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Promenade Set to Pivot Into the Future, Downtown Officials Say
By Jorge Casuso
February 3, 2021 -- After thriving for three decades on a model emulated across the globe, Downtown officials believe Santa Monica's Promenade stands "at the precipice of reinvention."
On Tuesday the City Council will formally launch a planning process to revitalize a central commercial strip that was already battling online consumer trends before the coronavirus shutdown dealt it a major blow last March.
Today, nearly 40 percent of the storefronts along the iconic walk street are vacant, with more than 60 percent of the vacancies predating the pandemic.
“The pandemic only exacerbated the impacts of online shopping on brick and mortar retail," said Kathleen Rawson, who runs Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. (DTSM).
"We have been working on how to best counteract these effects for some time now," she said. "We couldn't proceed down the road we were going. This is a bit of a pivot."
The latest transformation is a far cry from the one that took place in 1989, when $13 million pumped into improving the public street served as a catalyst for billions of dollars in private investments, Rawson said.
"This effort is very specific," said Rawson, who has headed the agency that runs Santa Monica's Downtown for more than 20 years. "It is an opportunity to reimagine the private spaces on the street to allow for more uses."
The goal of the Third Street Promenade Stabilization & Economic Vitality Plan is to rewrite the rules that limit uses of the large spaces to the retail, dining and office space, Downtown officials said.
The zoning changes would allow property owners to subdivide the large spaces into smaller storefronts that can "flourish" as cultural venues -- such as performance spots and museums -- or even serve as light manufacturing spaces that might roast coffee or brew beer.
The changes could also pave the way for housing and offices to be added above single-story buildings, City officials said.
"We're taking advantage of the moment and building this for the Downtown neighborhood that's just starting to evolve," Rawson said.
Property owners "acknowledged the need to be intentional and collaborative in leasing" and "expressed a desire to develop custom plans and strategies to differentiate each of the three blocks" on the Promenade, City officials said.
They also "underscored the need to partner with the City Council on development of more business-friendly policies."
The groundwork to implement the plan is already being laid. DTSM has selected "world-renowned experts" in public space environments from MIG and in retail strategy from Streetsense to lead the project.
The agency's board has also appointed a six-member advisory committee to help develop and vet concepts included in the plan, officials said.
The committee is composed of long-time Promenade property owners and Santa Monica residents with expertise in real estate, architecture, design and marketing.
Officials also will seek input from Santa Monica residents and Downtown employees to ensure "the Promenade of the future is reflective of the community’s needs and desires," City officials said.
There will be a virtual town hall meeting and workshop scheduled in early spring and stakeholder focus groups will provide input critical to the plan's success, officials said.
The plan, Rawson said, charts a path to the future of a strip that has served as a model for modern urban commercial streets.
For more information on the Vitality Plan, visit downtownsm.com/promenade.
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