Paradise Lost and Regained
Second of two parts.
By Mark McGuigan
Dec. 10 -- It was November 5, 1965, and haggard parents were reading holiday shopping lists requesting rocket ships, trains and Barbies. If they were in Santa Monica, they likely flocked to the City’s first outdoor shopping mall touted as a "pedestrian's paradise."
As crowds gazed upon the new facades lining the three-block stretch of red brick streets and tossed coins into the gleaming $50,000 fountain for luck, the City delighted in its achievements. In just seven years, civic and business leaders had turned a waning commercial district into a paragon of modern shopping.
Despite the doubts harbored by local merchants, closing the street to automobile traffic and encouraging pedestrians to walk the three-block stretch – renamed the Santa Monica Mall – seemed to have paid off. With the influx of pedestrians came improved parking, as City Manager Perry Scott subsequently pushed through plans to build six parking structures on 2nd and 4th streets. But the illusion would be short-lived.
The man chosen by City leaders to bring the plan to fruition, Paul Priolo, went on to bigger things, cashing in on his local efforts with an election to the state legislature in 1966. His departure marked a quiet turning point in the history of the mall. Despite the initial success, there was now no group driving the project forward. The Mall Committee, which had rallied support, had disbanded.
Although the opening drew national attention, interest soon waned. “After the mall was completed, its success was (measured) in a matter of days,” recalled former City Manager John Jalili, who would take on the task of revitalizing the strip.
“People were all enthused about the landscaping and the new pedestrian mall that had been built," Jalili said. "They came to celebrate, but they never went back to shop.”
Shopping malls had become ubiquitous throughout Southern California. With so many choices and so very little to distinguish it from the competition, crowds along Santa Monica Mall dried to a trickle.
“The problem was you couldn’t find anything,” said Herb Katz a major advocate for the Third Street Promenade when he was on the City Council in the 1980s. “It slowly deteriorated because there was no ambiance outside of shops. There was no entertainment, no feeling of community, no feeling of belonging.”
“It just didn’t have any pizzazz,” said Council member Bob Holbrook, a native Santa Monican. “There was no outside dining. There was a coffee shop or two and that was about it. There wasn’t a big reason to go Downtown much after dark. There wasn’t any vibrancy to it.”
A few years of relative prosperity were followed by many more years of languishing stores. As the shoppers took their money to places like Century City and Beverly Hills, the mall continued to slide ever further into disrepair.
By the early-70s, City leaders made a bold move to recapture the fleeting glory of the Santa Monica Mall. The plan this time was to revitalize the Downtown region by building an indoor shopping center at the southern end of the pedestrian-only street. Officials hoped the two-block area bounded by Colorado and Broadway would reverse the deterioration of the central business district.
However a 1974 environmental impact report (EIR) on the proposed project carried an ominous warning.
“The major negative of the proposed center to existing business would be the continued viability of the Santa Monica Mall, with which it would be in substantial competition if they are not made to be an integrated complement of one another.”
But the City had little or no choice in the matter. “If the mall is to reasonably survive in the long term, the presence of the proposed project represents its major hope,” the report noted.
City officials opted to move ahead with the plan, but from the outset there were problems. Some people were uncomfortable with the idea of a new indoor shopping center, arguing that it would drive merchants along Santa Monica Mall completely out of business.
“It was a very controversial process,” recalled Jalili. “A number of community activists didn’t want a shopping center in Santa Monica. There was class warfare of sorts in the late 60s and 70s.”
The decision to build the mall pitted a number of community activists against the might of the business community.
“The business community was in a position of leadership, and many of the activists were opposed to almost anything the business community was in favor of,” Jalili recalled.
Despite the objections, there would be no stopping the proposed development. The contract was granted to Rouse Development Corporation, and construction on the new indoor mall began before the decade was out.
“There were forced departures,” said former Mayor Dennis Zane. “They (developers) demolished property, and there were old-timers who went kicking and screaming when they were being evicted to make way for Santa Monica Place.”
The Frank Gehry-designed building, which spanned two full city blocks, was inaugurated in 1980, and from the moment its doors opened for business, shoppers had a reason to flock back Downtown.
Santa Monica Place injected much-needed energy back into the traditional commercial district of the City, but only at the expense of the outdoor shopping precinct.
“What remaining retail life there was sucked into the shopping center,” said Zane.
“One of the questions was what is going to be the impact of Santa Monica Place on Downtown and the old mall itself?” recalled Jalili. “Of course it would have been better for the old mall to be included in the project area, but it wasn’t done. It did in fact make it worse. It was in pretty bad shape.”
It was in such bad shape, in fact, City officials wanted shoppers to bypass the outdoor mall altogether. They even considered a proposal to build a people mover that would ferry shoppers to-and-from the mall at a faster pace.
This horizontal elevator – sitting two-stories above the three-block stretch from Wilshire Boulevard to Santa Monica Place – would whisk visitors directly to the new indoor structure without having to navigate the aggressive panhandlers that were flocking to the beleaguered street. Although the idea was quickly dismissed, it was symptomatic of the disregard for the struggling outdoor mall.
By the early-80s, the street outside the glass and steel enclave of the enclosed shopping mall was nothing more than a bedraggled row of struggling shops and vacant storefronts.
Sitting under a translucent California sky, the outdoor mall located two blocks from the shimmering Pacific had quickly turned from a "pedestrian's paradise" into an eyesore. Once again, it was time for a change, and City officials began to explore ways of salvaging the crumbling core that lay beyond the air-conditioned shopping precinct.
The City held almost 100 meetings, soliciting input from planners, designers, property owners and residents alike.
“The meetings that took place revolved around how to do public improvements along Santa Monica Mall and to transition it to some type of contemporary and dynamic pedestrian mall,” said Jeff Mathieu, Santa Monica’s economic development manager.
By 1984, a $13.3 million bond issue was approved to make much-needed public improvements; an assessment district was formed to help pay off the bond, and a nonprofit corporation – the Third Street Development Corporation – was created to revitalize the dying strip.
The plan was ambitious and involved a three-tiered strategy to harness the interest of potential shoppers – give them something to eat, something to see and somewhere to go.
“We needed to have a thematic focus that would distinguish this place,” said Zane who along with Herb Katz was a driving force on the City Council. “We needed to do something other shopping districts couldn’t do.”
To this end planners locked into providing a suitable assortment of outdoor eateries nestled among an artistic and tasteful streetscape. And unlike its previous incarnation, City officials had hit upon a key ingredient, one they hoped would keep visitors flocking back time and time again.
They called upon the magic of the big screen – movie theaters would be the linchpin of the new Promenade. “These people-generators went hand-in-glove with the outdoor dining strategy,” said Zane.
But attracting movie theaters to Downtown was no easy matter. Cinema owners balked at the idea of moving to an untried location, especially one that had a history of ruin.
“This thing of building stand-alone theaters along a street or Promenade was a whole new concept, and the theater people were really nervous about it,” Holbrook said. “But that was the key to success.”
In the end, they were left with little choice. To corral cinema owners into Downtown, the City Council banned movie theaters from locating anywhere but on the Promenade. Three multiplexes agreed to locate their theaters to Third Street and opened their doors nervously to see how things would play out.
“As soon as those theaters opened, people started coming,” said Holbrook. “The theaters drew people to the Promenade.”
The City also was hedging its bets. The resulting mall – formally christened Third Street Promenade – was something of a hybrid development. During the day the Promenade would be a pedestrian-only district but just in case the new experiment didn’t work – as had been the case for some three dozen similar centers across the country – the City made the traffic barriers that protected the walkway removable so cars could cruise the strip at night.
Officials need not have worried. As soon as the Promenade opened in 1989, it was an instant success.
“The first week it was open the barriers were down at night so you could drive a car through there not to park but simply to window shop,” said Holbrook. “But after a week, you just couldn’t do it. There were just too many people walking, and so the bollards went up and stayed up.”
“The Promenade took off almost right away,” said Katz. “It surprised all of us that it took off so fast.”
Boosted in part by the sudden collapse of Westwood Village after a rash of gang violence emptied its streets in the early 90s, the Promenade became one of the region’s biggest attractions. Before long, restaurants and retail stores clamored for space along the walkway, and the heart of the City came alive.
Today the Promenade is viewed as Santa Monica’s “outdoor living room,” a place where locals and tourists alike can kick back and enjoy the perennial carnival atmosphere, Mathieu said. But the ghost of Third Street's past always lingers, warning against getting too comfortable with the arrangement.“Even though we have enjoyed incredible success, it’s our challenge to keep looking towards new ideas and better ways of providing customer service,” Mathieu said. “The challenge is always to keep reinventing oneself and to at the same time be able to reconcile and appreciate the present.”
Copyright 1999-2008 surfsantamonica.com. All Rights Reserved.