The Story of Third Street Promenade: Part 1

Vintage DTSM

In the beginning there was no Promenade. 25 Years later, the Promenade is not only thriving but has established itself as a must-see destination. The following series follows the history of Third Street Promenade and how it came to be.

 

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On September 16, 1989, Santa Monica civic leaders stood before a cheering crowd Downtown and cut the ribbon on a three-block stretch they had christened the Third Street Promenade.

What may have gone unnoticed on that clear Southern California day was that the traffic barriers that protected the pedestrian-only strip had been made removable so cars could cruise the street at night.

Despite the enthusiasm, City officials had reason to hedge their bets. The experiment had been tried nearly 25 years earlier, and the result was clear — a bedraggled row of struggling shops and vacant storefronts that the $13.3 million makeover was meant to reverse.

The barriers never came down.

Over the next quarter century, the Promenade would become both the living room for residents of the beachside city and a destination for tourists from around the world. A successful cross between an old-fashioned central plaza and a modern commercial strip, it has become a model other cities have tried to emulate with only limited success.

“When you come to America, to the West Coast, Santa Monica is a must-see location not just for recreation but to conduct business and gather, and that was all stimulated by the lure of the Promenade,” said Jeff Mathieu, the former Santa Monica City official tasked with the revitalization of Third Street.

“It redefined what the must-be place to go on the West Coast would be,” said Mathieu, now the City Manager of Big Bear Lake. “It created an international and domestic destination for business and tourists.”

Today 14.6 million people — 40,000 per day — visit the Promenade and neighboring streets.

“Santa Monica was always an important destination because of its location — you have the beach and the Pier,” said Rob York, a longtime consultant to Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. (DTSM), the private non-profit that manages and promotes Downtown on behalf of the City. “But it was the Promenade that really put it on the map.

“The Promenade had a substantial impact overall on the City,” he said. “It has allowed Santa Monica to have amenities a city of 90,000 could never have. Regionally, nationally and internationally, there is now an awareness of Santa Monica.”

“When the Promenade happened,” said DTSM, Inc. CEO Kathleen Rawson, “Santa Monica became more than just a beach town. The Promenade transformed Santa Monica from a day trip to a destination. Suddenly, there was a there there.”

The Promenade might well have been called “The Santa Monica Town Center” or “La Plaza del Corazon de Santa Monica.” Those were two of the names bandied about when civic and community leaders gathered in the late 1980s to hatch a plan to revitalize the dying strip.

The tag “Promenade” — as well as the strip that would bear its name — came about through planning, instinct and chance, the three ingredients that would combine to make it an unprecedented success.

“There was no formula, there was no model, no benchmark to measure this against,” former Mayor Denny Zane said in an interview on the Promenade’s 20th anniversary. “In some fashion, we stumbled into success. We had to improvise.”

 

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