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Aerial view of a wide, tree-lined street where lots of people are walking. Shutterstock

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How Santa Monica’s pedestrian mall became too successful for its own good

At the height of car culture, Santa Monica made a radical decision

In the 1950s, with urban sprawl, the creation of the indoor shopping mall, and the rise of the mega-department store, downtowns across the country began to lose patrons. As downtowns were drained of high-traffic commerce, they became a mishmash of lower-tier shopping experiences, like thrift stores and convenience markets. Santa Monica was no exception.

Since the Victorian era, Third Street in downtown Santa Monica had been a bustling, vibrant commercial center of brick office buildings, entertainment venues, and civic organizations. But the Third Street of the postwar era, according to architecture critic Aaron Betsky, was “in many ways reminiscent of the somewhat seedy Santa Monica celebrated by Raymond Chandler, a stagnant downtown sitting next to the homes of movie stars and lawyers.”

Local business leaders knew something had to be done. “Our city’s retail area seems to be standing still while major new developments are being planned in Century City, West Los Angeles, Culver City, and the San Fernando Valley. No planning seems to be taking place here,” Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce president Ernest Gulsrud told the Los Angeles Times.

So how did this outdated street, which seemed fated to go the way of many a downtown ghost town, become one of the most popular walking streets in Southern California? The story of the evolution of the Third Street Promenade is one of innovation, persistence, and, above all, adaptability in the face of social and civic changes. It is a success story almost 150 years in the making.

Vintage photo of a downtown street where people are walking in front of small shops.
In 1963, at the recommendation of Victor Gruen, Santa Monica decided to close Third Street to cars.

In 1959, according to Sara Crown of the Santa Monica History Museum, city leaders began to look into a way to a to compete with new Southern California shopping centers like the Lakewood Center in Long Beach and Crenshaw Plaza in Baldwin Hills. That same year, Kalamazoo, Michigan, became the first of around 200 cities in the United States to close its downtown shopping streets to cars, making them pedestrian-only destinations, radically rejecting the car culture that had come to define America.

“For a period of time, civic leaders were just desperate. They would latch on to anything to get people to come downtown,” says Adrian Scott Fine of the LA Conservancy. “These kinds of things were just one of many that communities attempted to try to get people to come to downtown, when everyone didn’t think they were relevant anymore.”

In 1960, Victor Gruen, who designed the first open-air shopping center in the suburbs of Detroit in 1954, was commissioned by the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce to study their central business district. His recommendation—to convert Third Street into a pedestrian mall and add parking facilities—was adopted by the city of Santa Monica in 1963. According to KCET’s Nathan Masters:

Their plan was controversial. Although 65 percent of merchants along the proposed mall supported it, property owners were initially cool to the idea, and Ralphs, which operated a supermarket at Third and Wilshire, challenged the plan’s constitutionality in court. But the city council pledged its support, and by 1965 the plan had overcome all its legal and political obstacles.

Charles Luckman and Associates, architect of the 1964 Federal Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair, was hired for the project (future designs would include the Forum, Inglewood Civic Center, and the Wilshire Federal Building). The firm designed a three-block open-air pedestrian mall landscaped with trees, planters, and decorative fountains. The new open-air Santa Monica Mall (also called the Third Street Mall) opened on November 8, 1965, just in time for the holiday rush.

According to the LA Times, the mall was a “modest initial success.” Public parking garages were soon added to Second and Fourth streets to aid in access, but this resulted in the forced closure of many local businesses.

In 1981, to compete with the rise of air-conditioned indoor malls, the indoor three-level Frank Gehry-designed Santa Monica Place opened at the southern end of Third Street. It was hoped that the new mall would bring life back to the pedestrian portion, but it had the opposite effect. “Unfortunately, it was such a draw that it pulled shoppers away to the detriment of stores on Third Street,” Crown says.

Vintage photo of people shopping on a downtown street. The signs on the front of the businesses read “Beach Drugs,” “The Jerry Brills,” and “Singer.”
The promenade, then known as the Third Street Mall, was only a “modest” success at first.

The Santa Monica Mall may have been a failure, but it was not alone. Throughout the late ’70s and early ’80s, pedestrian-only downtowns across America were becoming commerce dead zones. In 1987, the Los Angeles Times called the Third Street Mall “both Santa Monica’s heart and one of its eyesores,” a place where merchants joked that homeless residents outnumbered shoppers.

“The early results of that were positive for businesses, but generally over time most of those pedestrian malls in downtown environments proved to be less than successful,” says Alan Loomis, who until recently served as the city of Santa Monica’s urban designer. “By the ’80s we start to see a lot of cities tear out their pedestrian malls, and restore the street back to a conventional street with cars and sidewalks and on-street parking. The logic for that decision is that it’s hard to know that you have a business if nobody drives past you.”

Although nearby cities including Burbank and Pomona reopened their downtowns, the city of Santa Monica was wary of letting go of the no-car concept. In 1983, the city created the Third Street Development Corp. and began to study different ways to revitalize the mall.

“They ended up doubling down on kind of the pedestrian-only experience,” Loomis says. “When you talk to people who were involved in that decision-making process in the mid-’80s, they were actually really trying to create first and foremost a kind of town square, a kind of place that the community could gather.”

In 1987, the city approved a $10 million renovation of Third Street, to be designed by the San Francisco-based ROMA Design Group, known as experts in revitalizing urban districts. Planners carefully studied what had gone wrong with the original design and sought to correct these problems. “They did time-lapse photography of the original ’65 mall and realized that without there being any clues as to how people should walk, they walk like they did in a park… kind of like lost sheep in the meadow,” Loomis says. “They just kind of wandered all over the place.”

Aerial view of a downtown at sunset, with tall and mid-size buildings lining a wide boulevard open only to pedestrians. Hills are present in the background.
In the late 1980s, curbed sidewalks were installed to lead customers into stores and restaurants.
Getty Images

To correct this, the plaza was redesigned with a narrow 20-foot-wide road and large 30-foot curbed sidewalks. Initial plans called for limited two-way car traffic in the late afternoon and evenings. But the curbed sidewalks also were installed to lead potential customers into stores and restaurants.

“They built the street with curbs to give the street a sense of scale, because we all instinctively behave when we see a curb—we walk on the sidewalk, right?” Loomis says. “Having curbs really gives pedestrians a cue to how they should behave—and if you go to like the Grove or the Americana it’s a similar kind of arrangement.”

Construction began in 1988. On September 19, 1989, the newly christened Third Street Promenade was open to the public. City boosters were thrilled with the result. “I think the design of the public space is lovely,” said Santa Monica Mayor Dennis Zane. “It was on a slow death march, and we have saved it.”

According to Loomis, this smart new design was backed up by clever public policy. “The city of Santa Monica basically made it illegal to allow movie theaters to go anywhere but the downtown, specifically on Third Street, so the idea was that when you went out for a movie you would come to the downtown. That would be the only place you would go to see a movie,” Loomis says.

The city also invested millions of dollars in the area surrounding the new promenade. In 1990, 3,000 parking spaces were added. Retail space was put in the ground floors of the Second and Fourth street garages, and mixed-use housing was built throughout the downtown area, bringing it back to life.

“They brought back street vendors, outdoor dining. So, with a venue a couple of blocks from the beach, in a high tourist destination, they really had all the markings for success to occur here, and fortunately they’ve been able to sustain that long-term,” says Scott Fine. “They kind of had a leg up just based on where they were, and who they were.”

The Third Street Promenade soon became a must-visit sea-breeze-tinged strolling destination for locals and tourists. “It has exceeded our wildest dreams in terms of generating a new social center for the city,” Santa Monica mayor pro tem David Finkel said in 1989. “It’s just amazing to see and feel the electricity of the people.”

The promenade may have been a hit with the public and city officials, but some critics, including Betsky in the Los Angeles Times, decried it as “just another Disneyland facsimile”:

The actual design of the new components of the mall ranges from serviceable to atrocious. The copper-roofed pavilions that provide focal points at the center of the mall are confused little structures trying to be 19th-Century market stalls. The lighting fixtures are anonymous, green-painted poles from which pots of plants hang precariously. The street benches look inviting while being designed to discourage the homeless from using them as resting places. Ivy-covered dinosaurs spouting water stand in for public sculpture. The cineplexes and office buildings loom over their smaller neighbors, their bulk decorated with a ridiculous collection of arches, columns and parapets.

The 1990s were the golden age for the Third Street Promenade. Loomis remembers this as an era when the mall boasted five bookstores—two national chains and three independents—as well as one-off shops, three movie theaters, and restaurants. The promenade’s success, however, would be its Achilles heel.

“They did not anticipate, and did not plan for the promenade to become the kind of economic juggernaut that it became by the late ’90s,” Loomis says. “What happened by the late ’90s, early 2000s is that the promenade became so successful that the real estate prices just went skyrocketing, and at that point only national retailers could afford the rent that property owners were expecting. So, you end up losing a lot of the kind of local shops that gave the street a kind of local flavor.”

The 2000s saw the rise of the national chain store on the promenade. “I think if you talk to a lot of people … their criticism of the promenade would be: ‘It doesn’t say anything about Santa Monica. There’s no reason for me to shop there because the retailers are all national retailers, the local flavor is gone,’” Loomis says.

The other problem facing the promenade in the last few years has been the same thing affecting all malls across the country, be they indoor or outdoor. With the rise of the internet and the iPhone, companies such as Amazon, Netflix, and Postmates have made them virtually obsolete.

Proactive once again, the city of Santa Monica, along with the nonprofit organization Downtown Santa Monica Inc., was planning for a top-to-bottom, multimillion-dollar redesign when the pandemic hit. Called “Promenade 3.0,” and designed by the Rios Clementi Hale Studios, it was hoped the new plan would reassert the promenade as the cultural heart of Santa Monica once again. In the plan, the street curbs are removed so that the promenade can be used as programmable space for in-person experiences like food festivals, book fairs, and farmers markets.

The pandemic has put these plans on hold for at least a few years. But this doesn’t mean the promenade is down for the count. According to Loomis, new conversations about a “European-style beer garden” and safe waiting areas in front of popular stores are taking place.

From a Wild West dirt road to a slick corporate tourist trap, the Third Street Promenade has faced many challenges. Despite shifting trends and the march of time, it remains a unique, ingenious public space, and serves as a lesson to us all: Embracing change can be a good thing.

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