City Continues to Deconstruct Downtown
City Hall’s seemingly endless drive to perfect downtown Santa Monica, which, by its lights, means turning it into a money mill, went off the rails years ago.
For generations, all downtown streets were more or less equal. But, since 1965, when the City turned Third Street between Wilshire Boulevard and Broadway into a pedestrian mall, they’ve been unbalanced.
The mall was a pleasant addition, It was lined with interesting, small, locally owned shops, including quite a number of independent bookstores. The only chain stores were Woolworth’s and J.C. Penney’s.
But, in the early 1970s, in search of more bling and bang, the City declared the two blocks at the southern end of the mall “blighted,” bought up all the land and sought a developer to build an enclosed shopping center on the site. Many residents objected, but City Hall prevailed.
The Rouse Company was chosen to develop the shopping center, and it chose Frank Gehry to design it and the two parking structures that bracket it. Gehry has long since disavowed the project.
Of course, the shiny new three-story enclosed shopping center, Santa Monica Place, which was anchored by Broadway and Robinsons department stores and filled with chain stores, overwhelmed the mall.
It was a vivid demonstration of the seesaw effect: for everything that goes up, something goes down. But like so many things, it was lost on City Hall. Rather than capitalizing on the differences between Santa Monica Place and the pedestrian mall, the City opted to turn the pleasant mall into the frenzied Third Street Promenade, which was nothing so much as a one-story, outdoor iteration of Santa Monica Place — with movie theaters.
The seesaw rule prevailed again, as the glitzy new Promenade began taking business away from Santa Monica Place.
Rather than devising means to make Santa Monica Place and
the Promenade partners rather than competitors, City Hall invited Macerich, the new owner of Santa Monica Place, to remake it and “open it up” to permit people to walk directly from the Promenade to the Civic Center. Working with City planners, Macerich proposed replacing its retail operation with a mega-real estate/retail complex that was dominated by three 21-story “luxury condo” towers, and was almost universally decried by residents. Though City Hall had collaborated on the redevelopment, it ignored it, and the staff went back to work with Macerich on a more modest plan on an expedited basis.
But, almost simultaneously, City Hall and the Bayside District Corporation, the agency created by the City to oversee the downtown business area, began talking about “improving” the Promenade.
Predictably, the City’s transformation of Third Street from a low-key pedestrian mall into a high-octane romper room had left adjacent streets literally in the shade, triggering continuing complaints from some merchants on Second and Fourth Streets. And a recent story in the Daily Press chronicled the woes of businesses on Broadway – west of
The best towns evolve naturally, according to the needs and aspirations of its residents – everything in its place and a place for everyone, and everything, but nothing in excess.
Before City Hall began messing with it, Santa Monica had a perfectly swell downtown. It was simple, coherent, functional and handsome, with an unusual number of architecturally distinctive buildings. But, after years of force-feeding by City Hall, Bayside, and assorted consultants, task forces
and special interests, it became a misshapen awkward thing, principally notable for traffic congestion.
The City stepped in, again, and spent $15 million installing a “Transit Mall” that, it claimed, would unsnarl the traffic, and make the streets adjacent to the Promenade more appealing. Its construction turned downtown on its head, but, since its completion, no one has been able to find it, and traffic is worse than ever.
Now, in response to the continuing complaints from businesses on Second and Fourth Streets, the City is about to spend nearly $7 million on “pedestrian enhancements” on the two streets, One of the ”enhancements,” is the removal of some existing trees and the addition of some new trees, as the streets are “too dark,” at a cost of over $700,000.
Among the other planned “streetscape improvements” are fancier sidewalks, expanded curbs, more marked crosswalks, and God knows what else.
Of course, it is not a surfeit of shade that makes Second and Fourth Streets less busy than the Promenade. It’s the City’s continuing attention to and emphasis on the Promenade, at the expense of its neighbors, along with its concentration of big, haute schlock chain stores, three movie multiplexes showing first-run movies, and sidewalk cafes and restaurants.
In contrast, Second and Fourth Streets are actual city streets – and, contrary to prevailing City Hall wisdom, there are still an enormous number of people who prefer real streets, to faux streets – like the Promenade and Universal’s Citywalk.
There are office and apartment buildings, parking garages and banks on Second and Fourth Streets, as well as antique stores and art galleries, and all sorts of other shops and bars and restaurants, some of which are legendary like Harvelle’s, the Border Grill and Ye Old King’s Head Pub. Laemmle’s Santa Monica Fourplex, which, by any measure, is one of the best movie theaters in the L.A. nation, is on Second Street. And there are other unique enterprises on the two streets, such as Santa Monica Playhouse, the City Garage Theater, an International Hostel, Santa Monica Emeritus College and the Santa Monica Bay Women’s Club, several churches, and lots of very healthy, very green, very cool trees.
Healthy mature trees are not ornaments to be randomly removed and replaced at whim. They are integral and vital parts of our town. It is ironic that the City trumpets its “urban forest” even as it decimates it, and at least as ironic that the California headquarters of the National Resources Defense Council is located on the soon to be degreened Second Street.
$7 million worth of fancier sidewalks, tree surgery, and extended curbs will not attract more people to Second and Fourth Streets. An imaginative and witty promotional campaign, employing such simple devices as signs and flyers would, and it could be done for a fraction of a fraction of $7 million – without wreaking more havoc in downtown Santa Monica.
But, alas, imagination and wit have been absent in City Hall for some time, along with a sense of the place, and so urban design theory wil continue to prevail over the facts of the place, City Hall will continue to spend millions deconstructing this old beach town, and the seesaw effect will continue to dominate.
It’s not that we just don’t like what City Hall is doing. It’s that we don’t think it knows what it’s doing.