A rendering of the proposed hotel and condominium project designed by famed architect Frank Gehry for the corner of Ocean Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard. (Gehry Partners, LLC)
A rendering of the proposed hotel and condominium project designed by famed architect Frank Gehry for the corner of Ocean Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard. (Gehry Partners, LLC)

MAIN LIBRARY — A Frank Gehry-designed hotel proposed for the heart of Downtown got mixed reviews at its public debut Thursday night, with many happy for a piece by the architectural giant but concerned over its height.

Developer Jeff Worthe and the Frank Gehry Partners team, including the famed architect himself, presented the 244-foot-tall, 125-room luxury hotel proposed for the corner of Ocean Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard to a standing-room-only crowd in the multipurpose room of Santa Monica’s Main Library.

The hotel, which the developers say will be staffed by union workers if built, will be the first building that Gehry has designed in his hometown since the Edgemar Retail Complex was created in 1984, and while it is one-third of the height of a building recently completed in New York City, the 22-story tower was a hard pill for many to swallow.

“Why not build a shorter version?” asked John C. Smith, a former City Council candidate.

Gehry acknowledged that he had studied smaller models for the site, but said that it’s “pretty hard to do something special with that profile.”

“You can do it. I got everyone excited about a house and it was only two stories,” he said, referencing his Santa Monica home built in 1971 to the delight of many in the room.

As proposed, the building will also include 22 luxury condominiums and a 460-space parking garage, and will be capped by an observation deck that members of the public can visit to look out over the ocean.

Although the company plans to charge for access to the deck, proceeds will go to the local school district, Worthe said.

Immediately north of the site, Worthe and his partners at M. David Paul Associates plan a 36,000-square-foot museum that will incorporate two landmarked structures, a Spanish Colonial style house and a Victorian as well as a third building which will be designed by Gehry.

Worthe presented it as one of the key community benefits of the site, one which appeared in the plans for the first time roughly two years ago to replace a proposed sculpture garden.

“Residents will go to this more than once,” Worthe said. “The sculpture garden is not a lasting experience.”

The developers expect the project to generate $72.7 million per year in direct and indirect spending, 1,394 jobs during operations and $4 million in new tax revenues to the city, as well as the money for the school district.

Height became the biggest obstacle for the development team, which presented its case as a compromise between a tall building and one with no open space.

The tower will encompass 12 percent of the total site, said Tensho Takemori, a partner at Gehry Partners LLP.

Make it lower, the team argued, and the museum may have to be sacrificed.

While some in the room seemed to have no problem with that — shouting, “We didn’t ask for a museum!” — others described the building as delicate, and seemed excited to have a Gehry-designed hotel in the Downtown location.

In fact, the same development team did propose a smaller hotel on the portion of the site that will now be the museum in 2007. It would have included under 80 rooms, but they let that application expire, Worthe said.

He now believes that 125 rooms is as small a hotel as they can build and still operate at an efficient level, and the condominiums are critical if the 36,000-square-foot museum will be included.

It’s as good of a spot as any for a relatively tall building, placed far from residential neighborhoods and in the context of Downtown, said Kenneth Breisch, director of USC Programs in Historical Preservation and former Santa Monica Planning Commissioner between 1993 and 2000.

“It’s interesting that Santa Monica has begun to look again at high rise buildings, which seemed out of the question not that long ago,” Breisch said. “There has been and will continue to be local opposition to anything like that, but it has advantages of opening up more public space and consolidating the development as opposed to spreading it out over a larger footprint, which can be detrimental.”

It may be time for the world-renowned architect to have the space to build an iconic structure in his own town, Breisch said.

There’s one factor that’s stood in the way of that so far.

“I haven’t done much in Santa Monica except my house, partly because the people who came with projects weren’t people who were interested in making buildings that I would call architecture,” Gehry said.

Aside from the relatively warm reception, there was another factor that set the meeting apart.

This was only the second public meeting held at the beginning of a development agreement process run by the developer rather than city officials.

It removed barriers, allowing residents to ask questions directly to the people in charge of decision-making, said Mary Marlow, member of the Ocean Park Association.

“We get to talk to people themselves and get it from the source,” Marlow said.


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