If the building gods have their way, the ocean views in Los Angeles may soon be overshadowed by towers of swirling steel and glass. A string of high-profile architecture proposals by Rem Koolhaus, Frank Gehry and Cesar Pelli (designer of Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers) have been batted around lately as part of a “revitalization” effort in Santa Monica. Some projects scored approval, others didn’t. But the idea is the same: Each envisions massive construction aimed at luring hoards of international visitors and Angelenos to the famously low-key neighborhood.
At the risk of sounding like a fusty old crank, I’d rather not see the changes go forward as planned. Santa Monica’s allure has always been its absence of glitz. In many ways, it’s the un-Beverly Hills. Surfers and A-list screenwriters mix and mingle without fuss on Main Street, and even glamor girls know to ditch their Birkin bags for canvas totes at the iconic Wednesday and Saturday farmer’s markets off Third Street Promenade. SaMo is super wealthy, for sure, but it is wealth that errs on the side of modesty and moderation. Showing off status might mean absentmindedly flashing your Google employee laminate or perhaps plugging your electric vehicle into one of the new publicly-accessible EV charging stations at Santa Monica Place Mall or the Pier.
But here’s what the city’s Planning Commission has in mind for the beach town’s future. Let’s start with Gehry. He’s a son of Santa Monica, so I get it. The bungalow residence he designed with corrugated steel and chain link on 22nd Street is a local landmark, and it’s been 35 years since his most notable design there — Santa Monica Place, which was torn down and redeveloped several years back.
The new Ocean Avenue Project is based around a 22-storey, 244-foot tall hotel with a mirrored white facade on nearly two acres to include retail and restaurants, an art museum, observation decks and a deep parking garage.
The designs are typical Gehry: swirly and mesmerizingly beautiful. But the project brings major density, scale and what some have called “Manhattanization” to the ocean front. Currently, there’s a four-storey limit on new buildings in downtown Santa Monica (this one got a workaround by adding public art spaces and parking). And while there’s nothing wrong with a bit of skinny vertical (can you ever be too rich or too thin?), I worry this could be a gateway to a bigger-is-better mindset in a place where building size hasn’t mattered much — mainly because Santa Monica residents never let size get out of hand.
That’s why people gasped a little when Cesar Pelli — designer of the 1,500-foot-tall Petronas Towers in Malaysia, once the tallest structures in the world — for an ambitious makeover of the 86-year-old Fairmont Miramar hotel at the end of Wilshire Boulevard. The Argentina native, best known locally for the monumental Pacific Design Center, has plans for three new buildings built around a tower that rises more than 300 feet over Ocean Ave.
Residents weren’t happy with the proposal. A meeting at Civic Auditorium went on for five hours as locals voiced concerns about everything from clogged traffic to “the selling of the sky” over Santa Monica. With this and other mega-projects suddenly on the town’s radar, one resident stepped to the mike to say his town is taking a “Jackson Pollock approach to development.”
More is definitely more in the proposal Rem Koolhaus’s firm submitted this year, which may explain why it got shot down at the 11th hour. It’s not that I’m not a Koolhaus fan. Seattle’s Library is one of the most arresting buildings I’ve ever seen, inside and out. But it worried me to think about a 400,000-square-foot town plaza under a 225-room hotel, chockablock with restaurants, shops and parking for more than 1,200. Even without the construction nightmare to come from all this, Santa Monica is already too busy with cars most afternoons and weekends.
The Koolhaus build was full steam ahead last July after beating out a rival proposal by the firm of Robert A.M. Stern. But then in August, the city of Santa Monica changed its mind. Voting 5 to 1 to oppose the project, the city council shot down the mixed-use structure with a curious statement from Santa Monica’s mayor, Gleam Davis, who said, “It may be the most perfect project on this site. But does that make it the right project?”
Developers went back to the drawing board and Santa Monica got a much-needed time out. No doubt, a massive building project will emerge again. It’s simply a matter of addressing issues like public access to open space and the amount of affordable housing. Or maybe there’s a chance that the old Santa Monica spirit will prevail as people declare that bigger isn’t necessarily better and that saying no is as important a development for this laid back beach community as anything these starchitects might dream up.