21 Aug 2014
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Gehry Building Delights Some, Gives Others Heartburn

At the first public meeting on the project, residents react to a 244-foot tall tower designed by Frank Gehry. It's proposed on Ocean Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard.

Gehry Building Delights Some, Gives Others Heartburn Gehry Building Delights Some, Gives Others Heartburn

Residents said they feel "lucky," "delighted" and "thrilled" to have famed architect Frank Gehry designing a new building in Santa Monica, but not all are sold on his plans.

Gehry, the Santa Monica resident who designed the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, has drawn up plans commissioned by Worthe Real Estate Group for a 244-foot tall hotel and condo tower on Ocean Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard.

"I'm delighted that one of our own residents is designing the building," said Amy Aukstikalnis, a member of Northeast Neighbors. But, she said, the height is giving her neighbors heartburn.

At a community meeting Thursday night to get public feedback on the proposed project, property owner and developer Jeffrey Worthe tried to assure the approximately 50 people in attendance he would heed their concerns. He promised it would be the first of many such meetings.

"If the community doesn't want this, it's not going to happen," Worthe said in response to residents upset over the building's proposed height.

Some said they did not believe Worthe. Resident Ellen Hannan said other unwanted new development has been shoved down their throats.

If built to 244 feet, the Gehry tower would be one of the tallest buildings in Santa Monica. Two other mixed-use hotel high-rises are proposed on Ocean Avenue, and residents said they fear the projects will worsen gridlock.

"I live next to Whole Foods, and that screwed my life up a bit," Gehry quipped in response.

Others said they are worried about the loss of ocean views.

"I have concerns about the increasing Manhattan-ization, Miami Beach happening on the ocean front," said resident Liz Bell. "I'm mainly concerned about the loss of ocean breezes, but that doesn't look like a problem here."

Like a couple of other speakers, Bell said she liked the skinniness of the building. It's proposed to take up about 12 percent of the 1.9-acre site.

"It's a very slender, delicate building," said resident Christian Schultz, a designer who has apparently worked with Gehry. "I'm excited to see what comes forth."

The height limit downtown is currently four stories, but the city is updating the requirement in a new Downtown Specific Plan. The plan, which is still in a draft phase, identifies seven "opportunity sites"—the Gehry building among them—that can exceed the codes if they offer a number of so-called community benefits, such as public artwork and parking, in exchange.

Gehry said his firm created about 30 models of the building using Worthe's requirements that it contain 125 hotel rooms, 22 condominiums, ground-floor shops and restaurants and public green space. The design plan submitted to the city incorporates a three-building museum and exhibition campus to the north.

Being able to keep the museum and open space while retaining 125 hotel rooms—the minimum number he said he needs to make the project profitible—are what's driving the height, Worthe said. With the museum, especially, the height is "essential," he said.

Aukstikalnis asked Gehry to show the different models to the public at future meetings. "It would be interesting to see some of the lower models you said you have explored," she said

"It's pretty difficult to do something special with [a lower] profile," Gehry said.  "I've been here since '72 no one has come to me to do a lower building that's architecturally significant."

The design is still a work in progress, Gehry said. "Believe me, it will get more sculptural and more nice as we go along."

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