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How Santa Monica's Downtown Is Dealing with "Surreal" Reality

Bob Kronovetrealty
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By Jorge Casuso

April 16, 2020 -- How do you manage a public space when there's no public left to manage?

That's the conundrum Downtown Santa Monica officials have been grappling with as the coronavirus emergency declared March 13 forced a government-mandated closure of nearly every business.

Deserted Promenade
One of Southern California's most popular destinations, the Promenade is now deserted (Photos Courtesy of DTSM)

Seemingly overnight, the crowds that thronged to the bustling commercial center as recently as last month have vanished, leaving the streets all but deserted and their retail and office spaces empty.

"It's just surreal," said Kathleen Rawson, the executive director of Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. (DTSM), the agency that runs the city's Central Business District.

"When you manage a public space and there's no public, you feel lost," she said.

In her two decades running the District, Rawson has seen Downtown absorb the economic shock of 9/11 and weather the Great Recession of 2007-09.

And like most business centers nationwide, the District -- which rang up $1.21 billion in taxable sales during the past fiscal year -- has been grappling with a seismic shift from brink-and-mortar stores to online shopping ("Downtown Santa Monica Thriving but Faces Challenges," September 3, 2019).

"Downtown Santa Monica has been more resilient than most" Central Business Districts, Rawson said, "but none of the changes in retail assumed zero income."

The daunting challenge has triggered creative ways to attract customers when they are no longer walking streets that were visited more than 29.2 million times last year.

"People have gotten really creative," Rawson said. "No one is doing the business they were doing, but some are seeing the results of their efforts.

"It took time to adjust to this way of living."

Going Virtual

During the crisis, restaurants and businesses on the Promenade have continued to operate for delivery or curbside pick-up, with some offering everything from "Passover in a box" to “happy hour from home” cocktail kits.

Others have gone "virtual," turning to online sales and events to keep their businesses running behind closed doors.

Promenade benches stacked Local health and wellness businesses are offering online classes, free workouts and meditation sessions "to help you stay healthy while observing social distancing," Downtown officials said.

Others, like the Cayton Children’s Museum at Santa Monica Place, have turned to their Instagram and Youtube pages to offer "creative, educational, and family-friendly activities to help keep children engaged."

To push local businesses during the crisis, DTSM has been beefing up its promotional efforts by using social media.

"Unless they have an online presence," Rawson said, "they don't have much business at all."

DTSM is also going virtual to run its official business, using Zoom calls to run Board meetings and allow the public to participate.

Like other Downtown tenants, DTSM has temporarily vacated its office on the Promenade and moved onto "the cloud," Rawson said.

While they shelter at home, staff is using the internet to conduct "a lot of individual outreach to businesses and property owners," Rawson said.

More Than Cyberspace

Not everything has gone virtual. There are still visitors to the Downtown, which means surfaces have to be sanitized, and every elevator button in the public parking garages wiped down.

Shoppers who throng to the Downtown Farmers Market and those who live on the District's streets remain a visible presence. And both are adapting to a new reality.

The Farmers Market has managed to remain a popular venue while discouraging large crowds by urging shoppers to space the time of their visits and maintain social distancing when they come.

Downtown Farmers Market

"Shoppers are listening to that message," Rawson said. "There is room between people. Everything is linear.

"You have one entrance and one exit," she said. "It's been terrific."

Downtown officials also continue to address a homeless population that has traditionally turned to the Promenade to panhandle for money and food.

In a pre-coronavirus world, a homeless person could rely on passersby to hand them half a sandwich or a five dollar bill, Rawson said.

"No one is panhandling now. That system, that's all gone."

The Downtown "Quality of Life" teams are still on their bikes, checking in on the homeless, and Downtown ambassadors are still stationed at select public restrooms, hygiene products in hand.

Downtown officials have also helped out as more and more homeless individuals turn from the streets to agencies that offer food and shelter.

"The social services are overburdened," Rawson said. "The lines have gotten very, very long."

Rawson is aware of just how long -- DTSM helped mark the lines on the street for social distancing.

What Next?

Downtown officials are studying what needs to be done when shops and offices reopen and the public reclaims its space.

"We're studying what other countries are doing," Rawson said. "How do we manage that? How does it look?

"We're preparing for a number of scenarios."

One thing is clear: Large scale events DTSM has relied on to promote the District -- like the SaMo Pride Celebration launched last June -- will need to change, Rawson said.

"Last year, thousands of people came," she said, "but that will look different."

One thing won't change, Rawson said, .

"We want to make sure Downtown Santa Monica stays on people's minds."

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