First of two parts
By Mark McGuigan
Nov. 6 -- In 1958 the U.S. succeeded in putting its first satellite, Explorer I, into orbit around the earth, Pan Am introduced its first 707 transatlantic jet service and closer to home in Ocean Park the McDonnell-Douglas plant was booming.
Times were changing and shoppers were expecting more in these days of rocket technology and space adventure. Ernest Gulsrud understood this as he sat in his office pondering the problems facing Downtown Santa Monica. The year 1958 should have been a good one for the shopping district in the heart of the City, but the president of the Chamber of Commerce didn’t like what he was seeing.
“The city was standing still while new developments were being planned in Century City, West Los Angeles, Culver City and the San Fernando Valley,” Gulsrud said of the dilemma. “No planning was being done here.”
The shopping precinct that for nearly a century had anchored the City of Santa Monica was beginning to stagnate. Caught in the web of its own past success, there had been little improvement in recent years. For the district to survive, things had to change.
“During the 1950s, Third Street began to show signs of age, and the Downtown district was plagued with traffic and parking problems,” recalled Louise Gabriel, president and CEO of the Santa Monica Historical Society Museum. “This was to set the stage for action.”
Gulsrud assembled a group of businessmen, property owners and city officials, and formed a special organization dubbed The Santa Monica Tomorrow Committee. Their charter, as the name suggests, was to “look ahead and plan for the future.”
But first, they had to convince the merchants – few of whom were willing to change a formula they felt had worked for years -- to look beyond the present. With voluntary action among storeowners slow in coming, the committee began to shop around for ideas to spark improvements -- Gulsrud wanted something “dramatic and inviting.”
The answer was to be found in a shopping mall. At the time, malls were beginning to ensnare the imagination of the country. The first enclosed mall – one isolated from automobile traffic allowing pedestrians to amble in safety – had opened in Edina, Minnesota, just two years earlier.
This was to be the era when malls made the leap from small-time curiosity to commercial juggernaut. Here was the glimmering future the committee had been seeking. Build a pedestrian-only shopping mall along Third Street, ignite the public’s imagination by offering them the best stores and goods anywhere in the Southland and let the City reap the rewards.
“During the 1950s and 1960s brand new malls were being built on the outskirts of cities and were attracting people away,” recalled former City Planning Technician Jim Lunsford. “That was the way smaller cities tried to compete with shopping centers. They tried to turn their central downtown business districts into malls. It was to duplicate the attraction.”
To help retune the engine of commerce in Downtown Santa Monica the committee called on Victor Gruen Associates in Beverly Hills to conduct a study and recommend a series of improvements to the aging city center.
In November 1960, Gruen Associates presented their findings to the committee and corroborated the City’s worst fears. The business district was not living up to its potential, and if the situation was not rectified “it would lead to continued deterioration and decay,” the Evening Outlook reported.
The consultants’ report went on to say that a mall would “provide the strongest possible catalyst for improvement in the central business district.”
But it also stressed that there was no “single solution” to the problems Downtown. It recommended improving the parking situation and anchoring any new development with a major new department store, both of which would only happen after the mall was complete.
As reality sank in, the committee realized that the time for window-shopping was over – they had found their idea and it was time to sell their vision to the merchants. They searched for someone with the drive and flair to carry the mall project through to completion, someone young and in touch with the merchants. They didn’t have far to look.
Paul Priolo had moved to Santa Monica in 1955 to work for his wife’s family business – Stewart Photo – with the understanding that he would eventually take over the shop and run it himself. He had integrated well into the local community, becoming a member of the Santa Monica Junior Chamber of Commerce and a well-respected merchant in his own right.
“Paul was a real nice person,” said Bob Gabriel, a prominent businessman and former City Council member who was a friend of the young Priolo. “He was aggressive (from a business) standpoint. He was recognized as one of the young leaders in town.”
Here was the perfect candidate to lead the City’s charge into a new era. In 1961, committee leader Ralph Lamb approached Priolo and offered him the job as head of a new Mall Committee with the singular goal of turning Third Street into a magnet for shoppers. As chairman he would be the guiding light in the project, the steady hand on the helm.
At first Priolo was reluctant, wanting instead to look after the family business. The mall would take up too much of his time he argued. But with the gentle persuasion of his business partner, Ella Mizel, he acquiesced and was appointed head of the Mall Committee by Mayor Wellman Mills.
The hard work was only just beginning. The fledgling Mall Committee began circulating petitions among local merchants and property owners to gauge support for the project.
Priolo worked his charm and received supporting signatures from 65 percent of the merchants and 35 percent of the property owners along the proposed three-block stretch of Third Street between Wilshire Boulevard and Broadway.
With the merchants throwing their weight behind the development, in July 1962 Santa Monica received approval from the Federal Community Facilities Administration for a $9,650 advance to Charles Luckman & Associates to devise a preliminary plan for the mall design.
Luckman presented the Mall Committee with a plan in October 1962 and the project began to gather momentum. Armed with the preliminary design, Priolo once again set out to test the waters and convince merchants that the mall should become a reality.
It would take some persuading and cajoling. Some merchants were doubtful as to the plan’s merits, while others thought it an abomination, but Priolo and the committee persisted.
“Merchants had to be sold on being assessed as it meant higher rents,” Gabriel recalled. “They were scared. Closing off Third Street was a risk. It was hard for them to predict the future.”
The committee pounded the pavement along the length and breadth of Downtown, listening to the merchants’ worries and espousing the City’s vision for the future of the district. They succeeded in overcoming the skepticism and doubt, and once again two-thirds of the merchants lent their support to the ambitious plan.
It was all Priolo needed. With a majority supporting the project the committee recommended to the City Council that a mall indeed be established, and in April 1963, the City adopted a resolution stating its intention to build. After more than four years of dreaming and debating, the mall finally looked like it would become a reality. But the celebrations were short-lived.
Dreams were one thing, but a City resolution was quite another. A maelstrom erupted in the wake of the decision to move forward with construction in the form of a $919,000 damage claim from Ralph’s Grocery Company and Ralph's Industries.
If construction went ahead, the grocery behemoth argued, then access to their supermarket would be cut off and the value of their store at the corner of Third Street and Wilshire Boulevard would be irrevocably damaged. Ralph’s went further, challenging the very constitutionality of the project.
It was a stunning blow and threatened the very future of the mall. The City Council was furious and in August 1963 declared that come hell or high water a mall “shall be established.” Despite the hubris, a pall descended on the plan. For a year the City waited.
The break finally came in July 1964 when a Superior Court judge ruled that the proposed mall was indeed constitutional. The City agreed to pay Ralph’s $92,330 in damages, a figure well shy of the original sum, and the last stumbling block was removed. By October, Luckman was given the go-ahead to develop the final plan – the City would have its shopping mall.
The construction contract for $601,549 was awarded to W. J. Shirley Jr. of Pasadena, and an additional $71,418 was set aside for storm drains. To fund the project, the City assessed existing property along the three-block stretch and asked that property owners pay a rate of $177.73 per linear foot of store frontage. So as to ease the pressure, owners were given between 10 to 25 years to come up with the money.
Amidst much furor and fanfare, the groundbreaking ceremonies were held in April 1965, and from there the project went into overdrive. A target date of November 5 left just six months to completely remodel the heart and soul of Santa Monica.
Storeowners were swept up in the excitement. An estimated $800,000 financed by loans from local banks poured into redesigning and modernizing many of the 131 stores in keeping with the City’s vision for a new-look Downtown.
“They put their money where their mouths were and offered money to storeowners to improve their stores,” Bob Gabriel said of the banks’ lending policies. “The banks wanted this (to succeed) as the businesses were important to them.”
On November 5 construction was complete. The new facades lining the three-block stretch of red brick streets, anchored with a $50,000 fountain, glistened and gleamed as people crowded into this freshly minted commercial wonderland.
“A ‘pedestrian’s paradise,’ the Mall also includes soft piped-in music for everyone’s pleasure, indirect lighting, and plenty of public parking – with more scheduled for future use.”
The new shopping district was a triumph – for a time at least.Stay tuned next month for Part II: Paradise Lost and Regained – A look at Downtown from the decline of the mall to the rise of the Promenade.
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