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Major Developments Rise Downtown

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

February 2 -- Jack hammers are pounding and concrete is being poured across the Downtown, as major new projects are entering the planning pipeline, rising from the ground or opening their doors.

They include four large apartment buildings on Santa Monica Blvd and 5th Street behind the old Toys ‘R Us, the redevelopment of two major hotels along Ocean Avenue, an office building on the McDonald’s lot near the Santa Monica Pier and the new Main Library, which opened last month.

ON JANUARY 7, hundreds of Santa Monicans turned out to join a who’s who of City officials, past and present, for the grand opening of the new $57.7 million Main Library at 6th Street and Santa Monica Boulevard. (see story)

Under construction for more than two years, the 104,000-square-foot library showcases cutting-edge sustain-able features, as well as an historic mural that has been out of sight for nearly half a century. It also includes 500 parking spaces, adding some 300 much-need spaces Downtown.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Mayor Bob Holbrook told the crowd. “After eighteen years on this, everybody’s been involved.”

Planning for an expanded library began in 1988 and the design is the work of Moore Ruble Yudell, Architects, a Santa Monica firm that recently won the prestigious American Institute of Architects’ 2006 Architecture Firm Award honoring its work in Sweden, Germany, and China, as well as in Southern California.

While the building’s exterior has been described as “too institutional” and “gulag architecture,” once inside, patrons will be bathed in natural light and can look out on the city, the sky and even – on a clear day – the sparkling blue ocean waves.

Designed with sustainability in mind, the library’s reading room is one of many spaces that take advantage of natural lighting modified by “mecho-shades” that adapt to conditions outside, reducing the need for air conditioning.

WOOD AND STEEL structures rise from the ground a block from the new library, as work crews busily construct nearly 200 units of housing in four new buildings along 5th Street – each five stories tall.
Within a year, it is expected that the apartments will buzz with activity. New tenants will sweat it out at nearby gyms, shop for fresh produce at the farmer’s market or take evening strolls through the Third Street Promenade.

“It will be interesting to see how the infusion of more tenants living in the commercial zone will affect the area,” said Assistant Planner Gina Szilak, the planner in charge of the projects.

It’s been City Council’s policy to turn the Downtown into a more livable area, she said, with higher density apartment buildings and condominiums. And it looks like one company, JSM Construction Corporation, and for that matter, one man – Craig Jones – has been able to impact that policy.

“For whatever reason (Craig Jones) is the only developer to who has invested the energy, time and money to develop projects in that commercial zone,” Szilak said.

And he may be the only one, ever.

"I don’t think there’s very much more land to work with down there,” Szilak said. “You just don’t see many four-unit lots available to buy and convert anymore.”

The nearly 70-foot-tall buildings with ground floor retail on both Santa Monica Blvd and 5th Street will replace a stretch of surface parking lots. Nearly 500 new subterranean parking spaces – 49 of which will be reserved for commercial use – will be added when all four buildings are completed, officials said.

From new tenants moving in to out-of-town visitors staying in the heart of the city, Downtown Santa Monica could see two new hotel expansions in the works – one for those looking to live it up in style, the other for those looking to save a buck.

THE FAIRMONT HOTEL (101 Wilshire Boulevard) – whose name is synonymous with hosting visiting dignitaries and movie stars – may soon be getting a massive makeover if all goes according to plan.

“We have a development agreement with the Fairmont for an expansion of the hotel, but everything is in the very early stages of the proposal... It’s only a draft,” said Senior Planner Sarah Lejeune, who is familiar with the project. “We are in the process of negotiations right now.”

That draft includes plans to add a 14-story tower, expanding the high- end hotel’s ballroom by 10,000 square feet and adding 600 parking spaces, 150 of those set aside for the public, said Lejeune.

If it goes through, the Fairmont will gain 120,000 square feet and over 200 rooms, 176 of those in the tower, which, as it stands now, would be 155 feet tall.

“This will be one of the tallest buildings in Santa Monica, but not the tallest, and that’s why there is so much scrutiny being given to the proposal,” Lejeune said.

The plan calls for 12,000 square feet of ground-floor retail, as well as a 7,000- square-foot restaurant on the corner of Ocean Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard, Lejeune said. The plan also includes as many as 50 affordable housing units on 2nd Street.

“We look at the public parking and affordable housing as a public benefit,” Lejeune said, declining to speculate on when the project would be completed.

The City must run a financial analysis, draft an environmental impact report and hopefully have the proposal before the Planning Commission by February or March.

JUST DOWN THE STREET at 1525 Ocean Avenue, those not looking to visit Santa Monica in a lap of luxury will be able to book a room at the new expanded Travel Lodge. The nearly 154-unit, two-story motel will have the bear necessities with limited service, but still be close to the beach.

“It’s a moderate priced alternative to the more expensive hotels built in the beachfront area in the past 15 years or so,” said local land-use attorney Chris Harding, who represents the developers.

Applications are pending and Harding expects that the project will come before the Planning Commission and the City Council by summer or fall of this year.

“So far the feedback has been very positive and we’re hopeful we will have our approval within the next 12 months,” Harding said. “It’s a Coastal Act policy to provide for a diversity of lodging opportunities in the coastal zone, that includes Santa Monica. So they have a very strong interest in this.”

The proposed development would include 97 parking spaces for the public, in addition to parking set aside for visitors.

OFFICE BUILDINGS are also starting to rise Downtown. After more than a decade of navigating Santa Monica’s planning process, Norman Kravetz and his business partners will finally get to build a signature corner of Santa Monica just a block away from the landmark Santa Monica Pier sign.

Demolition crews quietly dismantled a McDonald’s on the property at Second Street and Colorado Avenue at end of December, leaving nothing but a banner declaring the fast food restaurant will be back in 2007.

In its place, construction crews will begin putting up a three-story, 176,000-square-foot office building, including ground floor retail and 299 parking spaces. The price tag is expected to exceed $20 million.

After surviving what is perhaps the longest saga of permit wrangling in Santa Monica history, Kravetz said it feels good to finally begin to build.

“It’s very exhilarating,” said Kravetz, manager of Realty Bancorp Equities, which boasts over 2 million square feet of commercial space in cities such as Woodland Hills and Agoura Hills. “For something like this to finally be coming together is very exciting.”

By Spring 2007, Kravetz and his firm will complete their first Santa Monica enterprise, which he says will bring a “safe, secure parking, quality pedestrian retail stores and the finest office space” for financial, legal and entertainment firms, though he is still negotiating with tenants.

Offices will feature patios and flow into a courtyard on the second floor. Those with a hankering for a quarter-pounder can still visit the McDonald’s on the ground floor, however, it will be relocated into a sleeker 4,500-square-foot facility on site – with internet hook-up.

Architectural flourishes, such as towers “reflective of light houses,” were incorporated to interact with the famous pier sign.

While excited, Kravetz said it has been a long road to construction.

Over a course of more than a decade, Realty Bancorp Equities spent millions of dollars navigating the City’s planning department, Kravetz said. The long trek included designing and redesigning the project to pass the muster of the City’s Architectural Review Board (ARB), the Planning Commission and the City Council, which have viewed the project multiple times.

“In Santa Monica, there were many masters to serve,” said Kravetz. “If we didn’t have the financial strength and backing... we may have abandoned the project years ago.”

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