid itself of its' most vulnerable- not about Geary or bikes or cars- its about a council installed by developer money - now they must deliver- what we think doesn't matter - don't kid yourself- it's all just "the talk of the town"
Tom hays March 22, 2013 at 09:50 PM
You need a general manager if the hotel has fifty rooms or 500. The same principal applies to many other staff. You need more income to cover such fixed costs.
Tom hays March 22, 2013 at 09:52 PM
Let's keep an open mind on this project.
j pena March 23, 2013 at 03:31 PM
This 22 foot building goes AGAINST the character of our city. No matter how many wavy angles they try to sell us it's another step towards the Miami-ization of our city. Just where do they plan to direct the traffic? There's only one freeway and already congested streets due to the new mall (none of us go there and none of us will go to Gehry's fancy spot either, it will be unaffordable).
Paul Rich March 23, 2013 at 06:53 PM
I'm empathetic to valid public concerns yet hopeful a compromise can be reached. My sense from the Worthe-Gehry collaboration is there was a sincere effort for their plan to blend in and harmonize with Santa Monica sensibilities in both the ergonomic and aesthetic sense. Believe me, I'm not gullible and can be just as dubious and cynical as the next guy. As far as developers go, it could be a lot worse and I don't want to scare Gehry away as the dream remains among myself and many others that he could be cajoled into redesigning the Santa Monica civic auditorium. Perhaps Mr. Worthe could apply his business acumen to THAT project after convincing us cars will be able to get from Lincoln Blvd. to Ocean Avenue during rush hour in less than 20 minutes when the hotel is done?
suzan green March 26, 2013 at 06:17 PM
...design PHASE - not "faze"
Greg Fry March 28, 2013 at 05:16 AM
Paul, you refer to this proposed development as a fait accompli, or at the very least as what you consider to be the best option in inexorable and unstoppable development alternatives. What of a much more sensible option: say "no" to ANY and ALL development proposals that would Manhattanize Santa Monica, and to insist that local government respect this will of its constituents or be ousted!


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