I think our city wins in the not-quite-epic battle for Santa Monica Place. On several key levels, the newly opened remodel of Santa Monica Place is a total success. It certainly feels like the right kind of approach for contemporary retail, and I think the new openness has made the facility significantly more public and democratic than SM Place before the renovation. In terms of that parcel of property best serving both the needs of its owners and the city at large, the result seems fair and sensible.
The opening of any new mall raises questions regarding the state of retail itself and just who the mall is for in terms of the merchandise. A lot of that circles back to the conundrums of marketing goods in a recession and whether you want to feed your kids lunch for $50 or $100; problems that are not solved by how anybody designs or finds tenants for a shopping area. So, for the record: Thank you people of Santa Monica for resisting the multi-story condo multi-use plan for the site, and thank you Macerich for finding your way to our new gleaming retail venue.
The new Santa Monica Place views best when looking at its south face from the 4th Street bridge over the 10. Not that you’ll organize a family hike around that, but I did like the fact that the mall’s exterior lines integrate nicely with surrounding structures from that perspective. There was some disappointment for me that the sweeping lines of the food court pointed toward ocean views don’t really add much exterior pizzazz. In previewing drawings of the planned changes at SM Place, I had hopes that side of the complex would be more inviting. You’d look at those sketches and hear jazz music as beautiful women giggled. But from outside down on the sidewalk, it’s just kind of a glass balcony where people are eating off Styrofoam plates. Inside, however, the view delivers and it’s upbeat that you can see the Ferris wheel at the Pier.
It’s the interior areas that pull most toward the 21st century. One is stirred to check out the floors above street level, and a prominently located concierge booth has cheerful personnel that are more than willing to answer your questions. At various points, rattan-appearing chairs with cushions suggest taking the load off for a few minutes without feeling pressure to buy something to eat. That’s smart on everybody’s part, and I liked the look of those chairs.
Of course the 21st century is only 10 years old and we’re not up to speed on all things futuristic. In an area on the street level, there are some organic-looking, kind of egg- shaped chairs that look great just sitting there. But they’re hardly ergonomic. I watched a kid slither up and down in one attempting to get comfortable. He lost, the chair won. There’s a deeper design problem on the street level: The women’s restroom there is too small. At 5:30 pm on a Monday there were 11 women waiting in line outside the door of that restroom, and the line in the men’s room was five deep. Knowing that after hiking the Promenade tourists will enter SM Place at the street level looking for bathrooms and also knowing for decades now that women’s bathrooms are always criminally small, what was the thinking regarding this key aspect of human traffic in a public space? There are other facilities on the upper floors, but Macerich should have bonded with some parents on how things work out when running your kids up a floor to take a leak.
There are also a few conceptual glitches that may come to haunt some of the food venues. One café has a single outdoor bar meant to service a large patio area, an indoor dining area, and patrons at the bar itself. The area behind the bar is way too small to make drink service efficient. With three bartenders continually smashing into each other at Happy Hour, it was clear that a remodel of that bar was in the future.
But most of that shrinks in comparison to the larger issues of “Will they come?” followed by “Will they buy?” and ultimately “Will they buy enough?” It’s at this point that I could drown you in numbers concerning the merchandise at the SM Place retailers: A black and white stripped t-shirt for $90, a similar t-shirt at a different store for $54, and another store with a pair of black jeans for $240. Where was the hot sales action inside Bloomingdales? At the frozen yogurt stand, where there was a line waiting.
The new Santa Monica Place seems to be hedging its bet on high-end retail tenants by offering a wide array of food options. There’s sushi in about four locations, each operating at different price points. It looks like pizza is going to be a big event there, too. There’s a food court where moderately priced fare is huddled together, and then you can take your pick of pricier menus elsewhere in the complex. The food seems to be aimed at a wide demo while the retail tenants appear to be crossing their fingers that wealthy foreign tourists will be plentiful and well-trained in acquiring goods for happiness, since we know what’s true of American spending budgets right now. I wish the best for everyone involved in SM Place’s retail success, but even with the colossal amount of denim required my own jeans never cost $240 dollars. So I’m not sure that sort of retail is for me. Now… is it for you?