By Ed Moosbrugger
August 20, 2009 -- Some 22 years ago Santa Monica decided to limit new movie theaters to Downtown, a step that eventually helped bring new life to the area.
Three new multi-screen movie theaters, which opened in 1989 and 1990, were a catalyst in a revitalization effort that made the Third Street Promenade the envy of many downtowns.
Today, movie theaters are still a key piece in Downtown's business success, but tough new competition has emerged.
New state-of-the art theaters have opened in recent years, including Pacific Theaters’ The Grove Stadium 14 at the successful shopping center adjacent to the Farmers Market in Los Angeles, The Bridge at Howard Hughes Center in Westchester, The Landmark at Westside Pavilion and Pacific Theatres’ Culver Stadium 12 in Culver City.
Those new developments, plus the success of Santa Monica's theaters over the years, illustrate the importance of movie venues to many commercial developments and downtowns.
But Santa Monica’s movie houses lack some of the latest amenities, including stadium seating and ever-wider screens. To help stay competitive, the City Council is entertaining a proposal to build a state-of-the art theater.
Movie theaters are a critical component, particularly in street environments such as Downtown Santa Monica with its many restaurants and extended hours of operation, said Robert O. York, a consultant to the Bayside District Corp.
“It is probably even more important to us because we are a true downtown,” York said. “It's an important marketing vehicle. It helps draw people. It's been a critical component for the continued success of the Promenade and Downtown.”
It was probably a bit of “dumb luck,” followed by aggressive city action, that led to the current theaters Downtown, said Dennis Zane, a former Santa Monica mayor who played a key role in the movie theater scenario.
When the outdoor Santa Monica Mall (now the Third Street Promenade) fell on hard times, the City began a planning process in the 1980s to revitalize the area.
A plan in 1986 called for creating an “urban village” environment, offering a mix of retail, office, residential and entertainment uses. One piece was to be an entertainment center with movie theaters in the middle block.
Although the plan envisioned movie theaters, there was no strategy to lure them, said Zane, who was a City Council liaison to the Third Street Development Corp., predecessor of the Bayside District Corp.
Some consultants doubted that Santa Monica would get theaters because of competition with Westwood, Zane said. But that perception soon changed.
In January 1987 the Janss Corp. unveiled plans for a multi-use project at the south end of the Santa Monica Mall that would include a movie theater component.
At about that time, several other multi-screen movie theaters were planned for other areas of Santa Monica.
“Suddenly there was a flood of proposals,” Zane recalled. “All were on boulevards adjacent to neighborhoods.”
Not only were those theaters likely to impact adjoining neighborhoods, but they also could have lessened chances to revitalize Downtown.
Zane proposed that new movie theaters be prohibited everywhere but on the Third Street Promenade. That action was taken, with a provision that theaters could also be possible elsewhere in the Bayside District with a conditional use permit, Zane said.
The AMC and Mann theater chains, which had been planning theaters elsewhere in Santa Monica, soon came to the Promenade.
It was lucky that a surge in proposed multi-screen theater development came when it did.
“It became our opportunity to aggressively bring them to the Promenade,” Zane said.
The combination of outdoor dining and movie theaters has been “enormously successful,” he said. The lure is not just the movies, but also “the mix of uses and the setting.”
In October 1989, a Cineplex Odeon movie complex (now AMC Broadway 4) opened at the Janss development, followed by the opening in 1990 of the AMC Santa Monica 7 (on the site of a former Newberry's variety store) and the Mann Criterion 6 (a conversion of the former Criterion movie theater, which had fallen on hard times).
That gave Santa Monica three new multi-screen theaters, which was a big deal.
The AMC Santa Monica 7 was one of the most ambitious projects in AMC's nearly three decades of operation, the company said at the time, calling it a “flagship development.”
The theaters brought big changes to Downtown, helping lure large crowds to what had been a dead street at night. This led to more restaurants, stores and hotels broadening the appeal of the area and pouring millions of dollars into the local economy each year.