DOWNTOWN — The Santa Monica Pier isn’t the only local icon to celebrate a landmark anniversary recently.
A week after the world-famous pier turned 100, the Third Street Promenade marked its 20th year on Wednesday, celebrating an outdoor pedestrian mall that has inspired similar shopping districts across the country.
“It’s amazing, 20 years later the vibrancy is really the envy of many communities throughout the world.” Kathleen Rawson, the CEO of the Bayside District Corp., said.
Bayside District Corp, a private/public company that manages Downtown, held a birthday press conference on Wednesday morning in which they showcased a cake that illustrated the southern block of the promenade, featuring fixtures — street performers, couples and parents — that surrounded a topiary dinosaur that served as the centerpiece.
“The Third Street Promenade has really become the heart of our Downtown and really a major focus for the people who live here and the visitors to this community,” Mayor Ken Genser said. “Santa Monica would not be what it is without the Third Street Promenade.”
Once a regular street open to vehicular traffic, Third Street between Broadway and Wilshire Boulevard was converted into a pedestrian mall in 1965. But the area fell into hard times by the early 1980s, suffering from customers lost to the then newly constructed Santa Monica Place and a lack of business once nighttime came.
“There was almost nobody there in the daytime and absolutely nobody at night,” Denny Zane, who served as councilmember at the time, said.
When Santa Monicans’ for Renters Rights captured the majority of the City Council seats in 1981, there were several high priorities that came with the newly elected officials, including building more affordable housing, revitalizing the pier, and bringing Downtown back to life, Zane, who helped found the political party, said.
In 1984, Zane and several property owners on Third Street, including Ed Wenner and Ernie Kaplan, collaborated to plan for the resurgence of the commercial district, a place that would serve as an outdoor living room.
Wenner, who died of stomach cancer before the promenade opened, was responsible for convincing property owners to assess themselves in order to help fund the construction. Other key figures included Boris Dramov of Roma Capital Associates, who proved pivotal in the debate over whether cars should be allowed into the new promenade.
Zane said that property owners felt the problem with the lack of business on Third Street was that cars were not allowed access, while residents argued in favor of keeping the pedestrian feel of the mall.
“Boris came up with the strategy that put a street in the middle,” Zane said. “(He said) make it look nice so people feel comfortable walking on it and we’ll keep it narrow and put the bollards on both ends of the block and so if you want to let cars in, you can drop the bollards.”
It turned out that the promenade was so successful that the bollards rarely needed to be removed.
Zane said there were three key decisions that helped the success of the promenade, including incorporating an art program, the featuring of alfresco dining and the addition of movie theaters.
It was Bruria Finkel, the wife of then Councilmember David Finkel, who saw that the promenade did not have an arts program, which caused construction to halt for three months while one was devised, Zane said.
“That is where the topiary dinosaurs came from,” he said. “It became the iconic identity of the promenade internationally and locally.”
Movie theaters were long listed as a permitted use in Downtown but were never focused as a crucial element, mainly because officials did not believe that the movie theater chains would compete with themselves in cinema-rich Westwood.
But in the period of several weeks during the 1980s, City Hall received four proposals for movie theaters, all of which were located in neighborhoods, which residents opposed because of the possible traffic and parking impacts.
Zane said he introduced an ordinance that would prohibit movie theaters anywhere in the city except for on the promenade.
Today the promenade is a major draw for residents and tourists, busy during the weekdays, packed on weekends, attracting not only visitors but street performers looking for exposure and panhandlers.
Some changes have taken place in the past year, including a new assessment district that brings in more than $3 million annually, paying for cleaning and maintenance services and the new ambassadors program. There are also changes in store for the future, including a plan that will address the parking and traffic infrastructure.
“They are helping guide people in Downtown,” Rawson said of the ambassadors. “They are addressing quality of life issues and it has made a very positive impact for the area.”
The outdoor mall still gets good reviews 20 years later.
“I love how busy it is and I love all the stores,” Lina Ahmed, a visitor, said on Tuesday. “I love everything about it.”
John Newton has been coming to the promenade since he was a young child, when it was still called just Third Street.
Calling it “shi-shi,” Newton said he comes to the promenade nearly every day for the food.
“So many of the little shops we used to like are gone,” he said.
The promenade is a bit different from what the founders had envisioned.
“There has been more corporate chain retail that came in than we wanted or expected,” Zane said. “We wanted more local retail.”
The influx of chain stores took place in the early part of the decade when one real estate company came and bought about a dozen properties, Zane said.
He added that the promenade is also busier than he expected, particularly on weekend evenings, but noted that in the afternoon, it’s the “sweetest place in the world to go.”
“I don’t travel that much but I’ve been to a few places that are notable destinations in the world and the promenade on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon can’t be beat,” he said.
Catherine Cain contributed to this report