The Downtown Year in Review
By Lookout Staff
January 9 -- In the end, 2004 may be remembered as much for what happened in Downtown Santa Monica as for what didn’t. It was more a year for laying the groundwork than one for completing what had been started.
The biggest story — Macerich’s bold plan to remake Santa Monica Place — was about what might be. The plan, distinguished by its soaring vision, was not the only proposal still up in the air at year’s end. Plans to ensure the Promenade remains vibrant and the design of Downtown apartments more aesthetic also saw no conclusion.
The other major stories — a Downtown building boom, the opening of a record number of new businesses and an economic upswing — are also chapters in an ongoing story that will take years before the ending becomes clear.
The plan quickly became the talk of the town. Supporters touted the much-needed housing it would provide — the three condo towers with 300 units and an adjoining seven-story rental apartment building with another 150 units. There also would be a park — perched above two floors of shops and restaurants — with sweeping ocean views and an office complex. Opponents focused on the towers, which they feared would be far too tall for a beach town and could open the door for more high-rises. 2005 will be critical, as the City embarks on a long public process to hammer out a plan the community, the developers and the City can all live with for decades to come.
MENU FOR SUCCESS
In June, the council heard, but has yet to act on, a proposal to lift the cap on the number of alcohol permits allowed per block and to allow alcohol to constitute 35 percent of each restaurant’s total gross revenue. The council also did not indicate its position on a proposal to establish standardized conditions for alcohol permits in Downtown, thus eliminating a lengthy permit process. In addition, the council considered expanding outdoor dining on the Promenade to curbs, alleyways and the three center court areas to create a livelier, European-like atmosphere.
When the council picks up where it left off in the new year, it will take up other recommendations, such as adding public restrooms, developing modernized movie theaters with stadium seating and revitalizing the alleyways for dining and events.
The biggest addition will be the new $66 million public library whose walls have begun to span a half-city block on the old library site between Sixth and Seventh streets on Santa Monica Blvd. When completed later this year, the new 100,000 sq. ft. facility will boast nearly twice the floor space, swell the existing collection by 50,000 volumes and nearly triple the parking of the old facility to some 600 spaces. Construction crews were also busy building the first of four five-story apartment buildings on the west side of Fifth Street between Broadway and Santa Monica Blvd.
There were major changes on the streets surrounding the Promenade. Polly’s Pies, for decades a popular diner on Wilshire, is now Panera Bread and the old Rebecca’s site on Ocean Ave. is now home to Kai, a restaurant and lounge that features Pacific Rim and French-inspired tapas. In fact, all across the Downtown, a European flavor filled the air, with new stores that featured everything from decadent Belgian pralines to Italian gelati and French crepes.
Foreign tourists taking advantage of a slumping dollar proved a major boon to the area, as hotels saw a steady growth in occupancy. Jewelers reported a jump in engagements and weddings, and restaurants saw revenues swell as diners flocked Downtown. An added boon was the American Film Market’s decision to add a second trade show last year, pumping more revenue into the Bayside economy.
After months of public hearings, the City Council tabled the guidelines and decided to retain existing public input by extending an interim ordinance that calls for Planning Commission review of buildings that are primarily residential if they are larger than 15,000 sq. ft. The prevailing side argued that there should be no rush to change the interim ordinance, which was intended to curb a building boom City officials worried was resulting in drab, monotonous buildings. The guidelines will have to wait until the City completes an update of its arcane zoning regulations, land-use laws and General Plan, a process that could drag on for several years.
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