April 14, 2021 Breaking News, Latest News, and Videos

Promenade now – Back to the Future?

Last week, this column reviewed the backstory of the Promenade within the context of Downtown Santa Monica.  This week, we discuss ways of looking at the future. 

The Promenade today resembles the Santa Monica Mall of 1984.  Storefronts that are 40% vacant.  Run down movie theater anchor tenants waiting for crowds that may never return in prior numbers.  Dilapidated public furniture.  Partially painted lighting fixtures.  Topiary fountains streaming water into water basins with cracked and dirty tiles.  

Prior relaunches of the Promenade (nee Santa Monica Mall) were easy compared to the challenge today, with novel open air formats from around the country as a guide, and little local competition.  Heavy residential patronage was a built-in business base as the heavily marketed tourist segment had not launched.  The retail business models were steady with ample growth opportunities.  Parking was ample, convenient and safe in a clean environment.  Today, we have critical sanitation and safety issues.  

What is clear is that any revitalization has to be as innovative as the challenge is unprecedented.    

Strategic Focus and Management Challenges 

The Promenade has oscillated from resident-centric to tourist/visitor centric, and now finds itself unappealing to all segments.    

Compounding this crisis, there is virtually no unifying force across the more than 100 stakeholders.  Unlike the single-owner SM Place, Promenade property is disbursed across 35 owners housing another 65 businesses owners.  The public central street, sidewalks and parking structures remain a city responsibility.  Finally, there are two competing management groups.  The legacy Downtown Santa Monica Inc. (DTSM) diffuses its efforts (and $10 million budget) across an area running from Ocean Avenue to just west of Lincoln Blvd.  A Promenade-only group, the Santa Monica Bayside Owners Assn., exists to separately represent Promenade stakeholder interests.   

In this environment, the pre-requisites for success must include:

  • Integrated, coordinated stakeholder approach on a unified strategy
  • Complementary uses and cooperative leasing incentive strategies supporting newly imagined re-created vision  
  • Restoration of high-quality security, safety and sanitation services on both the Promenade proper and in the 10 parking structures
  • Restoration of high-quality maintenance of all street fixtures and furniture, including scheduled refurbishments
  • Understanding and management of the Promenade and Downtown as an interconnected destination within the City; the Promenade cannot be revitalized when viewed as an island
  • See map zones 1 and 2

Main Objectives 

Determining which consumer segment to emphasize is critical, as is resiliency to future technological challenges to business models.   To build long term value, reducing consumer visit volatility (e.g., tourists) in the new target consumer mix is key.  In 2018, the consumer spend mix was 14% residents, 45% regional (day) visitors and 41% tourists.

Of the three consumer groups, residents and regional visitors would provide the greatest stability.  At a very high level, that regional (day) visitors’ per capita Promenade spend is roughly the same as tourists (excluding hotel).  While there is no available per capita spend data for residents, we can assume they would be similar.  

Balancing Resident Needs with Visitors and Tourism

The challenge is to (a) attract a larger share of the city’s residents and (b) have them visit more often, along the entire length of the three block Promenade.  The strategy would likely apply to regional (day) visitors and the tourism segment.  

The required product offer needs to be social, not able to be duplicated at home or have an added experiential and multi-generational value to an everyday experience.   Concepts include:

  • Live entertainment: Weekend programming for a rotating variety of music, cultural events and theatre.  Ideally, a mix of outdoor and indoor venues including outdoor public spaces 
  • Permanent “farmers market” operating from both a storefront, with outdoor on given days as a daily draw anchor  
  • Thematic Artisans Marketplace programmed on the same basis as the current Farmers’ Markets in the public spaces on specific days, with alternating days for specific cultural themes 
  • Enabling a hybrid of light manufacturing/retail uses through streamlined permitting and flexible zoning for certain pre-approved businesses and products
  • Improving the restaurant mix with a more balanced moderately priced and high-end mix with addition of establishments (think O&O Trattoria in Venice Beach)
  • Proactively identify and attract unique consumer services 
  • Include the Promenade in Conservancy architectural history walks

Access and Convenience

No initiative should result in increased barriers to adoption of a new resident visiting routine.   A Promenade (and overall Downtown) competitive advantage is the City’s network of 11 parking structures and 6,194 spaces. These assets should be strategically deployed as follows:

  • Optimization of parking:  Visitors must know all their options to smooth out traffic flows through clear signage.  
    • Free shuttle service from more distant lots such as the SM Main Library could be offered.
  • Resident preference: Various prior proposals should become standard policy: 
    • Increase free parking up to three hours with validations
    • Offer increased alternative free parking options during peak visitor hours (summertime, weekends and holidays) with free shuttle service every 15-20 minutes on the weekends and Holidays 
  • Improved Street and Traffic management as volume requires
  • Use free parking as a draw within an effective marketing strategy

Maintaining Small Town Feel and Ambiance

A key Promenade asset is the preserved historic buildings.  Focusing on flexible adaptive re-use to instead of planning economically and ecologically costly tear-downs.

Timing and Strategy

This is unlike all that came before without a “Big Bang” debut of a tightly defined reinvented three-block shopping strip destination.  The resident-focused re-invention involves attracting a much larger share of resident spending through a better balanced socio-economic and culturally diversified value proposition.

Immediate Next Steps

  • CLEANUP and MAINTENANCE: Jumpstart resident reclamation of the Promenade space by decisively addressing the sanitation and security issues in downtown, including parking.  This is an absolute critical first step in eliminating experiential barriers to visitation  
  • FARMERS and ARTISANS MARKETS:  Assess grocery market utility to residents by extending the existing downtown Farmers Market by expanding scope and lengthening the hours of operation.  Add complimentary artisans’ markets at different areas of the promenade for foot traffic distribution across the Promenade’s three blocks.  This would provide valuable information on the trade-offs, ancillary spending impact and viability of increased resident utility against necessary larger scale tradeoffs.  
  • INCREASE FLEXIBLE PERMITTED USES:  Explore creation of special zoning along the upper floors of the Promenade commercial spaces able to accommodate other revenue types for property owners as the retail pricing adjusts.  Limited re-introduction of furnished short-stay residential uses could be a possibility.
  • WIDEN TENANT MIX SPECTRUM:  Embrace smaller and a more diverse tenant mix (think family run specialty grocery stores)  
  • TAX, LANDLORD and BUSINESS INCENTIVES: Supportthe relaunch initiative with local tax and building permit incentives and efficiencies focused on supporting small business stability and long-term growth. 
  • ASSESS THE TRUE REAL TIME BUDGET IMPACTS and longer-term maintenance, crime prevention and related potential city liability issues of each alternative at each stage in the process.

The Long Run Phase 2 

  • INCREASE PUBLIC ACCESS and SPACES: Explore strategic Promenade-adjacent street closures as envisioned enhancements to a park on 4th and Arizona.  Assess the inter-connectedness of a reimagined public commercial and meeting space based upon clear concepts of pedestrian utility, being mindful to avoid of not creation of new barriers to adoption by residents due to access/logistics constraints that might degrade the daily business utility value of the Promenade.   
  • REDESIGN ARCADE: Contribute to remodel connections in-between buildings by removing portions of roof, add landscape under glass arcade
  • SURROUNDING ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES: Consider the impact of the Bloomingdales vacancy and the Sears adaptive reuse office refurbishment, including adjacent vacant large box retail spaces.  These are key considerations due to their proximity to the Promenade. Outcomes for these properties will impact outcomes on the Promenade and greater downtown, depending on the overlap of customer segments.  

Conclusion

The current crisis has provided the city, and especially its residents, with the first chance in decades to reconnect with downtown since the onset of the tourist-driven business model over 30 years ago.  But this cannot be a top-down process.  The outcome is too critical.  The City (or DTSM) should conduct statistically valid research into what barriers the residents perceive to increasing their patronage on the Promenade and its surrounds.  Real research on potential traffic flow and pedestrian safety impacts are also required for the different options.  Done correctly, a resident-centric Promenade can live happily alongside an evolved tourist and visitor model while enhancing the residents’ lived experience, while improving the quality of life for the entire city.  

By Marc L. Verville and Michael Jolly for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

Thane Roberts, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Architect, Dan Jansenson, Architect, Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi, AIA, Planning Commissioner, Marc L. Verville CPA (inactive), Michael Jolly, AIRCRE

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