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Transforming Visions

By Jorge Casuso

Dec. 10 -- When visitors stroll through the Promenade or along the Transit Mall, when they sit to dine outdoors or walk a few steps to grab a bus, they are bucking what seemed conventional wisdom just ten years ago.

Ask Boris Dramov, an architect and urban designer whose firm, ROMA Design Group, was charged with making the City's vision of a sustainable Downtown a reality.

" When we began Third Street, I heard people saying, 'I don’t think people will eat at outdoor cafes and people don't walk in Los Angeles,'" Dramov said. "Conventional wisdom was that you had to have shopping centers."

And convention was just what Santa Monica officials – known for thinking outside the box – didn't want when they set out to revitalize the moribund Third Street in the late 80s by turning it into the Promenade. What officials wanted was a different vision of Downtown, one that was "sustainable."

"How do you get the spaces to interact? How do you make it full of people? How do people perceive the space?" Those were among the questions City officials were grappling with, Dramov recalled.

"It's not just about establishing broad policy," said Dramov, whose design efforts were instrumental in transforming San Francisco's urban waterfront. "The question is how do (the policies) translate themselves in terms of physical form – this is specifically how it would be shaped, this is the kind of environment we would create. Can you make it better?"

To answer those questions and turn their vision of a self-contained, pedestrian oriented Downtown into reality, City officials turned to Dramov, who had earned a reputation for breathing new life into city centers crippled by urban sprawl.

Dramov had studied architecture during the 60s, when conventional wisdom was being turned on its head, and he shared Santa Monica's values.

" You have to start with a greater ideal, with what should a community be like?" said Dramov, who earned a BA in Architecture from USC in 1966 and a Masters from Columbia University in 1970. "You have to have shared values to create an equitable environment, (one that is) socially responsive, that is fulfilling its role in the region and at the same time creating a livable place.

" I've always been very interested in creating cities that are lively public places that are responsive to larger issues," said Dramov. "I have always been interested in the existing urban fabric and making it more livable, rather than discarding what is there and expanding further.

" How can we take urban land and make it more usable, knit the expansion that has taken place since World War II to give that vitality that makes people want to live in cities? How can we reuse land more efficiently and effectively," said Dramov, who has worked on projects across the U.S., as well as in Manila, Singapore and New Zealand. "I felt it was socially and environmentally responsive."

Dramov suggested enlivening Third Street with outdoor cafes and later, with the creation of the Transit Mall in 2001, redirecting traffic and creating a dedicated transit lane detractors predicted would snarl Downtown streets.

Even after the vision had been turned into a successful reality, the ingredients that turned the dying strip into one of the most vibrant city centers in America remain a mystery to many, Dramov said.

" People have a single idea for why it's successful," he said. "Some say it was really the parking. It wasn't the parking. The original Promenade (the Third Street Mall) had the parking. Others said it was the theaters. I can show you a place at Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco that has as many screens, but no one goes there."

After more than a decade, Dramov's work Downtown is not finished. He is currently helping the City come up with design standards for the residential buildings that are blossoming along 6th and 7th streets. "I think we can work in making them better places to live."

And he's a consultant in the plan hatched by Santa Monica Place's owners and City officials to open up the indoor mall and stretch the Promenade – and hopefully its success – an extra block to Colorado Avenue.

"I think the plan to open up Santa Monica Place will be very strong for both sides," Dramov said. "It will be synergistic."

But the Promenade and the Transit Mall, the design standards and the redesign of Santa Monica Place are all part of a bigger picture for Downtown, Dramov said.

" Downtown Santa Monica has to be a district," said Dramov, whose firm won an international competition to design the Martin Luther King Memorial in the Capital Mall in Washington, D.C. "It has to be pedestrian oriented, transit oriented, a place for residents and a place to work. It must reinforce that this is really the center of the community.

"Getting people to live Downtown is very important," Dramov cautioned. "There's always the danger of too much success and just becoming a destination and not a place for the residents. That's why I'm in favor of the district."
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