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04.12.2013
Development Tsunami
Gehry headlines Santa Monica's swelling building frenzy.
Gehry's twisting mixed-use tower.
Courtesy Gehry Partners

Once upon a time, Santa Monica was a sleepy beach town, far removed from the ruckus of Los Angeles. That day has long passed. As the economy recovers from the recession, the city is poised to become one of the development and architectural capitals of Southern California.

More than 35 projects have applied for development agreements in the city, the majority of them multiple-story, mixed-used developments. Many of the architects involved are internationally recognized, such as Frank Gehry, OMA, and Pugh + Scarpa.

Santa Monica planning director David Martin told AN that in part the impressive amount of pending projects can be attributed to bureaucratic factors that have created a bottleneck in the permitting process. Primary among them is the Santa Monica Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE), which passed in 2010, and the Downtown Specific Plan (DSP), a zoning overhaul that has yet to be finalized. But much of the uptick in proposed projects comes from the return of economic vitality. “It’s an unprecedented amount of applications,” said Martin of the crush of development hopefuls.

The most high profile of the new projects is a 22-story mixed-use tower designed by Gehry Partners on the corner of Ocean Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard. Known as the Ocean Avenue Project, the plan was submitted for development approval on February 28. The twisting white tower is programmed for ground-level retail and restaurants and upper-level apartments, condos, and a hotel. The project also contains an observation deck and an unspecified museum on its north side, which will extend into two existing houses on the site.

Just a few blocks away, on Arizona Avenue between 4th and 5th streets, a number of high profile firms—including OMA, Robert A.M. Stern, Brooks + Scarpa, and Koning Eizenberg—have been shortlisted for a mixed use development. A surface parking lot and two banks currently occupy the site. The project could be as tall as 120 feet and includes an active public space.

The Hotel Miramar redevelopment by HKS.
Courtesy HKS
 

Down the block from the Gehry project is the largest plan of all: a redevelopment of the Miramar Hotel, on the corner of Ocean Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard. The plan, designed by HKS, includes a new 21-story tower with a Deco-inflected spire, two additional new buildings, and the renovation of the original Renaissance-Revival Palisades Building.

Aside from these are several mixed-use housing projects, crafted by architects like Gwynn Pugh, Michael Folonis, Jerde Partnership, Moore Ruble Yudell, and Killefer Flammang. Not all of the proposed developments are being designed by top-flight firms, to which Martin says the city will encourage developers to “do something with the architecture.”

Most of the proposed projects are geared toward downtown, and this isn’t an accident. The LUCE and DSP are both geared toward the central core. The measures seek to promote active street life and to take advantage of Santa Monica’s public transportation options, which will soon be augmented by the presence of the Expo Line light rail. Even major projects outside downtown, such as the Bergamot Transit Village, are along the Expo Line’s transit corridor.

Bergamot Transit Village by Gensler.
Courtesy Gensler
 

“We’ve attempted to be proactive about putting things downtown and putting the neighborhoods on ice,” said Francie Stefan, community and strategic planning manager with the city. Traffic is a perennial concern, as is the character of residential neighborhoods.

None of the pending development projects are a done deal. Gehry’s Ocean Avenue project, for instance, is not allowed by current zoning, but it is located on the “Opportunity Zone,” where the city sees a chance for new development, and, in some cases, new zoning rules. These rules will become clearer when the city releases the revised DSP draft in the coming months.

There are several critics of all this development. Most protesters claim that while development will be focused on downtown, that won’t stop traffic and other problems from spreading throughout the city. One vocal neighborhood group, the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, called the upcoming projects a “tsunami of development” and complained about the increased traffic and environmental impact that the new construction would bring.

As for the new zoning measures, the group said, “When developers want to build bigger projects than zoning allows, they ask the city council to change the zoning. One-hundred percent of the time the council has caved in.”

Sam Lubell