To say City Council granted its approval of Frank Gehry’s Ocean Avenue Project would be an understatement — councilmembers heaped praise on the mixed-use LEED Platinum certified development designed by the renowned local architect.
“I’m just really glad I get to be here for what I think is a truly historic moment for the city, to get to potentially move this project forward,” Mayor Pro Tem Kristin McCowan said Thursday. “And I want to thank Mr. Gehry for what just appears to be a love letter, I think, to Santa Monica, and really sort of encapsulates so much of your artistry over your career. And as a local, this is such a beautiful way to give back.”
During a special meeting on Thursday night, Santa Monica City Council voted, 6-0, to approve the city block-sized overhaul, which includes a hotel, commercial space, residential units including rent controlled and affordable housing, and a museum, plus a public rooftop deck, interlaced by pedestrian “paseos” that are also open to the public. Councilmember Oscar de la Torre recused himself from the hearing to “prevent the perception of a conflict” due to a member of the development team being involved with de la Torre’s place of work.
Eighteen members of the public appeared at the meeting to offer comments on the project, with 17 in favor and one opposed. Supporters included union members, a local architect and parents of school children, who thanked Gehry’s team for including ongoing benefits for local public education.
Visitors will be able to access the project’s public rooftop deck (located atop the 12-story main building) overlooking Santa Monica Bay by paying a $1 donation, with net proceeds going to the Santa Monica Education Foundation to support local schools. After council discussion, it was determined that children ages 10 and under could access the rooftop for free when accompanied by adults. Developers have also pledged a one-time $1 million contribution toward early childhood initiatives in the city.
As another public benefit, the museum, with rotating exhibits focused on art, architecture and local culture, will offer one free day per month for Santa Monica residents, as well as offering field trip opportunities to schools in Santa Monica.
Despite being delighted with the project, councilmembers did request a few small tweaks to the development agreement. Councilmember Gleam Davis suggested that the current plans calling for 285 underground parking spaces be shifted from a requirement to a “maximum,” anticipating that, in the future, parking needs may decline as people become less car-dependent.
“The world is changing. People are using scooters, people are using e-bikes,” Davis said, later adding, “You know, the idea that we have a lot of concrete buried in this town with unused parking spaces … It’s a waste of energy. It’s a waste of resources. It’s bad for the environment. And so, I’m just curious if there’s a way to construct it so that it’s the ‘maximum of 285 [spaces].’”
City staff responded that they would be able to modify the language, with a clarification that the California Coastal Commission has final say, due to the implications for coastal access in the Coastal Zone.
Mayor Sue Himmelrich heaped praise on what she called the project’s “humane” plan for housing; in particular, she pointed to the status of 19 residents currently living in rent controlled units on the project site.
“All of the existing tenants on the site will be made available to come back to the project and they’ll be accommodated in the interim — moving off during construction and moving back in — by us,” Jeff Worthe, president of Worthe Real Estate Group, the project developers, told Council.
The new build will include 11 replacement units specifically constructed for current tenants, but the development agreement states all current rent controlled tenants displaced by the construction will be guaranteed a unit at similar rent when the project is completed. In total, the project will replace 19 current units with 100 units made up of 64 market-rate apartments, 11 rent controlled replacement apartments and 25 deed-restricted affordable apartments.
“I was really gratified by the developers’ attention to detail and attention to honoring
the item that Santa Monica really wanted,” Councilmember Phil Brock said, “and I hope this is a catalyst for smart development throughout our city from now on. The fact that the affordable housing is mixed in — it’s not separate, it’s not being stigmatized. The fact that has been done in thoughtful consideration of all the residents in the city? That is extraordinary.”
The project passed this hurdle, but don’t expect it to break ground anytime soon. With Santa Monica City Council approval in hand, Worthe will now take plans before the California Coastal Commission and the City’s Architectural Review Board and Landmarks Commission.