April 2009. Mark your calendars. There will be a week-long series of opening ceremonies and events, and you’re invited. Swim in the restored Julia Morgan designed pool, play volleyball on the sand, bring your kids to play in the “splash pad,” picnic, and party. Ride your bike, walk, or take the new Blue Bus beach shuttle to the Annenberg Community Beach House.
415 Pacific Coast Highway, the site of the beach house William Randolph Hearst built for Marion Davies in the 1920s, will reopen in 2009 as the Annenberg Community Beach House. The first public beach club on the coast of California is the triumphant result of the work of an amazing cast of characters.
The cast really starts with Hearst, Davies and Julia Morgan who took five acres of Santa Monica beachfront property and turned it into a famous estate and an important landmark for Southern California. Subsequently, the site has been used as a luxury hotel and a private beach club. When the State decided to find a “highest and best” use developer, the site had a brief moment of being planned to return to a luxury hotel site. But the voters overturned that idea and for almost 15 years the site languished and was greatly underutilized.
Enter Wallis Annenberg and the Annenberg Foundation. In a serendipitous moment for Santa Monica, in fact the very day before the City was set to issue a public call announcing the search for a private partner, the Annenberg Foundation contacted the City of Santa Monica to say they were interested in partnering with them to create a public beach club. On the City side everyone was interested and hopeful. City Council members, Recreation and Parks Commissioners, Landmarks Commissioners, Planning Commissioners, the Santa Monica Conservancy, Santa Monica residents, and immediate neighbors joined the cast.
It took six months of substantive meetings to work out all the details and conditions. The City team, led by Barbara Stinchfield, Director of Community and Cultural Services, drafted an agreement whereby the Foundation would fund the $27.5 million required for the restoration and rebuilding of the site into a public beach club. Ms. Stinchfield said, “The thing I learned early on was that this gift was a purely philanthropic gesture, and the core of our experience was the generosity of the Annenberg Foundation at the direction of Wallis Annenberg.”
Next to join the cast was Fred Fisher Architects, known for their design work and their ability to work responsively with communities. Fisher described his vision for the Beach House, “It will be, as it has been, a stage for people to create memories. The site provides a rare combination of a dramatic natural setting, important historic architectural assets, and an opportunity for a new architectural fabric to bring these together.” said Fisher.
Earlier, working with the City and the community, the firm of Moule & Polyzoides had developed design and use concepts. Nine statements became the guiding principles for the Beach House Team: 1. Preserve the history of the site. 2. Encourage a “light touch.” 3. Create a community-oriented destination. 4. Provide public recreational activities. 5. Increase public access to the beach. 6. Create a range of uses. 7. Encourage diverse users. 8. Provide for year-round use. 9. Link to the regional open space network.
For all the growing enthusiasm and support for the project, there were still obstacles. The City faced the threat of a lawsuit. Immediate neighbors, citing past problems in working with the City, and concerned that the Beach Club would cause them harm, hired attorneys to stop the project unless their concerns were met. But while these issues were in negotiation, the work on the project went on.
Sustainability concerns were added to the guiding principles, most importantly, that the project be an historical adaptive-reuse project. The reuse of the site and the building is itself the best expression of sustainability. Mia Lehrer Landscape Architects were selected to design the landscape and insure that sustainable principles were used to maximum benefit. Sustainable requirements included tree-shaded parking lots to reduce the heat island effect and storm water retention ponds to return rainwater to the ground. Water efficiency standards would be met by the use of a native and drought-tolerant plant palette, and the use of a drip irrigation system. On the energy side the pool would be solar heated; passive heating and cooling elements were integral to the pool’s design. Also, the café and take-out window were planned to feature locally grown, organic foods, and that everything possible would be recycled and/or composted for a premier green facility.
The neighbors’ problems were successfully negotiated and the threatened lawsuit dropped. Credit for that goes to negotiators, the neighbors, and to the overwhelming public support presented by the “Friends of 415” organized by Joel Brand of the Santa Monica Conservancy. Construction began in 2007.
In summer of 2009 the Beach House will be officially open. Picnicking, the gardens, the restored Marion Davies Guest House, children’s play areas, volleyball, and beach tennis are free of charge. There will be charges for pool use and parking. Visitors will be able to choose whether to make reservations or to just show up, but there are restrictions on the total number of users. The Beach House will also be available, by reservation, for special events, parties and celebrations.
Fred Fisher summed up the hopes for the Beach House when he said they “attempted to create a canvas for the widest variety of activities that will naturally and creatively evolve with the community’s embrace and imagination… We imagine a broad and changing spectrum of activities, from the most casual and personal moments, to active group sports, to family poolside lounging, to formal group celebrations. Its success will be in the momentary experiences and recurring rituals that people create on the site.”
Susan Cloke is the Chair of the City of Santa Monica Recreation and Parks Commission.