When one of Santa Monica’s most influential architects talks about neighborhood density – the amount of neighbors piled into one building or one street corner – he uses a different word.
“I think it’s an exciting place to be,” Architect Gwynne Pugh said of the building boom happening in his city of more 30 years.
While he is involved in projects across Los Angeles, including the $250 million redevelopment of Queen Mary Island in Long Beach, the award-winning architect has certainly left his mark on the City by the Sea.
His hand has graced downtown’s modern-looking parking garages, affordable housing and updated facades.
Nowhere has he had greater influence than the corner of 5th and Colorado. His firm, Gwynne Pugh Urban Studio, is behind the new orange Courtyard Marriott, the sea green Hampton Inn across the street and the solar clad Colorado Court, across the way. Pugh even helped design the new Expo Station itself.
“It’s fantastic,” Pugh said. “I’m really happy with how it’s come out.”
Pugh lights up when he talks about his buildings. Originally from Wales, he earned a Bachelor of Science in engineering at the University of Leeds in the UK. He moved to Southern California to study architecture at UCLA and has lived here ever since. Every other early morning or so, you may catch him riding his bike along the beach.
As the former Chair of the Planning Commission he was instrumental in developing Santa Monica’s land use, urban design and transportation plan through the Land Use and Circulation Element, or LUCE document. The LUCE calls for walkable “transit villages” with creative arts and housing near the Expo Light Rail to reduce traffic.
The goal is materializing as plans for a spate of mixed-use apartment complexes on Lincoln Boulevard near Colorado make their way through the Planning Commission.
“I’m looking forward to Lincoln actually having some intensity to it,” Pugh said, remarking right now the street is simply a thoroughfare for cars. “One of the sort of rules of thumb that we think about is the idea that you want a pedestrian oriented environment and to do that, on a long commercial block or a couple of blocks, you need about 1,600 households to support the retail.”
The Sunset Park resident says that can be accomplished through buildings that are around four stories in height. He points to the already redeveloped corner of Broadway and Lincoln where an NMS apartment building, a Starbucks and other restaurants have come up in recent years. Pugh was not involved in the project – or any of the upcoming apartments on Lincoln for that matter – but appreciates what they accomplish.
“No matter what you think of the architecture, look at what’s happening,” Pugh said.
“That wasn’t a very pedestrian friendly place for the longest time and now it’s started to become a place that’s really a place.”
Not everyone agrees with Pugh’s rosy assessment of the future of Santa Monica. Density can be a dirty word and slow/no-growth activists fight large projects that they say transform the character of their city. Last November, Measure LV would have brought most developments over two stories to a City-wide vote. The measure ultimately failed but to its advocates, their lazy beach town has been invaded by tourists and traffic.
“It was never a sleepy beach town except when it was depressed,” Pugh said from his office near the airport. “This was a city where nothing really happened.”
To Pugh, Santa Monica is growing up. People – intensity – who support local bodegas and Laundromats and bars and shops – will truly make it a world class city. Stand-out contemporary architecture represents its future.
“LA is a place where you’re allowed to fail. Because if you’re allowed to fail you’re also allowed to succeed,” he said.