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Santa Monica Promenade Celebrates 25 Years: The Ingredients for Success

Phil Brock For Council 2014

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Michael Feinstein for Santa Monica City Council 2014

Frank Gruber for Santa Monica City CouncilHarding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

Santa Monica Convention and Visitors Bureau

By Jorge Casuso and Jonathan Friedman
First of two parts

September 15, 2014 -- On September 16, 1989, Santa Monica civic leaders stood before a cheering crowd Downtown and cut the ribbon on a three-block stretch they had christened the Third Street Promenade.

What may have gone unnoticed on that clear Southern California day was that the traffic barriers that protected the pedestrian-only strip had been made removable so cars could cruise the street at night.

Despite the enthusiasm, City officials had reason to hedge their bets. The experiment had been tried nearly 25 years earlier, and the result was clear — a bedraggled row of struggling shops and vacant storefronts that the $13.3 million makeover was meant to reverse.

Ribbon Cutting Ceremony
Santa Monicans happily witness the ribbon cutting ceremony for the Third Street Promenade in 1989.

The barriers never came down.

Over the next quarter century, the Promenade would become both the living room for residents of the beachside city and a destination for tourists from around the world. A successful cross between an old-fashioned central plaza and a modern commercial strip, it has become a model other cities have tried to emulate with only limited success.

“When you come to America, to the West Coast, Santa Monica is a must-see location not just for recreation but to conduct business and gather, and that was all stimulated by the lure of the Promenade,” said Jeff Mathieu, the former Santa Monica City official tasked with the revitalization of Third Street.

“It redefined what the must-be place to go on the West Coast would be,” said Mathieu, now the City Manager of Big Bear Lake. “It created an international and domestic destination for business and tourists.”

Today 14.6 million people — 40,000 per day — visit the Promenade and neighboring streets. Commercial rents fetch around $16-per-square-foot, and as much as $25. The average office occupancy rate rivals those of San Francisco and Boston, while a housing boom has seen the number of residential units jump from several hundred in the 1990s to more than 3,000 today.

“Santa Monica was always an important destination because of its location — you have the beach and the Pier,” said Rob York, a longtime consultant to Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. (DTSM), the private non-profit that manages and promotes Downtown on behalf of the City. “But it was the Promenade that really put it on the map.

“The Promenade had a substantial impact overall on the City,” he said. “It has allowed Santa Monica to have amenities a city of 90,000 could never have. Regionally, nationally and internationally, there is now an awareness of Santa Monica.”

“When the Promenade happened,” said DTSM, Inc. CEO Kathleen Rawson, “Santa Monica became more than just a beach town. The Promenade transformed Santa Monica from a day trip to a destination. Suddenly, there was a there there.”


The Promenade might well have been called “The Santa Monica Town Center” or “La Plaza del Corazon de Santa Monica.” Those were two of the names bandied about when civic and community leaders gathered in the late 1980s to hatch a plan to revitalize the dying strip.

The tag “Promenade” — as well as the strip that would bear its name — came about through planning, instinct and chance, the three ingredients that would combine to make it an unprecedented success.

“There was no formula, there was no model, no benchmark to measure this against,” former Mayor Denny Zane said in an interview on the Promenade’s 20th anniversary. “In some fashion, we stumbled into success. We had to improvise.”

When City officials, property owners, business leaders and community members embarked on a major makeover of Third Street, only one thing was certain: Physical improvements alone would not reverse the demise hastened by the success of Santa Monica Place, the enclosed air-conditioned mall designed by Frank Gehry that had gone up a decade earlier at the southern end of the street.

Third Street Promenade
The Promenade before the 1989 renovation project.

“It had been on a slow death watch for a long time,” said Zane, who was the council liaison to DTSM Inc.’s original predecessor, the Third Street Development Corporation.

“The opening of Santa Monica Place had accelerated that by sucking the viable retail.

“Everything that was on (Third Street) then was barely holding on,” he said. “There were a lot of vacancies and businesses that attracted very few customers.”

“You talk to someone today,” York said, “and they can’t begin to imagine how challenging Downtown’s core was in the 1980s. It was a horrible stretch. People who stumbled upon it quickly got out of there. There is no other term for it than ‘blight.’”

The 1965 makeover of Third Street had included 138 new trees, 30 assorted types of shrubbery and 12 reflecting pools, all anchored by a $50,000 fountain. Touted as a “pedestrian’s paradise,” the outdoor mall closed to cars also included soft piped-in music, indirect lighting and plenty of public parking. It wasn’t enough.

“After the mall was completed, its success was (measured) in a matter of days,” recalled John Jalili, who was City Manager when the Promenade was launched. “People were all enthused about the landscaping and the new pedestrian mall that had been built. They came to celebrate, but they never went back to shop.”

To succeed, the Promenade had to give people reason to come. Building it alone wasn’t enough.


Coming up with a different take on the modern shopping strip required a fresh approach. This time, the answer wouldn’t be developed in a boardroom and dictated from the top down. It would take brainstorming sessions with all the stakeholders, including community members who attended workshops where they were asked to use toys, parsley and anything else they could find to envision a revitalized public space, and also vote on the art they’d like to see.

Dinosaur Fountain
Topiary dinosaurs replaced reflecting pools as a key feature of the new Promenade.

The City would hold almost 100 meetings, soliciting input from planners, designers, property owners and residents.

“What was great about this vision is it was so multi-faceted, not just ‘let’s take out the street and stick in some nice lamp posts and benches in here and call it good,’” said Peggy Curran, the City’s planning director in 1989 and currently the City Manager of Tiburon, Calif.

“We really tried to comprehensively look at how we could take this whole thing up a notch.”

The answer was to give visitors a place where they could go not only to shop, but also to eat and be entertained. Even concepts as seemingly logical as dining outdoors or taking a leisurely stroll in a City with perfect weather were considered novel.

“In the early meetings when we were going through concept development, there were a lot of people who would say, ‘People don’t eat outdoors ... and people don’t like to walk in Los Angeles,’” said Boris Dramov, whose firm Roma Design was hired to lay out the Promenade.

“And we would respond, ‘That’s because you don’t have an environment that makes walking in a setting like this attractive, and if you do, over a period of time, this will become a popular pedestrian destination.”

Everything seemed to be coming together. City officials and property owners worked in tangent to strike a balance between the public interests and market forces. In 1987, after movie chains expressed interest in the beachside city, the City Council passed a law that banned movie theaters from locating anywhere but on the future Promenade. Three multiplexes soon opened their doors.

Third Street Promenade
The Promenade as it is today.

Street performers — including an animal trainer and a midget Elvis, two tap dancing brothers and at least one legendary bluesman — began flocking to the strip drawn by the promise of making some quick change or being discovered by a promoter strolling with the growing crowds.

Before long, restaurants and retail stores were clamoring for space in what had become, almost overnight, one of the region’s biggest attractions.

By its 10th anniversary, the Promenade was drawing an estimated 4 million visitors a year, and its 150 establishments were generating about $160 million in gross taxable sales, a 440 percent rise. Rents shot up from a dollar or two per square foot to around $8 — with some spaces going for as much as $12 a square foot.

“We created a multi-use Downtown,” York said. “The movie theaters were a draw and the outdoor dining. People didn’t come strictly to shop.”

Tuesday: The Success Spreads

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