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Deja Vu All Over Again

By Ed Moosbrugger

December 9 -- "Santa Monica Place is designed as an urban complex which is part of the greater City of Santa Monica.

"By its location it is a nodal element which joins the Santa Monica Civic Center and Auditorium to the existing Santa Monica business district. It has the further potential of connecting to the Santa Monica Pier and Palisades Park on the west, and to future compatible development on the east."

The original 1970s plan extended Santa Monica Place three blocks, beginning with hotels on Ocean Avenue. (click image to enlarge)

No, this isn't a comment from the current owners of the 24-year-old Santa Monica Place as they promote a plan for a massive redevelopment of the shopping center that they say will better connect the site with other city landmarks.

This is a voice from the past: the words were written in October 1976 by famed architect Frank O. Gehry, who designed Santa Monica Place. Gehry's comments appeared in a special section of the Evening Outlook as voters prepared to decide whether to approve public financing for the redevelopment project.

So, talk of a connection between the Santa Monica Place site and other areas of Downtown and the Civic Center is nothing new. But Santa Monica faces new questions of the best way to do it and at what cost. That will take a lot of community input.

The Macerich Co., owner of Santa Monica Place, has much work to do to overcome the initial shock created by its plan to include three 21-story buildings in its project. There will be lots of debate about whether this fits in with the character of Downtown Santa Monica. The issue of fit was also raised in the 1970s.

"The project scale is designed to fit into the existing urban scale of Santa Monica," Gehry wrote in 1976. "Except for the skylight over the interior pedestrian street, intended to be an attractive symbol for the center, there is no portion of the proposed center which is higher than the highest adjacent building."

It was a tight fit putting a regional shopping center on a two-block, 10-acre site bounded by Broadway, Second Street, Colorado Avenue and Fourth Street when Santa Monica Place opened in 1980. Now, Macerich is proposing considerably more on the site, with the addition of housing, offices and park space.

Today's Santa Monica Place is actually a scaled back version of the original redevelopment plans in the 1970s.

The redevelopment project was envisioned on a grander, three-block scale extending to Ocean Avenue to also include a 400-room hotel, 200,000-square-feet of office space and 200 residential units.

But the third block was dropped when the developer, the Rouse Co., said it couldn't get financing for the entire package, only for the shopping center portion.

Indeed, the center piece had always been the shopping center.

Enclosed mall is all that remains of 1973 plan. (click image to enlarge)

Then-mayor Nathaniel Trives, who now chairs the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce, noted in 1976 that in each of his past two campaigns he had advocated a shopping center in Downtown Santa Monica. The City Council at the time backed the shopping center redevelopment project by a 6 to 1 vote, and it was approved by voters in November 1976.

Downtown Santa Monica was facing difficult challenges when it launched a national competition in 1972-73 for proposals for the redevelopment project that evolved into Santa Monica Place.

It had been a long time since major retail stores had been added to Downtown, and then-City Manager James D. Williams warned in the mid-1970s that the City faced a cutback in services in the future if it didn't generate new sources of revenue.

Some saw a new shopping center as a source of tax revenues that also would provide residents with improved shopping at a time when Santa Monica was facing increased retail competition, with Fox Hills Mall opening in Culver City in 1975.

Santa Monica Place was successful for many years, but now faces the need to change. It has been overshadowed by the success of the revitalized Third Street Promenade, which, when it was known as the Santa Monica Mall, operated in the enclosed mall's shadow in the 1980s.

The new plan proposed by Macerich offers various tradeoffs: more outdoor space but some very tall buildings; denser development (made possible partly by underground parking), but a more open look.

Santa Monica faces decisions every bit as big as when it approved the original redevelopment project. What happens on those 10 acres, and how it's paid for, will help set the tone for Downtown for many years to come.

All photos courtesy of the City of Santa Monica

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