What Makes Santa Monica’s Downtown a Great Place

October 4, 2017
by Rick Cole

What Makes Santa Monica’s Downtown a Great Place

Urban planners from throughout California gathered in Sacramento last week for the annual conference of the state chapter of the American Planning Association.  Downtown Santa Monica was celebrated as one of three award winners joining their roster of “California Great Places.” The criteria for selection is broad, but one element is essential: it “must a place where people want to be.”

The planners lauded Downtown Santa Monica for its “combination of its natural surroundings, an enviable climate, and purposeful planning that has enhanced those natural assets by fostering a built environment that focuses on what human beings want communal places to offer, which includes activity, social contact, comfort, diversity, and entertainment.” 

They acknowledged the vision of past civic leaders who “recognized more than 50 years ago that lively pedestrian activity was the secret to creating and maintaining a thriving shopping district.”

Finally, the planners noted that our Downtown, “thrives with international visitors year-round, yet still serves as a primary community meeting place for residents of the city” because while it is “open and accessible, yet it provides intimate, comfortable spaces and has an active and bustling pedestrian environment, connecting tranquil beaches and parks.”

I think the planners mostly got it right (I wouldn’t describe our beaches as “tranquil” exactly).  Yet if there’s another element that surprisingly gets taken for granted it is the active role of today’s civic leadership and the stewardship of City government and Downtown Santa Monica Inc. (DTSM).

In our fast-changing world, it’s a mistake to believe if we do nothing that nothing will change.  In fact, as the Red Queen told Alice in Wonderland, “My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.”

In recent years, our primary challenges have been coping with success: more traffic, rising rents and disruption from construction (Expo, California Incline, Colorado Esplanade and new housing and hotels.) It’s easy to underestimate the stress of keeping success going – but the Red Queen was right, you have to run as fast as you can just to stay in place. 

Every day our police and fire, our street maintenance crews, our traffic management and parking staff, our economic development team, our park and recreation staff and all those who back them up are working hard to keep our downtown safe, clean, functional, welcoming and prosperous. The same is true of our partners at DTSM from their tireless and passionate Executive Director Kathleen Rawson to the orange-shirted ambassador trainees who act as all-purpose problem-solvers for the tens of thousands of visitors, workers and residents who throng downtown every day.

Nor can we take for granted the extraordinary achievement of forging a visionary plan for the future preservation and enhancement of such a Great Place. Because downtown fulfills so many functions (historic heart of the city, cultural and community center, iconic destination, residential neighborhood and our primary economic engine, to name a few), Santa Monica citizens care passionately about its future direction. That the Council brought nearly seven years of intense and often divisive debate to a unanimous conclusion this year, forging what has been called a model for other Southern California cities to emulate, is confirmation that maintaining a great place is an ongoing challenge.

Today, our acclaimed Wednesday Farmer’s Market opened bright and early as it has nearly four decades.  Yet it would be barely recognizable to anyone who attended the first one on July 11, 1981.  The profusion of once-exotic vegetables and fruits and artisanal food products dwarfs the modest beginning that aimed to link urban consumers to rural farmers for healthy, affordable food. It helped launch an ongoing revolution in how Americans eat.  But now that Amazon has gone into the organic food business with its purchase of Whole Foods, the City staff who run our City markets must continue to adapt and evolve.

Today, the Third Street Promenade is a magnet for 14 million annual pedestrian visits. Yet that number is down a million from the year before, the first drop in visitor traffic in many years.  Store vacancies on the Promenade have risen to the highest levels in decades — and although they are slowly being filled, the national “retail apocalypse” and regional competition from rivals like the Westfield Century City complex (which just completed a billion dollar make-over) poses an existential threat to the Promenade’s nearly forty years of rising commercial and popular success.

Planners believe great places are not accidents. They are right. Great places don’t stay great without ongoing, passionate devotion. In a changing world, it takes investment of time, money, imagination and hard work to ensure a place is somewhere “people want to be”.  Several generations of Santa Monica’s leaders, builders, workers and activists have forged a Great Place in our downtown. It’s now our generation’s responsibility to leave it better than we found it.

As always, I welcome your feedback.

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