CITY HALL — A $30 million hotel planned for the northwest corner of Fifth Street and Colorado Avenue could be shot out of the air by, of all things, a flying car.

The hotel proposed by South Carolina firm OTO Development, a mid-priced Courtyard by Marriott, would take the place of the Midas auto repair shop and Royal Autobody that reside there now.

OTO also hopes to install a Hampton Inn at 501 Colorado Ave., immediately across the street. The two hotels, coming in at 70,000 and 78,000 square feet respectively, are each expected to bring in approximately $1.15 million in taxes and $1.9 million in direct spending per year.

However, evidence proffered by Landmarks Commissioner Nina Fresco suggests that what is now an auto shop was once the birthplace of the world’s first flying car, and may be worthy of historic protection.

The contraption now hangs in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

A landmark designation at the site would kill the hotel project, said Taylor Callaham, a representative of OTO Development.

“If one or more of the buildings were left intact and in their current state, it would require us to abandon the project,” Callaham said.

The small flying car belonged to a man named Waldo Waterman, who, in the 1930s, began trying to take the budding aeronautics industry mainstream by making a plane for the common man.

He developed his most successful model, called the Aerobile, at the Fifth and Colorado site, and tried to outfit the place with an assembly line to produce them on a larger scale, but a case of appendicitis put the concept on hold indefinitely, Fresco said.

“We need you to help us protect the thinning fabric of historic Santa Monica, which is becoming more and more fragile every day,” Fresco told commissioners.

Michael Gallen, also with OTO Development, said that it would be impossible to incorporate the facade of the building into the new hotel, and questioned why the property would become a landmark now rather than three years ago, when the company purchased the property.

Even so, the company was not trying to avoid the landmark consideration, he said.

“We thought it would be more appropriate to present it to Planning and the City Council before going to Landmarks,” Gallen said. “We wanted the city invested in the project before going through that formality. It was not our intention to avoid it.”

There have been complaints in the past of anti-development factions trying to use the landmark process to curtail construction even when there was little evidence to support such a move.

Even without the obstacle posed by Waterman’s flying machine, the two hotels weren’t getting off the ground with the Planning Commission.

The developers presented the two hotels during a float-up session, meant to solicit opinions from the commission early on in the development process.

The commission’s vote would not impact the future of the development, which would then go on to the City Council for another float-up.

“I kind of support these kinds of uses at this corner,” said Chair Jim Ries. “I think the hotel makes sense from a revenue and traffic standpoint, and having it near light rail makes sense to me.”

It was the only thing commissioners seemed to support.

The look of the buildings was called “bland,” lacked independent retail at the ground floor to appeal to pedestrians and didn’t strive to meet a high standard of resource efficiency.

Allowing two corporate chains to flank a prominent entrance to the city — which would be front and center for drivers exiting the 10 Freeway, passengers on the proposed Exposition Light Rail Line and users of the Colorado Esplanade project — offended some sensibilities.

“I don’t like these projects and I don’t like them together,” said Vice Chair Gerda Newbold. “It’ll create a mid-range hotel row, and I don’t think that’s what we want when we get off of our light rail.”

Too much public money will pour into Downtown to make it a transportation hub and congregation center for the hotels to be uninteresting shells, commissioners said.

“The two projects as currently envisioned do nothing to make me go ooh or ahh,” said Commissioner Ted Winterer. “They fall way short in the design area.”

Callaham and Gallen also refused to commit to paying a living wage to hotel workers, and demurred on the subject of letting workers organize into unions.

“I’m not sure that all hotels in Santa Monica pay a living wage, and we would not want to operate at a competitive disadvantage,” Callaham said, promising to pay “competitive wages and benefits.”

That was not enough for Winterer, who had held the line on unionization for the hotel at 710 Wilshire Blvd., which is currently working its way through the planning process.

The same attorney working on the two hotels handled the 710 Wilshire project, so the demand shouldn’t be a surprise, Winterer said.

“We have a nationwide discussion of have and have nots, and if we’re not going to support it in Santa Monica, we should just give up,” he said.

Commissioners voted that the City Council deny the two proposals if their comments were not addressed in two motions, with Ries against both and Newbold standing against the 501 Colorado hotel.

ashley@www.smdp.com

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