Frank Gehry designed this hotel proposed for the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Ocean Avenue. (File rendering)
Frank Gehry designed this hotel proposed for the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Ocean Avenue. (File rendering)

Santa Monica’s development discussions can often be bogged down in technical details and arcane language but the most recent proposal for a new project designed by famed architect Frank Gehry brought out the philosophical at the Planning Commission.

“It’s such an interesting proposition,” said Commissioner Richard McKinnon of the location at the corner of Santa Monica and Ocean. “It is the final westward expansion of the United States. Route 66 finishes up somewhere around there but it is the imagination that has always driven America to keep moving west and finally you get to the Pacific and you look out and you look out at a remarkable park. But for those of us that came to America from somewhere across the Pacific, it’s the first place you come to.”

McKinnon said whatever ends up on the site has a responsibility to appeal to the local community but it also has to acknowledge its unique location and that the project was close to achieving an exemplary standard.

As proposed, the project 130 foot (12 stories) project covers 11 parcels totaling 82,500 square feet along Santa Monica Blvd. and Ocean Ave. The site currently houses four buildings (three commercial and one mixed-use commercial/residential) and a surface parking lot.

The applicant has pitched a project designed by Frank Gehry that includes commercial (24,000 square foot of retail/restaurant), hotel (115 room), museum (40,000 square foot cultural/museum campus) and residential (79 units) use while retaining two landmarked buildings on the site. There would be a publically accessible rooftop deck and underground parking.

The project was before the commission this week for a ‘float-up’ presentation. The hearings are a chance for officials to weigh-in on projects during their design stage and while no formal approvals are issued, the feedback foreshadows the future discussions allowing developers to modify their proposals before seeking final approval.

Gehry spoke to the commission and said he still personally works on the buildings his firm is hired to design. Gehry said the developer, Jeff Worthe, is one of his favorite clients and his goal is to design a project that evokes something of Santa Monica.

“I want to collaborate, I want to be a good neighbor and part of this town,” he said. “I don’t want to create a monster.”

Gehry said he had genuinely appreciated the feedback received from the commission in the past and the project continues to develop in response to the community.

At the meeting, public speakers were mostly supportive of the project. Some said they disliked the rules that allow the project to be so high, but they said they supported the project itself.

An earlier version of the project would have been 244 feet tall but it has been reduced to 130 feet. Doing so has altered the mass and density of the project resulting in four distinct residential buildings that have been planned around a pedestrian-friendly ground floor. The revisions cut 22 condos from the project leaving the residential component to just rental units, some of which will be deed-restricted affordable housing and others will be subject to rent control.

The project is one of three covered by special zoning rules in the Downtown Community Plan that requires a Development Agreement with specific development standards including requirements for sustainability, mobility and specific uses for the property.

Worthe said his family has owned the property for decades and he expects to meet the requirements in ways that do more than just check a box.

“I would hope when we’re all said and done here we’re a shining example of how to meet those community benefits,” he said.

The commission recommended the project continue through the development process but said details such as traffic patterns, the relationship between new construction and existing landmarks, specific design elements of the Santa Monica/Ocean corner and uses for the storefronts would require further work.

The project will continue to refine its design details in the coming months but won’t return to Planning Commission for a formal hearing until late 2019.