NO STRANGER: People attend the Go Green Auto Show on the Third Street Promenade in 2008. City officials are considering changing the zoning code to allow for alternative auto showrooms on the promenade.

(photo by Brandon Wise)

DOWNTOWN — The Third Street Promenade, a central piece of the Downtown business district largely populated by clothing stores and restaurants, may see a new kind of tenant — alternative car dealerships.

 The idea was brought before the City Council Tuesday by members Terry O’Day and Bob Holbrook on behalf of Toyota of Santa Monica.

O’Day and Holbrook argued that the northern end of the Downtown Santa Monica district, particularly the 1200 block of the promenade, has the space and foot traffic to carry off auto sales as long as the rules around the dealerships were well-crafted.

“We’re looking to create something narrow, specific and within the long-standing interests of the city,” O’Day said.

The proposed showrooms would only feature environmentally-friendly vehicles, and wouldn’t allow disruptive activities like maintenance facilities or handling of the product on-site.

What, exactly, environmentally-friendly means — whether it include all-electric vehicles or the now ubiquitous gas-electric hybrids popularized by Toyota — is still up for debate.

Holbrook, one of the backers of the measure, told fellow council members in a special Tuesday meeting that he thought that putting a showroom on a pedestrian mall was one of those things that just wasn’t done, at least until he re-watched the 1980 classic “The Blues Brothers,” starring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi.

In the film, a speeding car chase takes the cool-cat brothers careening through a shopping mall, in which they pass a car showroom.

“We should continue to look at creative ways to further our sustainability goals and improve local economy,” said Councilman Kevin McKeown, sagaciously.

But the opportunity could not be missed.

“I’m astonished to hear that this was inspired by viewing of the ‘Blues Brothers,’” he said, “and for the remainder of the evening I will refer to Bob and Terry as [Jake] and Elwood.”

“We’re on a mission from God,” O’Day said, quoting the movie’s most famous line.

While the divinity of the inspiration might be in question, the idea of highlighting Santa Monica’s commitment to eco-friendly product alternatives while at the same time including a different element of commerce onto the promenade held appeal for several city groups.

“I think we’re very positive about it,” said William Tucker, chair of Downtown Santa Monica, Inc., the public-private corporation that partners with City Hall to run the Downtown business district. “It would have to be for the right cars. We don’t want to have standard cars. We want it to be innovative, environmentally-friendly cars that are good for the environment.”

Board members, who voted to recommend the item to council in July, are not looking to allow the promenade to become the newest Los Angeles auto mall, he said.

With that in mind, the board put several qualifications on any changes to the zoning code to permit auto sales there, on top of the restriction to “environmentally-friendly” cars.

The board supported a maximum of 3,500 square foot showrooms, with a defined limit on the number of cars that could be on display at any given time. The showrooms would be limited to 25 feet of frontage, and no maintenance could take place on site.

While the board, Planning Commission and ultimately the City Council will have to weigh in on other factors — like rules around getting cars to the showrooms without disrupting neighborhoods — most seem optimistic that they could craft a workable solution.

The addition of showrooms would at least add diversity to the current mix of retail on the promenade, said board member Todd Flora.

“I think it’s an interesting concept that would add a little ‘pop!’” he said.

It’s hard to say, exactly, where car dealerships fall on the issue, as most did not return calls for comment.

Tesla Motors, a company that specializes in all-electric luxury and sports cars, would only say that they were looking at sites for showrooms throughout the country, and Santa Monica wasn’t necessarily one of them.

Ron Davis, of Santa Monica Ford and the chairman of the Santa Monica chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, was a bit more enthusiastic.

Ford carries three hybrid cars — the Focus, Lincoln MKZ sedan and an SUV called the Escape — and will be rolling out an electric version of the Focus this year. The dealership also carries an electric commercial vehicle for zipping around town on errands.

“I think that’s a wonderful thing, I hope they do it,” Davis said. “Obviously, it would help car dealers promote themselves, and these alternative fuel vehicles.”

The City Council will now send the proposal on to the Planning Commission.

 

ashley@www.smdp.com

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