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Neighbors Fight Proposal for Marion Davies' Estate

Santa Monica's plan for a beach club doesn't address traffic and parking, violates Prop. S and threatens a historic structure, a group says.

June 24, 2006|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

Four prominent beachfront homeowners have raised a legal challenge to the city of Santa Monica's plan to build the nation's first public beach club at the former Pacific Coast Highway estate of Marion Davies, a comedic actress best remembered as the mistress of media magnate William Randolph Hearst.

A complaint filed Friday in Los Angeles Superior Court by the Palisades Beach Property Owners Assn. and resident Jonathan G. Ornstein charges that the project's environmental impact report fails to adequately address problems with traffic and parking. The plaintiffs also say the project would violate Proposition S, which limits the development of restaurants or food service facilities in the coastal zone.

They further charge that the city's plan to raze a 1948 locker building at the site would violate rules for properties listed in the California Register of Historical Resources. Proponents of the proposed beach club, however, argue that the locker building was erected well after the historic period most associated with the property and that it was incorrectly included on the register.

In addition to Ornstein, chairman and chief executive of Mesa Air Group, a regional air carrier, those challenging the project are: John C. Law, a lawyer and Democratic Party donor; George Rosenthal, owner of Raleigh Studios; and Charles "Chuck" Levy, president of the Palisades Beach Property Owners Assn.

Attorney William Delvac said his clients support renovation of the estate -- also known by its address, 415 Pacific Coast Highway -- but fear that the city would be unwilling to commit to keeping the project's operating conditions in place for the life of the project. The homeowners are concerned about security and noise, among other issues.

In recent years, the city has moved forward with its effort to remake the site as a public beach club. It received a windfall when the Annenberg Foundation agreed to provide a $28-million grant. Amenities would include a restored swimming pool, changing and locker rooms and public event rooms. The estate's historic North House, used by Davies' family and friends, would be restored for public use.

Hearst built the nearly five-acre beachfront estate for Davies in the late 1920s. Architect Julia Morgan, who designed San Simeon for Hearst, supervised the design and construction of the Davies property.

During the 1930s, Davies and Hearst entertained the Hollywood elite in their Georgian-style mansion, welcoming the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Howard Hughes and Clark Gable. In the 1940s, the mansion was converted into a hotel. It was later demolished. The property operated as the private Sand & Sea Club until about 1990.

The site later fell into disrepair. Damaged in the 1994 Northridge quake, it was shut down and has remained closed for more than a decade.

Some Santa Monica residents and preservationists are eager for the abandoned, neglected site to be refashioned.

"These four neighbors have kicked sand in the face of the public," said Joel Brand, chairman of Friends of 415 PCH, a group supporting the project. "Their enormous wealth has turned them into modern-day beach bullies who use lawyers in suits to try to keep the rest of us off what they consider to be their beach."

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