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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.

As soon as Macerich officials publicly unveiled their plan to redevelop Santa Monica Place, it became obvious that what was being proposed could forever alter the face of Downtown. Unveiled at November’s Bayside board meeting, the proposal to replace the struggling indoor mall and extend the Third Street Promenade an extra block to Colorado Ave. was expected and, indeed, welcomed by City officials. The surprise was that the proposed mall would serve as a podium for three 21-story towers that would match the height of Santa Monica’s tallest structure, the white GTE building on Ocean Avenue and Wilshire Blvd.

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.

After two and one-half years of public hearings that included lengthy, sometimes spirited, debates, high-tech presentations and a walking tour, a menu of recommendations to curb retail stores and boost restaurants Downtown seems finally poised for approval. While the general thrust of the plan — which includes eliminating the cap on the number of restaurants in the Downtown, expanding outdoor dining on the Promenade and relaxing regulations governing alcohol permits and sales — has cleared all major hurdles, some key details still need ironing out.

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 groans of bulldozers, the pounding of hammers and the quiet swinging of cranes. From renovations taking place behind the walls of existing storefronts to major new developments rising from scratch, construction crews spent much of 2004 remaking the face of Downtown. The result will be a new Main Library, a row of five-story apartment buildings and a record number of newly renovated stores that will affect where people eat, drink, shop and live for years to come.

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.

While new buildings were taking shape Downtown, old structures were getting makeovers as new tenants moved in. Last year set a record for store openings in the Bayside. The biggest new addition was Circuit City, which opened its doors at the site of an old bank building on the corner of Arizona Ave. and Fourth Street. Down the block on the Promenade, the site of the old Teaser’s Restaurant, a pioneer on the popular strip, is now a Barney’s Beanery, while the Broadway Bar & Grill was transformed into an outlet for the Canadian chain Café Crepe.

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.

The opening of new stores and restaurants was only one of the key ingredients in the Bayside’s successful economic recipe for 2004. Tourism and continued consumer confidence fueled an economic upswing that rivaled pre-9/11 levels. Sales in the first two quarters of 2004 (the latest figures available) jumped on the Promenade by more than 20 percent over the previous year, while sales in the rest of the Bayside showed gains of more than 22 percent. While new stores gave Downtown a boost, existing retailers also reported an upturn in business.

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.

It began as a plan to develop a set of guidelines that would dictate the design of new residential buildings Downtown and ended with a contentious debate over how much input the public should have. The debate quickly overshadowed the guidelines formulated by City staff and the Roma Design consulting firm. The guidelines envisioned a Downtown populated with European-style open courtyard complexes rising to six-story heights.

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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