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Council Gushes Over Gehry's Ocean Avenue Project

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By Jorge Casuso

July 21, 2022 -- One week ago, an unprecedented event took place in the City Council chambers: A meeting was stopped so Councilmembers could pose for a picture with a proposed development and its architect.

Two months earlier, the project -- designed by Frank Gehry on what one Councilmember called "the most prominent avenue on the West Coast of the U.S." -- had been lavished with extravagant praise by the Planning Commission ("Planning Commission Gives Enthusiastic Thumbs Up to Gehry Project," May 19, 2022).

Council poses with Frank Gehry
Architect Frank Gehry poses with City Council (from left: Mayor Sue Himmelrich, Councilmembers Lana Negrete, Christine Parra, Phil Brock, Kristin McCowan, Gleam Davis, architect Frank Gehry, developer Jeff Worthe and Councilmember Oscar de la Torre. Photo Courtesy of the City)

Now, it was the Council's turn to laud a Santa Monica architect whose most prominent local buildings had been completed four decades earlier, long before he had became a household name.

Councilmember Kristin McCowan called the Council's vote to approve the project "a truly historic moment for our City" and Gehry's design for local developer Jeff Worthe "a love letter to Santa Monica."

"It's just a really magnificent thing," she said, adding that it "spoke to what this city is."

Or as Councilmember Lana Negrete told the 93-year-old master architect from the dais, "You really encapsulated everything we are."

The 316,750-square-foot project, which has been 15 years in the making, features Gehry's famous organic forms, with undulating lines and unexpected protrusions.

Former Arts Commissioner Bruria Finkel, who was a leading player in Santa Monica's once-vibrant art scene, said she met Gehry in the early 1960s "when he was designing straight walls."

Since finishing Santa Monica Place in 1980 and The Edgemar in 1984, Gehry "went on his own (and) within a few years, the world shook," Finkel said.

Gehry -- whose Santa Monica home had been literally shot at by a detractor -- had, she said, "captured the imagination of people" and "created a new language in architecture."

James Mary O'Connor, CEO at Moore Ruble Yudell, seemed awed at how Gehry's design for the Ocean Avenue mixed-use hotel project had no real front and how he's able over and over to find inspiration in constraints.

"It's like judo," O'Connor said, "turning those constraints into something you didn't imagine."

Before voting, the Council viewed numerous power-point slides showcasing how the project -- which includes 120 hotel rooms and 100 apartments -- integrates two historic buildings, 25 affordable rental units and 19 rent-control apartments.

The project also uses leading sustainability practices, features a museum that will showcase local artists and will be a financial boon to the City.

In the end, the Council suggested a few minor tweaks.

The project will now include not 285 parking spaces, but a "maximum" of 285, a number that, given the popularity of alternatives to the car, can be reduced "if things change on the ground," said Councilmember Gleam Davis.

And it will charge $1 to visit the publicly accessible rooftop deck to benefit the Santa Monica Education Foundation, only now, those under 10 years of age instead of 13, won't have to pay.

Ocean Avenue Project
Ocean Avenue Project (Renderings courtesy of Gehry Partners, LLP)

After approving the Development Agreement and related documents with one 6 to 0 vote, Mayor Sue Himmelrich made the unusual request: the Council would like to pose with the famous architect.

Staff quickly hoisted a large model of the project on a high table and the Councilmembers, most of whom were elected as slow-growth advocates skeptical of large developments, posed for pictures.

The project now heads to the California Coastal Commission, followed by hearings before the City’s Architectural Review Board (ARB) and Landmarks Commission.

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