25 Years ago,when City officials, property owners, business leaders and community members embarked on a major makeover of Third Street, only one thing was certain: Physical improvements alone would not reverse the demise hastened by the success of Santa Monica Place, the enclosed air-conditioned mall designed by Frank Gehry that had gone up a decade earlier at the southern end of the street.
“It had been on a slow death watch for a long time,” said Zane, who was the council liaison to DTSM Inc.’s original predecessor, the Third Street Development Corporation. “The opening of Santa Monica Place had accelerated that by sucking the viable retail.
“Everything that was on (Third Street) then was barely holding on,” he said. “There were a lot of vacancies and businesses that attracted very few customers.”
“You talk to someone today,” York said, “and they can’t begin to imagine how challenging Downtown’s core was in the 1980s. It was a horrible stretch. People who stumbled upon it quickly got out of there. There is no other term for it than ‘blight.’”
The 1965 makeover of Third Street had included 138 new trees, 30 assorted types of shrubbery and 12 reflecting pools, all anchored by a $50,000 fountain. Touted as a “pedestrian’s paradise,” the outdoor mall closed to cars also included soft piped-in music, indirect lighting and plenty of public parking. It wasn’t enough.
“After the mall was completed, its success was (measured) in a matter of days,” recalled John Jalili, who was City Manager when the Promenade was launched. “People were all enthused about the landscaping and the new pedestrian mall that had been built. They came to celebrate, but they never went back to shop.”
To succeed, the Promenade had to give people reason to come. Building it alone wasn’t enough.
Coming up with a different take on the modern shopping strip required a fresh approach. This time, the answer wouldn’t be developed in a boardroom and dictated from the top down. It would take brainstorming sessions with all the stakeholders, including community members who attended workshops where they were asked to use toys, parsley and anything else they could find to envision a revitalized public space.
The City would hold almost 100 meetings, soliciting input from planners, designers, property owners and residents.
“What was great about this vision is it was so multi-faceted, not just ‘let’s take out the street and stick in some nice lamp posts and benches in here and call it good,’” said Peggy Curran, the City’s planning director in 1989 and currently the City Manager of Tiburon, Calif.
“We really tried to comprehensively look at how we could take this whole thing up a notch.”
The answer was to give visitors a place where they could go not only to shop, but also to eat and be entertained.
“In the early meetings when we were going through concept development, there were a lot of people who would say, ‘People don’t eat outdoors … and people don’t like to walk in Los Angeles,’” said Boris Dramov, whose firm Roma Design was hired to layout the Promenade. “And we would respond, ‘That’s because you don’t have an environment that makes walking in a setting like this attractive, and if you do, over a period of time, this will become a popular pedestrian destination.”
Everything seemed to be coming together. City officials and property owners worked in tangent to strike a balance between the public interests and market forces. In 1987, after movie chains expressed interest in the beachside city, the City Council passed a law that banned movie theaters from locating anywhere but on the future Promenade. Three multiplexes soon opened their doors.
Street performers – including an animal trainer and a midget Elvis, two tap dancing brothers and at least one legendary bluesman — began flocking to the strip drawn by the promise of making some quick change or being discovered by a promoter strolling with the growing crowds.
Before long, restaurants and retail stores were clamoring for space in what had become, almost overnight, one of the region’s biggest attractions.
By its 10th anniversary, the Promenade was drawing an estimated 4 million visitors a year.
“We created a multi-use Downtown,” York said. “The movie theaters were a draw and the outdoor dining. People didn’t come strictly to shop.”