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Santa Monica Is Reimagining The Promenade Three Decades After It Was Launched

Bob Kronovetrealty
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Have Extra Room for the Holidays 2019

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By Jorge Casuso

November 4, 2019 -- The last time Santa Monica's main shopping strip was overhauled, the Berlin Wall was still standing and the World Wide Web was a proposal on paper.

Thirty years later, the Soviet Union has crumbled and, for the first time in history, more general merchandise was sold on the web than in brick and mortar stores.

But Third Street has pretty much remained the same since it was closed to traffic, re-designed and rechristened the Promenade in September 1989. Only the names on the storefronts have changed.

Promenade rendering
Promenade rendering (Courtesy RCH Studios)

It's more than time for another major transformation, Downtown and City officials say.

"It's past time," said Kathleen Rawson, CEO of Downtown Santa Monica, Inc., the public-private agency that runs the City's Central Business District. "How do we make the street more exciting and vibrant?"

That is the question the City Council will entertain on Tuesday during a study session that will explore the future of the world-famous shopping strip.

"We're hoping to get broad policy direction," said City Urban Planner Alan Loomis. "We've been working with stakeholders for the past year and have identified the salient issues.

"We're hopeful we'll get some degree of consensus."

Today's challenge is far different from the one the Council faced 30 years ago, when Third Street was a moribund strip that all but shut down after dark.

The Promenade is viewed as a national model that continues to drive the City's economy, generating $493 million in taxable sales during Fiscal Year 2018-19, or nearly 15 percent of Santa Monica's total taxable sales.

Still, the shopping landscape has seen a seismic change, Downtown officials say ("Downtown Santa Monica Thriving But Faces Challenges," September 3, 2019).

"We love that people use the Promenade to show off LA," Rawson said at DTSM's annual meeting in September. "We have a beautiful public space.

"But today’s population is looking for complete experiences. They are looking for music, dancing, art, comfort and unexpected but exciting events both day and night."

Since the Promenade was launched, neighboring venues have used its formula to compete directly, and sales events are no longer enough to lure online shoppers through the glass doors.

"While there is risk in departing from that formula," City staff warned in their staff report, "there is an even greater risk in ignoring the titanic shifts in consumer behavior and regional competition."

As a result, the initial plan staff is presenting Tuesday takes a three-pronged approach:

  • Place a renewed emphasis on marketing, events and public space management;

  • Evaluate regulatory changes to private property to "encourage diverse and engaging businesses," and

  • Review the Promenade’s physical design.

The three components go hand in hand, said Rawson. Without eliminating sidewalk curbs, there isn't adequate space to hold special events, since there must be enough room on the street left to accomodate emergency vehicles.

A curbless street, Loomis said, would pave the way for such events as flower markets and used book fairs and pet adoption days.

"A street without curbs opens up a lot of possibilities for us," said Loomis, who was raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan, home of the country's first outdoor pedestrian mall. "The street itself is a very important component."

The last time Santa Monica's main shopping strip was "reimagined" three decades ago -- from closing and paving the street to installing furniture and kiosks, light fixtures and landscaping -- the cost was $27 million in today's dollars.

"It's easier to do when you have to redevelop something," Rawson said. "It' a lot harder to do when you have a multi-billion dollar" business strip.

The regulatory changes are also key, Rawson said. Without them, alleys would remain nothing but lanes for garbage trucks and delivery trucks that can't make the narrow turns into bays that go unused.

Downtown officials envision visitors strolling along paved alleys and popping into former bays that have been turned into theaters, night clubs and piano bars.

"Now a lot of fun is regulated off the street," Rawson said. "There are rules for private property that don't make sense. We need new uses. Traditional uses no longer fit."

In the end, however, if the property owners aren't on board, little will change, staff said.

"Bluntly, no amount of physical investment or creative marketing and programming can impel individual property owners to seek a complimentary mix of private tenants and uses in their buildings.

"While an improved public space and enhanced activity there can make it more attractive," staff said, "these transactions ultimately come down to private business decisions by property owners and prospective tenants.

"It is in the overall interest of each and every property owner that a shared vision guide those private transactions."

Or as Rawson put it, "Trying to get everyone to row in the same direction is challenging."

For a history of Third Street and the Promenade, read the 2003 Lookout series "Pedestrian's Paradise," November 7, 2003 and " Paradise Lost and Regained," December 10, 2003

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