Frank Gehry’s building designs have been dubbed some of the most important works of contemporary architecture. His heralded level of international acclaim skyrocketed after the Guggenheim Museum opened in Bilbao, Spain in 1997. Hailed as a “masterpiece of the twentieth century” and “the greatest building of our time,” the museum became famous as a striking soaring, sinking, curving, titanium modern marvel. It subsequently had an incredibly positive economic effect on the Basque port city. Locals attribute the museum’s success as a world-class destination with reviving Bilbao’s sluggish economy.
Since Bilbao, Gehry has regularly won major commissions and has further established himself as one of the world’s most notable architects. His best received works include the boisterous and curvaceous Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, the open-air Jay Pritzker Pavilion adjacent to Millennium Park in Chicago, and the understated New World Center in Miami Beach. Now, Gehry wants to create a swirling architectural gem for his hometown of Santa Monica.
101 Santa Monica Blvd. was originally proposed in 2013 as a 22-story hotel-below-condo combination. Far larger than anything else around the neighborhood, the project stalled before the permitting process. Now, the City has approved the Downtown Community Plan, defining construction heights and the Gehry project parameters can be massaged to fit the City Santa Monica’s development plan for downtown. The new white tower with ribbon-like facades is expected to be 12 stories—or 130 feet. The complex includes a tower, three lower structures, a museum, and the continued preservation of two local landmarks.
The 317,500-square-foot mixed-use development will incorporate a 115-room hotel with a rooftop observatory, 24,700 sf retail, as well as 79 residential units (19 replacement rent-controlled units, 18 affordable units and 42 market-rate units). The new 40,000 sf museum will be positioned behind the landmark structures – a Queen Anne-style structure from 1906, and a Spanish Colonial Revival building from 1926. The design incorporates the vintage structures and will promote public engagement with historical parts of Santa Monica. Public walkways and garden areas and public art will lace through the two-acre project. It is anticipated that the improved ground-floor circulation plan should reduce vehicle and pedestrian conflicts.
“It’s an unbelievable piece of real estate,” noted developer Jeff Worthe. “We’re working with a phenomenal architect and that doesn’t happen every day.”
“This layout allows porosity and designates approximately 25% of the site area as public open space at the ground level,” said the developer’s statement. “All street frontages, other than the alley to Second Street, are free from vehicular exit entry points.”
The new downtown plan caps building heights at 84 feet, but allows the three big projects to top out at 130 feet if the developer seeks a development agreement, which would allow the city to ask for community benefits, like money for parks and transportation.
“Now that the Downtown Community Plan has been enacted, this revised proposal has been submitted in compliance with the standards for seeking discretionary approval for a project on this site,” noted City’s Department of Planning and Community Development about the revised blueprints.
Gehry, a long-time Santa Monica resident, said that he and his team approached the project very much as a member of the community.
“We want it to be human scale,” Gehry said. “We don’t want it to get out of line. We want it to be pedestrian friendly.”
If approved, the Ocean Avenue project will become Gehry’s fourth building in Santa Monica. The City put Gehry on the map 40 years ago, when he pushed the boundaries of residential architecture by wrapping his early 20th century bungalow on 22nd Street in fragmented steel and chain-link fencing. Architecture students studying deconstructivism now know it as the “Gehry residence,” but when it was built, many neighbors “were not happy at the unusual building being built in their neighborhood.”
Gehry also designed the quirky Edgemar Retail Complex on Main Street, which was built in 1971; and Santa Monica Place, which opened in 1980 and was completely renovated in 2008 to turn the original air-conditioned structure into an outdoor mall.
The Ocean Avenue project is on one of three sites in Downtown Santa Monica that allows for projects up to 130 feet tall. The other two include the 568,940-square foot redevelopment of the Fairmont-Miramar Hotel, which originally topped out at 21 stories, and the “Plaza at Santa Monica,” a hotel-mixed use development on City-owned land which slow-growth proponents want turned into parkland.