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Cesar Pelli's Return to Santa Monica for Miramar Project Stirs Mixed Reactions

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

By Jason Islas
Staff Writer

December 23, 2013 -- Friday's announcement that world-renowned architect Cesar Pelli and his son Rafael would design Santa Monica's Fairmont Miramar ambitious redevelopment project raised some eyebrows and some questions.

Santa Monica's community leaders had a wide range of views about the Miramar owners bringing in the accomplished Argentine architect, known for building what were once the world's two tallest buildings, to design their $255 million overhaul of the 86-year-old hotel.

“It's wonderful that the Miramar has brought in such an honored architect and firm, with ties to Santa Monica,” said former Lookout columnist Frank Gruber, a long-time commentator on local development issues.

“But it's ironic that the designer of Santa Monica's tallest building should be asked to reduce the height of the current project while still achieving its goals,” Gruber said.

The elder Pelli was part of the team that designed the 100 Wilshire building, which, at 300 feet tall, is the bayside city's tallest.

One of the major points of controversy surrounding the Miramar's pending redevelopment project is that developers are proposing building a tower that could, in fact, surpass the 100 Wilshire building's height.

Councilmember Ted Winterer said he is not convinced that Pelli's right for the job.

“To my mind, the three biggest challenges of the Miramar proposal have always been the scale, the insufficiency of the community benefits and the design,” said Winterer, who sat on the Planning Commission when the redesign project was first proposed in 2011.

Winterer, who was elected to the Council in November 2012 with support from slow-growth advocates and the powerful Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, said it's “too soon to rush to judgment” since he hasn't any specific plans.

But, he said, “my initial reaction is to be underwhelmed by the choice of an architect who is known for his work on corporate office high rises,” he said. “It seems a conservative choice to me and leaves me wondering if MSD is capable of making bold changes to their benefits package and the size of the project.”

Many opponents of the Miramar redevelopment project -- including the neighboring 17-story Huntley Hotel, which has financed a pricey PR campaign against the Miramar -- are looking to Winterer and Councilmembers Kevin McKeown and Tony Vazquez to put the kibosh on the project as proposed.

Bringing Pelli on board the project isn't likely to change McKeown's mind.

“I have great respect for Cesar Pelli, but even his talents are unlikely to mitigate a project that is just too massive for the site,” he said. “I support the revitalization of the historic Miramar, and the protection of the union jobs there, but voted against the scale of the current project on float-up.”

Alan Epstein, lead negotiator for Miramar part-owner MSD Capital, said Friday that now that there is an architect on board, the project can start to take more concrete shape, since plans so far have been preliminary.

But it could be months before Cesar and Rafael's firm, Pelli Clarke Pelli, will have those plans ready.

Once those plans have been drafted, “we, as a community, can assess whether they have a project,” said Patricia Hoffman, co-chair of SMRR.

Local architect and former member of the Architectural Review Board (ARB) Gwynne Pugh said that Pelli “is an architect that knows how to deal with buildings that are tall.”

In fact, from 1998 to 2004, Pelli's Petronas Towers in Malaysia held the record for the world's tallest buildings.

“This is not going to be the world's tallest building,” Pugh said. “It's going to be a relatively short building as tall buildings go.

“The project is the project and so it's a matter of how it's executed,” he said.

And Pelli could usher in welcome changes to the building's preliminary design, which has been lacking, said Hank Koning, another local architect.

“I was less than enthusiastic about the direction they were going in,” he said. “I'm happy they are exploring other options.”

Koning said, “There are some of (Pelli's) projects that I do admire. And hopefully this will end up being one of those. But it has to be appropriate for the Santa Monica context.”

Councilmember Terry O'Day said that he is hopeful that an architect of Pelli's experience will “be responsive to our community's interest in great design.”

Councilmember Bob Holbrook echoed O'Day's opinion.

“I'm glad they hired an outstanding architectural group to do this,” he said. He added that, until he sees a design, he couldn't say much more.

While community leaders remain split over the project's future, they all agreed on at least one thing.

Gruber summed it up when he said, “I hope that the Miramar will have its new architects meet with the community as part of their design process.”

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