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Council Set to Approve Nearly $35 Million for Public Beach Club

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

January 23 -- It began as the real-life set for a Hollywood love story along the "Gold Coast" and recently stood destitute for more than a decade on Santa Monica's shoreline.

Its foundation was damaged by an earth shaking event and its future threatened by neighbors in a narrowly averted lawsuit that could have derailed its rebirth.

Now, more than 70 years after an eccentric newspaper tycoon built the exclusive beach villa for his silent movie star paramour, the Marion Davies Estate at 415 Pacific Coast Highway is finally ready for its close-up.

Photo of Marion Davies estate in its heyday.

With shovels scheduled to dig in at the earthquake-damaged estate in May, the City Council Tuesday night is expected to authorize $34.6 million for a makeover that will turn the torrid structure into a much-anticipated public beach club. The total tab includes as much as $28 million for Pankow Special Projects to begin its design-build contract and demolition.

"This is really the final hurdle to actually constructing the club, and if all goes well, it will be ready to open in two years," said Barbara Stinchfield, who heads the City’s Department of Community and Cultural Services.

With more and more of Southern California 's coastline facing an impenetrable wall of privately owned beach houses and land, many say the beach club, which will be open to everyone once it is completed, will be a significant achievement for Santa Monica.

"This will be the first time in history it will be a public facility since it was built," said Stinchfield, who has worked on plans for the estate since 1992.

The vision conceived years ago by City officials would likely never have become reality without the financial backing of Wallis Annenberg, a former guest of the "Sand and Sea Club," as the enormous Georgian-style guest house added in 1929 was known when its pool was enjoyed by private patrons.

Most of the money was secured from the Annenberg Foundation through an initial $21 million grant, as well as an additional grant of nearly $6.5 million, which will pay all the construction costs, according to City documents.

"It's pretty amazing and it's all because of the extreme generosity of the Annenberg Foundation and Wallis Annenberg in particular," Stinchfield said, noting that Annenberg has been closely watching how events have unfolded.

A shuttered guest house and lockers are all that remains of the storied estate.

After the club, consisting of two main structures and a pool, was shuttered following the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, the City spent several years trying to drum up the funding needed to rebuild the club as a public facility.

"We finally came to the City Council several years ago to tell them we just couldn't raise the money to do it as we wanted," said Stinchfield.

That's when the City sent out a proposal, which Annenberg responded to, she said.

"From visiting the club, (Annenberg) had a keen sense of what it could be," Stinchfield said. "While I can't speak for her, what I think her intent here, really, was to place the project in the public domain."

Yet it is not her money alone which will be approved Tuesday.

In addition to accepting the Annenberg grants, the council is expected to approve nearly $2.3 million from the City's General Fund and another $3.9 million in earthquake redevelopment funds. The council also is expected to approve a $971,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Once built, the club – which will not have a membership fee, but may charge a "day-package" for beach-related events and equipment – will be run by the City at an estimated cost of $2 million.

"It will be staffed by people in my department," Stinchfield said.

Incorporated in the operation of the facility will also be a controversial settlement agreement between the City and the Palisades Beach Property Owners Association (PBPOA), which the council approved last September. (see story)

The settlement -- which requires separate agreements with the foundation and the California Department of Parks and Recreation -- sets forth conditions relating to operating hours, security, lighting, parking and noise. It also calls for the City to continue to lobby Caltrans to install a stoplight at the beach club entrance on PCH.

If the settlement had not been reached, the lawsuit could have delayed construction long enough to endanger the Annenberg funding, officials have said.

In the suit, four neighbors and members of the PBPOA charged that the environmental impact report (EIR) for the project does not adequately address traffic and parking problems. The suit also claimed that the project would violate Proposition S, which limits the development of restaurants or food service facilities along the coast.

Renderings of 415 PCH Beach Club courtesy of Douglas Jamieson & Frederick Fisher and Partners

While the settlement agreement is not expected to raise the cost of building the club, it may affect how much revenue the club may bring into the City's coffers, since it restricts the kinds of activities that could be held there, Stinchfield said.

The homeowners could also move forward with the lawsuit if they feel the City fails to meet the terms and conditions.

The City will include the conditions, which would apply for ten years and, in some cases, seven and a half years, as part of the project description that will be reviewed by the California Coastal Commission.

City officials hope the lawsuit was the last bump in the road for a pricey piece of real estate that has a long and colorful history.

Built by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst for Marion Davies, it was a setting for some of the most fabulous parties held in the roaring twenties along the "Gold Coast," a stretch of extravagant clubs and homes along California's coastline.

In the 1940s Davies sold the estate, and it was converted into a hotel and private beach club, known as the Sand and Sea Club.

Between the 1960s and 1990s the site was owned by the state, managed by the City and leased to the Sand and Sea Club until much of it was "red-tagged", or declared uninhabitable, after the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Three years ago, City officials decided it couldn't rehabilitate the site on their own and enlisted the help of the Annenberg Foundation.

Now, an inaugural bash is tentatively planned for April.

Having worked long and hard on the project along with countless members of the community who rallied for its support, Barbara Stinchfield won't be celebrating by drinking too much wine at the event.

Instead she's hoping to jump into the pool, which will be open to the public for the first time in history and for decades to come.




“This is really the final hurdle to actually constructing the club." Barbara Stinchfield



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