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Santa Monica Place: Now with More Connective Synergy!:

Two nights before attending the meeting for the public concerning the redevelopment of Santa Monica Place by the Macerich Company, I met a friend for a movie at the mall in Century City.  To kill half an hour before the Spartans started decapitating, I walked around and noted that there were almost no customers in any of the stores.  I never saw one sales transaction, although I’m sure there must been a few somewhere.

Arriving at Santa Monica Place for the meeting, I took a similar loop through the mall.  Again, there was that ghost town feeling.  This time it was accented by a large number of unoccupied storefronts.  True, we’re just past Christmas and Valentine’s Day and maybe the lull at dinner hour makes sense.  But what I’m working up to is that I don’t accept that there is always a sustained demand for retail development.  I get it that citizens need stores to obtain goods; I just don’t buy any argument asserting that there’s never enough retail and that more and better will always thrive.

But good luck trying to retrofit my prejudice onto Macerich and the City of Santa Monica.  Since the 1980s, Santa Monica Place has been a key element in our city’s downtown development.  It also sits on what some would call one of the most “golden” locations for retail in America.  So there’s going to be stores there, and I can just tear up my little sketches of a public park with skate tubes and a dog run and stages for theater and folk dance.  Okay, maybe folk dance is on its own…

All that said, the plan now submitted to the city by Macerich is a response to a 2004 proposal for the location that included sky-blocking towers for housing.  There was substantial resistance to that proposal, including this column, even though housing at that location might have instigated a more 21st century approach to urban planning incorporating rail transit instead of cars.  But often, the future arrives slower than the trains.

Such is the case with the new Macerich plan, which despite a lot of flowery language about synergy (it will help the stores on the Promenade, not hurt them) and connectivity (the new design will “engage” the streets)… basically proposes ripping the roof off of the existing mall and making it an open air retail area just like the ones your parents frequented 40 years ago.

So what’s old is new again, and when you think about downing a sandwich in the sun instead of inside the existing windowless mall, it all feels pleasant enough.  What bummed me more than a little was the reminder that retail areas now constitute part of our shared outdoor space: Urban planning now takes for granted that shopping is as vital to citizen recreation as trees or sandboxes for kids or room to walk and think.  This will be room to walk and think about the Gap and hot dogs wrapped in pretzel dough.

It’s only fair to point out that as retail areas go, this new one could be a beauty that saves electricity and somehow, magically, never hurts for store space tenants.  As far as the new Santa Monica Place helping the retail at the Promenade, I suppose that having more of something always generates more consumption: Sell Pepsi in liter bottles and people will actually drink a liter of Pepsi.  Put one mall next to another…

Macerich and the city have also gone to great lengths to get citizen feedback on Santa Monica Place, holding 14 meetings with various groups.  And the meeting last week featured a generous refreshment table that all sides agreed was well-planned.

But we’re a city with a crisis whether we want to be agitated about it or not.  More of our streets are becoming canyons with walls of new multi-use development that, pardon me, blows architecturally.  I’ll concede that it’s naïve to hope there would be an effort to create true balance for citizens, instead of talking about how there’s going to be art integrated into a retail remodel.  But can I then get Macerich and the city to similarly concede that it’s at least ironic to throw out terms like “inviting openness” and “environmentally friendly” when you’re talking about cosmetic construction on a solid waste-creating, energy-consuming, traffic-clogging sales tax generator like a mall next to the ocean?

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