Resident input into newly redesigned development was less oppositional, but not quite accepting

It’s been twenty years since Frank Gehry set off a firestorm in the art and architecture worlds with his signature accomplishment, a soaring, sinking, curving, titanium modern marvel: the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

The building is a crown jewel in Gehry’s career and in Spain, where locals attribute its success as a world-class destination with reviving Bilbao’s sluggish economy. Ten years ago, Vanity Fair asked 11 Pritzker Prize winners, eight architecture school deans and 33 other experts to name the most significant structure built in recent decades – 28 of them voted for Gehry’s Guggenheim.

Since then, Santa Monica’s own Gehry has been called “the most important architect of our age,” an iconoclast (Louis Vuitton) and a “living legend” (TED).

On Thursday, the 89-year-old legend himself sat in front of a skeptic audience: his own neighbors.

“We want it to be human scale,” Gehry said of the Ocean Avenue Project, a mixed-use hotel, apartment complex, cultural center and shopping center. “We don’t want it to get out of line. We want it to be pedestrian friendly.”

Public attendees were still skeptical of the project, but the reception was far more optimistic than for other recent downtown developments. There were no outright boos or jeers from the crowd. The newly revised plan reflects the criticism already lobbed toward Gehry and the developer Jeff Worthe since 2013. New plans eliminate condominiums on the property, cut the height from 244 feet to 130, and increase the number of deed-restricted affordable housing units among the apartments.

“It’s what you have to do if you want to do this,” Worthe said at the community unveiling of the plans, complete with an intricate wooden model of Downtown Santa Monica to show the project’s place in the skyline. “I think Santa Monica is challenging but so are a lot of other cities in Southern California.”

In fact, Gehry told the crowd, which included business stakeholders and architecture students, there have been mistakes made in the past. He noted 100 Wilshire, a 21-story office tower known to some as the “refrigerator,” calling it “out of scale” and complaining it blocks views. However, he argued uniform heights along Ocean Avenue are not the answer.

“Variety is important,” Gehry said. “That’s what makes it interesting.”

“Interesting” put Gehry on the map forty 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 know it as the “Gehry residence.” Gehry’s own Wikipedia page notes many of his neighbors “were not happy at the unusual building being built in their neighborhood.”

Compared to his home in the city and the Guggenheim in Spain, the Ocean Avenue Project with its gentle, white waves plays it safe. After all the project, complete with 115 hotel rooms, about 80 apartments, a museum and a 5,000 square foot observation deck, must survive public scrutiny, the Architectural Review Board, the Planning Commission and, finally, City Council.

“This is the very first step of a very long process,” Worthe told the Daily Press, observing Santa Monica is home to as many opinions as there are residents, about 92,000. Gehry told the audience he doesn’t want a repeat of Santa Monica Place, the mall he designed early in his career that has since been remodeled, gutted and stripped by the late Venice architect Jone Jerde. He blamed downsizing during the planning process for the mall’s failure.

Historical advocate and planning commissioner Nina Fresco winced when she looked at the wooden model of Gehry’s building in the mock-up of her beloved city. She called Worthe’s two acres of real estate along the coast a “sacred site” and the bluff itself a “natural wonder” that should be the star of the show. The project incorporates and preserves two landmarked-buildings.

After complimenting the artist who carved the model, City Councilmember Kevin McKeown had a lot to like about the project.

“I’m very impressed by how much they listened to our discussion of the Downtown (Community) Plan,” McKeown said, who is running for reelection this year. “I’m relieved the condos are gone because our beach front should not be a place for rich people to park their money. I love that all the affordable housing is on site.”

Moments later, an outspoken resident interrupted McKeown to complain about the project’s vehicle circulation and valet parking plan.

Visitors leaving the meeting at the Main Library were encouraged to leave notecards with their comments. Worthe said he felt blessed to be working on the project.

“It’s an unbelievable piece of real estate,” Worthe said. “We’re working with a phenomenal architect and that doesn’t happen every day.”

As for Gehry, he left the room soon after the audience began the question and answer portion of the unveiling. As he walked toward the elevator, he said he couldn’t predict the future of the project but remained optimistic this is the version that will be built.

“I hope so,” Gehry said, “with Santa Monica you never know.”

Kate Cagle

Senior reporter for the Santa Monica Daily Press