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Downtown Gets Major Makeover

By Jorge Casuso

September 17 -- From work crews busy turning the old steel skeleton of Santa Monica Place into a sleek new mall, to painters putting the final coat on one of the ten residential buildings under construction, Downtown Santa Monica has been undergoing a major makeover.

The nearly three dozen projects – which range from those in the planning process to those that only await a final inspection – include a new maintenance facility for the Big Blue Bus, an $8.2 million streetscape project along 2nd and 4th streets and three rebuilt public parking structures along the two streets.

In the end, there will be 629 new residential units in 15 new buildings, 1,700 new parking spaces and 526 new hotel rooms – half of them in a proposed project to transform a commercial tower into a hotel – six mixed-used buildings and four commercial buildings.

“Most of the commercial building is a recycling and rebuilding and a reinvestment in the existing Downtown infrastructure,” said John Warfel, a member of the Bayside Board, which oversees the Downtown, including the Third Street Promenade.

“The hassle with dealing with the construction activity Downtown will hopefully be offset by the final product,” Warfel said.

Most of the new building Downtown is the result of a 1996 City Council decision to encourage new residential development in the heart of Santa Monica. By providing incentives to build housing, the council hoped to turn the shopping district into a real neighborhood.

The policy was a major success, and developers, primarily JSM Development, began lining 5th, 6th and 7th streets with new apartment buildings, including ten under construction and six in the planning stages.

The projects include three affordable housing developments totaling some 125 units – at 1241 5th Street, 1514 7th Street and 626 Broadway – and a 125-unit condominium building at 525 Broadway that is awaiting final approval by the Architectural Review Board (ARB).

“Housing helps enliven the Downtown after hours during the non-holidays and non-summer months,” said Bruce Leach, a City Planner. “Walking Downtown, I don’t see too many vacancies.”

“The housing gives the Downtown a viable mix,” Warfel said. “You have to have all the pieces so you can have a true Downtown core and not just a Downtown for commuters and visitors.”

While most of the City’s development is guided by the General Plan the council is currently updating, development Downtown falls under the Downtown Specific Plan adopted in 1986 and updated ten years later.

As a result, the City must hammer out a new plan for the area after it completes the update of the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE), which will guide general development across most of the city for the next quarter century.

“The idea is looking at how things have happened and making adjustments,” Leach said of the new Downtown Specific Plan. “Although it has not been updated since 1996, the City has modified the zoning ordinance.”

The key changes allow taller ceiling heights on the ground floor of new buildings and encourage local retail by restricting frontage in an effort to stop major national chains from occupying large chunks of the Promenade.

Prop T on the November ballot – which would cap most commercial development in the city at 75,00 square feet a year for the next 15 years – does not target the majority of the construction currently taking place Downtown, according to Bayside officials.

The commercial development on the ground floor of the new residential units Downtown falls short of the cap under the measure, which was formerly called the “Residents’ Initiative to Fight Traffic” or RIFT.

In addition, most of the major commercial development – including the remodel of Santa Monica Place, the redevelopment of the Travel Lodge and the proposed conversion of the historic office tower at 710 Wilshire – replace or redevelop existing buildings.

“Although the Bayside has been debating the impacts and the merits of the RIFT initiative, most of the current development would not be impacted,” Warfel said.

“However, one of my concerns about the impact of the RIFT initiative is that one large project outside the Downtown area could have a dramatic impact on the efforts to continue upgrading the Downtown,” Warfel added.

By far the largest project currently underway Downtown is the major remodel of Santa Monica Place, which features wide-open spaces and sweeping views that will transform the 30-year-old indoor mall into an outdoor shopping venue that ties directly to the Promenade.
The old steel skeleton is all that remains of the hulking two-block structure City officials once compared to a “dinosaur.”

“It would have been easier to tear it down and just start over,” Bob Aptaker, vice president of development for Macerich, said during a tour of the construction site last month.

But the company, Aptaker said, wanted to be environmentally responsible and salvaged as much of the structure as possible – adding 1,900 tons of new steel, 75,000 yards of concrete that will be erected and laid by a workforce that will reach 400. Ninety-five percent of the scrapped materials will be recycled, Aptaker said.

Slated to open in the fall of 2009, the new shopping center will feature a round open-air plaza with wide passageways that connect it to the Promenade to the north and the Civic Center to the south, as well as view corridors to 2nd and 4th streets.

“You can see 360 degrees,” Aptaker said. “We want the center court to feel like an open area where we can have performances, a gathering place for the community.”

The mall will feature upscale shops, including a new Nordstrom’s, and a food court perched on a third-floor sundeck, where tables under the shade of umbrellas will provide ocean views between the stores.

“It becomes a mini city, a destination in itself,” said Laurel Rosen, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce. “The dark, enclosed, claustrophobic mall was incongruous with the feel of the city.”

During the remodel, only Macy’s will stay open, along with the mall’s two public parking structures, which will get a makeover that includes adding stores on the ground floor facing Broadway and adding parking attendants, under a plan approved by the City Council in March.

Also in the works is a major streetscape project along 2nd and 4th streets that calls for removing and relocating 30 of the 157 ficus trees and adding 120 new ginko trees. It also calls for adding decorative up-lighting to the remaining ficus trees and repairing sidewalks or curbs damaged by their roots.

In addition, the project calls for enlarging tree wells, installing new pedestrian lighting to illuminate sidewalk areas, enhancing six mid-block crosswalks and adding accessibility improvements for the handicapped.

Upgrades to the Downtown’s infrastructure also include building a 75,885-square-foot eco-friendly maintenance facility for the Big Blue Bus that will service a growing fleet and features solar panels, reclaimed water and recycled materials.

The state-of-the-art facility – which is being built on the site of the current maintenance yard at 6th Street and Colorado Avenue – will feature 5,000 square feet of offices and 20 new repair bays, including two chassis wash bays, according to transit officials.

The expansion project will increase the size of the bus parking lot, which is currently filled to capacity, and improve the existing maintenance facility, which was built in the 1960s, when the bus system had a much smaller and less technologically advanced fleet, officials said.

Downtown is also slated to get three new public parking structures to replace the three smaller structures – 1, 3 and 6 – slated for the wrecking ball as part of an ambitious $180 million-plan to add 1,700 new spaces over the next decade.

Under the plan, the three smaller five-story structures – which currently total less than 1,000 spaces – will be torn down and replaced with larger structures that will add a total of nearly 700 spaces. The City is currently exploring whether it can add a state-of-the-art movie theater in one of the new structures.

A date has not been set for the demolition of Structure 6 at 1431 2nd Street, the first of the three smaller parking structures slated to be replaced. The smaller structures will be demolished one at a time, with the second structure likely coming down a year after the first.

In addition to the City facilities and residential projects, there are several commercial buildings in the planning pipeline, including four hotels totaling 526 rooms, nearly all of them replacing existing structures, adding rooms or changing a building’s use.

One major project is the redevelopment the half-century-old Travelodge and Sands motels, which total 87 rooms, into a new four-story 173-room hotel comprised of two buildings that City officials say will add much-needed affordable lodgings to Santa Monica’s increasingly pricey coastal zone.

Another proposal would convert the landmark office and retail building at 710 Wilshire to a 256-room hotel and add a wing with 16 residential units and hotel rooms. Negotiations for the project, which calls for retail on the ground floor and 480 subterranean parking spaces, have been put on hold, planning officials said.


“The hassle with dealing with the construction activity Downtown will hopefully be offset by the final product.” John Warfel



“Housing helps enliven the Downtown after hours during the non-holidays and non-summer months.” Bruce Leach


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