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A Year to Remember for Downtown Santa Monica  

By Lookout Staff

January 24, 2011 -- 2010 should prove to be a transformative year for Downtown Santa Monica. It was the year when a newly remodeled Santa Monica Place reopened with much fanfare and a light rail train that promises to change Downtown Santa Monica accessibility finally got the green light.

When the train rolls in five years from now, passengers will disembark at a new station and stroll though a revitalized Civic Center that began taking shape last year. And when future moviegoers catch a film Downtown, it will likely be at a theater approved under a development agreement signed in 2010.

Last year marked the first anniversary of the Ambassador and Maintenance programs that have made Downtown Santa Monica an even cleaner more inviting place to visit. And it marked the culmination of a process to chart a vision for the District and give it a new identity and name.

But 2010 was also a year to journey through the past inside the Historical Society's new museum Downtown or watch the rebirth of a roaring 20s landmark. And it was a year to remember an old friend who helped make the heart of the city what it is today, and what it will likely be for many tomorrows to come.

Green Light for Light Rail

2010 kicked off on a positive note when Los Angeles County transportation officials in January gave the thumbs up for a light rail line that promises more visitors to Downtown Santa Monica, while reducing the number of vehicles coming into the city.

Scheduled to be completed in 2015, the $1.5 billion second phase of the Exposition Light Rail Transit Line will connect Downtown Los Angeles to Downtown Santa Monica, with transportation provided by 90-foot-long trains carrying 200 to 400 passengers.

After a stop at Bergamot Station, the trains will continue along Colorado Avenue -- the same route taken by the old Red Cars until they were discontinued in the 1950s -- before making a final stop at a station located on the Sears Automotive property at Fourth Street and Colorado that will include a pedestrian plaza.

In June, the City Council was presented with preliminary proposals for the plaza and a pedestrian esplanade connecting Ocean Avenue to the station to accommodate the increased number of pedestrians expected to arrive to the area by rail.

Strolling the Gardens

Arriving passengers could find themselves strolling along a new $25 million Palisades Garden Walk & Town Square that would include a new six-acre park between Ocean Avenue and Main Street, as well as a one-acre Town Square in front of City Hall.

City officials also began studying the feasibility of capping the 10 Freeway with a park stretching from Fourth Street to Ocean Avenue that would link the Downtown to the newly redesigned Civic Center.

On December 14, after a series of town hall meetings, council approved a preliminary design by New York-based James Corner Field Operations and directed staff to move forward with design development documents. If all goes smoothly, construction could begin in January 2012, and the park could be opened by December 2012.

"People see it as their central park," said Barbara Stinchfield, who heads the City's Department of Community and Cultural Services. "It will be very unique and feature the values of our community.”

Clean and Inviting

2010 marked the first anniversary of two key programs launched in June 2009 to welcome and assist local residents and visitors Downtown and to keep the streets and alleys clean.

In their first year walking the Promenade or cruising through neighboring streets and alleys, Downtown’s 25 Ambassadors logged in 170,471 transactions or 467 a day – from escorting visitors back to their cars to advising teens they can’t rollerblade on the Promenade.

Ambassadors in the $1.2-million-a-year program also engaged in 32,231 transactions that improve the “Quality of Life” by helping educate Downtown visitors who are violating the City code or referring illegal activity to the proper authorities. In addition, they took care of or referred 7,367 requests for maintenance.

Meanwhile, the enhanced crews that are part of the $1.2-million-a-year Maintenance Program power-washed 7,150,528 square feet Downtown. Of that, they cleaned 1.86 million square feet monthly on the Promenade, which is power washed from property line to property line.

Crews also power-washed 952,560 square feet in the alleys every month and cleaned 548,934 square feet every other month. The expanded area cleaned includes Ocean Avenue and the Colorado Avenue alleys.

"We have to continue to improve operations because we believe it has to be a cornerstone of what we do," said John Warfel, a member of the Bayside Board. "Other urban destinations are competing for the same clientele, and we cannot afford to get complacent."

Name and Vision

With successful Ambassador and Maintenance programs in place, Bayside District officials focused last year on forging a new identity and creating a comprehensive vision plan for Downtown.

The vision plan explores key issues -- such as enhancing access to the district, encouraging pedestrian activity and helping small businesses -- and helps steer major projects, such as the arrival of the Expo light rail line and rebuilding the public parking structures.

The plan, approved after a staff and board retreat in September, will also help inform a new Downtown Specific Plan that will guide development; help manage parking, traffic and circulation, and set a new, consistent look for the District.

"The ultimate goal always has to be evolving and changing," said Bayside Board Chair Bill Tucker. "We can't remain static."

Bayside officials also laid the groundwork for an image makeover that will shape how the popular destination is perceived over the next quarter century. The new identity, both at the consumer and civic levels, will be reflected in a new name, logo and an interactive comprehensive website.

The new brand, which will be unveiled early this year, will encompass an expanded view of the district that will help spread the successful image of the Promenade to the rest of the Downtown, officials said.

“Our primary objective of the branding process is to maximize brand equity,” said Debbie Lee, Bayside’s Director of Marketing and Communications. “It's time that we embrace our image and steer the direction of Downtown Santa Monica’s future.”

Addressing the Parking Crunch

Last year the City, backed by Bayside District officials, continued taking major steps to address Downtown's parking crunch by moving ahead with a $180 million Downtown parking plan, increasing parking rates and working with Bayside officials to implement a multi-step plan to better use existing spaces.

The ambitious plan to replace or retrofit all six Downtown public parking structures saw work completed in 2010 on two of the three larger structures and the design process move forward on three others. The plan calls for tearing down and rebuilding the three smaller structures – 1, 3 and 6 – to add as many as 712 new spaces to the district. The three largest structures – 2, 4 and 5 – will remain standing after being retrofitted for earthquake safety.

A complimentary approach was taken in May, when council raised parking rates in Downtown structures in an effort to free up spaces and increase available parking without having to build new structures. The maximum daily rate for the Downtown and Civic Center structures was increased from $7 to $9, while the flat rate for Downtown structures went up from $3 to $5.

The rates remained at $3 for the Main Library and the structures at the Civic Center and Civic Auditorium. Monthly parking costs were raised from $82.50 to $121 for all structures except those keeping the $3 evening fee.

Meanwhile, the City and Bayside District officials began working together to implement a multi-step plan to better use Santa Monica’s available parking options by combining innovative ideas and time-tested methods before building new structures. The cornerstone of the plan calls for using private parking structures during non-business hours.

“Parking has always been the number one issue with our Downtown usiness community," said Miriam Mack, the City’s economic development manager. "Our parking strategy is a progressive effort, and the policy allows us to re-assess plans according to rising needs as we go along.”

Mall Ushers in New Era

August 6 ushered in a new era for Downtown as crowds lined the Promenade from Broadway to Arizona under a cloudless blue sky waiting to cross the red carpet into Santa Monica Place's new central courtyard.

When the shiny mall opened its doors after an ambitious 28-month makeover, the structure Frank Gehry had designed three decades ago had been literally turned inside out, with an open-air courtyard connecting to the Promenade and a rooftop dining deck offering ocean views.

A roster of upscale retailers and restaurants -- anchored by Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom -- fills the state-of the art 550,000-square-foot environmentally friendly structure built on the steel skeleton of the former indoor mall.

In an era when shopping malls are shuttering across the country and stores are struggling to recover from a deep recession, the new Santa Monica Place represented a bold leap for both its owner, Macerich, and the entire Downtown.

"Downtown is going to be a stronger destination," said Kathleen Rawson, CEO of Bayside District Corporation. "Santa Monica Place needed a shot in the arm, and the improvements are a very welcome addition to the District. Now everyone who uses the District will have a wide range of options."

The Past Lives Downtown

After years of planning and fundraising, the Santa Monica History Museum opened its doors on October 24 at the Main Public Library Downtown with a celebration attended by hundreds of well-wishers eager to learn about their city's past.

Housed in a 5,000-square-foot space located on the east end of the Main Library, the museum is the newest and largest home for the Santa Monica Historical Society’s growing collection of old photos, documents and artifacts gathered for the City’s Centennial Celebration in 1975.

The non-profit agency -- which will use the space for free under a 20-year agreement with the City -- began fundraising five years ago to move the museum out of a cramped wooden building on Euclid that could no longer hold the growing collection.

Rebirth of a Landmark

The past is also coming alive at 212-216 Santa Monica Boulevard, where the building that once housed a movie theater during the silent film era began coming alive last year after its battered walls were boarded up following the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. What’s left of the old Mayfair Theater will serve as the cornerstone of a new mixed-use development currently under construction.

The revitalized 49,000-square-foot structure will include 38 apartment units, ground-floor retail and two levels of subterranean parking. The historic theater's spruced-up façade will greet visitors walking to and from the Promenade.

Showtime!

Plans to lure moviegoers Downtown with a proposed 83,000-square-foot theater complex on Fourth Street took a major step forward in August when City Council directed staff to negotiate a development agreement with AMC Entertainment and Metropolitan Pacific Capital.

The proposed four-story-high IMAX with 3D capabilities would be part of a new complex built on a City-owned site off Arizona Avenue that includes 11 additional auditorium theaters with a total of 2,197 seats. The proposed complex also includes 2,100 square feet of retail tenant space and an interior restaurant that would be open to the public. The auditoriums could be used for digital concerts and other events like the annual American Film Market that utilizes Downtown theaters to preview upcoming films.

Promenade movie theaters were responsible for launching one of the world’s most famous outdoor malls, but Downtown's cinemas have fallen behind in the race to provide state-of-the-art entertainment. The result: Downtown theater attendance is down 30 percent this past decade, Bayside officials said.

“This is absolutely crucial to the revitalization of Downtown,” Council member Gleam Davis said at the August 10 meeting. “The fact of the matter is that almost everyone I’ve spoken to (in Santa Monica) about going to movies, goes somewhere else now.”

Winterlit a Hit

Downtown's Winterlit celebration was back once again in November, when the twinkling lights and larger-than-life decorations returned for the sixth straight year.

Once again, the traditional Christmas Tree and Menorah were showcased on the Promenade, while the corner of 5th and Arizona was transformed into an 8,000-square-foot outdoor ice skating rink called ICE at Santa Monica.

Downtown’s Ambassadors served double duty as extra-special helpers in the festive atmosphere. Top-quality free entertainment, inexpensive holiday activities and a day dedicated to celebrating the arts and Winterlit concert made Downtown Santa Monica a top choice for dining, shopping and entertainment during the holiday season.

In Memorium

Bayside lost one of its most tireless champions last year with the passing on July 7 of Ernest “Ernie” Allan Kaplan, a Downtown property owner who was instrumental in the transformation of the Promenade into an international destination.

A native of Chicago, Kaplan bought and revitalized old buildings across Los Angeles, including two in Downtown Santa Monica. He served on the board of what is now known as Bayside District Corporation for eight consecutive years.

“They (the City officials) really didn’t know what they wanted,” Kaplan, whose company owns the building that houses Barney’s Beanery and Bayside District offices, told The Beat in 2009. “We had no idea where this thing would go…. We dreamed, and the dream is out there to see.”

 


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