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'Bold' Plan to Transform the Promenade Gets Go-Ahead from Council

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By Jorge Casuso

November 7, 2019 -- Santa Monica should embark on a "bold" plan to transform its iconic Promenade, the City Council said Tuesday, but it will take much more than money to make it work.

After three decades of coasting on its success with virtually no changes, the street needs to be torn up and "reimagined" under a conceptual plan the Council unanimously backed.

The "Promenade 3.0" plan not only calls for major capital improvements but zoning changes to allow new uses and programs and events to enliven the public space ("Santa Monica Is Reimagining The Promenade Three Decades After It Was Launched," November 4, 2019).

The Promenade, said City Manager Rick Cole, is an "iconic" public space that "has virtually been untouched.

"I think we can do big things," Cole said. "I think we're as smart and as visionary as people thirty years ago."

"The word 'bold' has been used up here a lot tonight," said Mayor Gleam Davis. The City "must not just be bold but be smart.

"We want visitors to say,' I want to come back.'"

After two hours of presentations and discussion, the Council directed staff to come up with a master plan and a way to finance Third Street's first major overhaul since the Promenade was launched in 1989.

While the three-block strip's transformation will require a major capital investment from both the City and property owners, the Council made it clear that business as usual cannot go on for the "experiment" to work.

"Private property owners would have to make some headway to lease to a diversity of tenants," said Council member Ted Winterer.

The property owners, he said "are all looking out for themselves trying to get the maximum amount of rent they can get without thinking of the overall health of the Promenade.

"They need to get away from that business model," Winterer said, expressing a sentiment seconded by his colleagues.

While the Promenade generates 15 percent of Santa Monica's taxable sales, Downtown officials have been warning that unless there is a major change, the street will eventually go the way of the old pedestrian mall it replaced 30 years ago.

That mall, said Kathleen Rawson, who runs Downtown Santa Monica Inc., "was all the craze in 1965," but of the 250 pedestrian malls developed nationwide during that era, only ten percent remain.

"We were leaders when we created the Third Street Promenade," she said of the agency she now runs. "Consumer tastes have shifted" away from the big box stores and multiplexes that allowed the Promenade to thrive.

"Online retailers and snarled LA traffic give people a really good reason to stay home," she said.

Under the plan, the street would be torn up and a new sewer system installed before a curbless street is laid on top that makes room for such events as flower markets and used book fairs and pet adoption days.

Zoning changes would be made to enliven dead alleys with nightclubs, galleries and bookstores, although the Council worried it will be a challenge to create the mid-block passageways needed to lure visitors behind the buildings.

The Council was presented with data to inform their vision -- typical visitors to the Promenade are young and diverse and are looking for an experience beyond shopping.

But there are challenges. The street is sometimes so crowded, consultants said, that "people don't linger" in it.

To test the possibilities, consultants conducted a $200,000 experiment in "tactical urbanism," changing the physical environment and measuring the results.

They installed movable furniture -- most of which, City Urban Planner Alan Loomis said, ended up in front of the Apple store. They experimented with giant chess pieces and playful objects to engage the children.

And, realizing that the ocean went mostly unseen from the street, they added constant reminders that is was only a few blocks away.

There was consensus on some details -- the dinosaur topiaries need to stay, though they should probably be moved, and public space should be carved out to keep kids entertained while the parents are shopping.

The historic buildings, which are often draped in neon, should be showcased, providing a tie to a past too quickly lost in LA.

"There are timeless places," said City Manager Cole, "that have held their value not over decades but over centuries.

"The Third Street Promenade really is one of those places that maybe three hundred years from now will be a cherished location."

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