New Plans for Santa Monica’s Historic Fairmont Miramar Hotel Seek to Revive ‘Garden Identity’

Billionaire Michael Dell’s Investment Firm Unveils Scaled-Down Hotel Redevelopment Plan for Historic Celebrity Hot Spot

If you were looking for Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow or Marilyn Monroe in the early part of last century, you probably would have had luck finding them at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel and Bungalows in Santa Monica, CA.

The Hollywood stars lived in or frequented the beachside resort at Ocean Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard that was once a mansion estate owned by John P. Jones, a former U.S. senator and the founder of Santa Monica.

In fact, the Fairmont Miramar garnered such a reputation as the top getaway for the rich and famous that over the years you could have found celebrities and dignitaries from John F. Kennedy to Steven Spielberg there.

But much like some of the aging Hollywood stars who have visited the property, the nearly century-old Fairmont Miramar is seeking a facelift.
This week, the property owner, a unit of billionaire Michael Dell’s investment vehicle MSD Capital LP, unveiled a new design for the “several hundred million dollar” overhaul of the historic hotel that expands and transforms it into a modernist glass-clad, low-rise retreat curled around a landmarked Moreton Bay Fig Tree.

This is the fourth iteration of redevelopment plans for the site since 2011, as the owner adapts the project to community and governmental feedback as well as new city restrictions on development height.

Renamed the Miramar Santa Monica, the project was designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects.
Plans call for razing some of the site’s existing buildings and bungalows to make way for a development that includes 312 updated hotel rooms and 60 condos that peaks at about 130 feet tall. The project proposes 11,500 square feet of restaurant space – including space for the existing Fig Restaurant and The Bungalow on the second floor – as well as a 10,000-square-foot ballroom.

The new building’s modernist design features curved edges and jutting horizontal balcony lines.
More than half of the ground-floor on the property will be open space, an element community members lobbied for in a previous review process. The design removes a wall that separates the property from Ocean Avenue and replaces it with public seating and terraced gardens. Large gardens are also drafted for the interior of the project.

Dustin Peterson, principal and vice president of the Athens Group that is serving as MSD’s representative, said original guests of the hotel in the 1920s were drawn to the property’s gardens and open spaces.

“Over time, the gardens and public space became hidden and restricted to guests, with building additions and tall walls surrounding the property,” he said. “The new Miramar Santa Monica seeks to restore and enhance the garden identity to the hotel.”

Landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson of Gustafson Guthrie Nichol helmed the open space design. She is known for a number of projects including the internationally-renowned Les Jardins de l’Imaginaire in Terrasson la Villedieu in France.

Among the project’s most central features is a towering Moreton Bay Fig Tree that was planted by Senator Jones’ second wife Georgina Frances sometime before 1900. The tree received designation as a local landmark in 1976.

“The Moreton Bay Fig Tree is proposed to be the iconic focal point of the Miramar Gardens, which is designed to both celebrate the tree, provide appropriate features that encourage public enjoyment of the tree while subtly discouraging physical interaction and promote the long-term health of the tree,” Robert Chattel, president of the project’s historic preservation consultancy Chattel Inc., said in a statement to the city.

A raised deck around the tree is designed to create a level area for entry to the hotel lobby and ballroom while also preserving the tree’s root system.

The development is intended to interact with the surrounding community. In that spirit, the partial ellipse of Miramar Gardens is meant to give a sense that it is linked to a monument across Ocean Avenue in Palisades Park that is dedicated to Jones, who is said to have watched the sunset from that spot often.

In homage to its Golden Age of Hollywood history, the project also preserves the historic apartment hotel Palisades Building, built in 1924 in the Renaissance Revival style and landmarked by the city in 2013. The rehabilitation of that building on the north side of the property is slated to paint the brick exterior a white or off-white color as it was during the mid-century, and remove paint and restore existing terra cotta.

The owner also plans to replace the rooftop signage of the building facing west toward Ocean Avenue using a typeface inspired by original street-level signage.
The proposal includes the development of an affordable housing building across the street at a surface parking lot at 1127 Second St. that will include at least 30 units. Details are still being finalized on that component.
MSD bought the 4.5-acre site at 1133 Ocean Ave. in 2006 for $210 million, according to CoStar data.
The owner submitted original redevelopment plans in 2011. Two other redevelopment plans were pitched in 2013 and 2015.

The prior iteration of the redevelopment project, estimated at about $255 million, was larger than the current proposal. It was done in Art Deco style and called for two small buildings and a 21-story tower, about 260 feet tall that comprised 280-hotel rooms, 120 condos, 40 affordable condos and restaurants. The tower would have been one of the tallest in the city of Santa Monica and was largely criticized as oversized for the neighborhood.

However, the Miramar plans have been on hold since Santa Monica officials began to develop a Downtown Community Plan, which City Council approved last summer. Among its provisions, the plan caps building height limits to about seven stories, or 84 feet.

Because of the potential for community benefit through elements such as affordable housing and community open space, the Miramar is one of three projects that received discretionary exceptions to the Downtown Community Plan that would allow building heights of up to 130 feet.

The other exceptions include a proposed development at Fourth Street and Arizona Avenue, where plans for an office – apartment – hotel project are on hold, and a project by developer Jeff Worthe for a Frank Gehry-designed tower on a nearby corner of Ocean Avenue. New and reduced plans for Worthe’s project were revealed in January and moving through the city approval process.

“We hope the community will weigh in directly on the Miramar project, and we look forward to that process,” said Constance Farrell, City of Santa Monica’s public information officer, in an email.
While reduced in height, condo number and square footage, the Miramar may continue to be faced with hurdles and opposition.
Some Santa Monica residents and groups have been vocal in their opposition of the hotel’s expansion in the past.

Neighboring Huntley Hotel has been fighting the Miramar redevelopment since it was proposed. Last year, California’s Fair Political Practices Commission fined the owner of the Huntley what was the second-largest amount in the agency’s history for concealing contributions to City Council members in hopes of stopping the Miramar expansion. Huntley did not respond to a request for comment about the new plans.

The Miramar Santa Monica plan now must go through an environment review as well as a community and governmental approval process.
Ellis O’Connor, co-president and asset manager of MSD Hospitality, said he hopes the plans rejuvenate this Hollywood enclave to modern standards that reflect the “values of Santa Monica.”

“This new plan allows us to honor the Miramar hotel’s past while moving it towards the future,” he said.