City Manager Rick Cole wants to see Downtown Santa Monica evolve towards a cultural and arts destination, while preserving the economic foundation that has driven development of the area.
Cole spoke at Downtown Santa Monica Inc.’s annual report breakfast and the speech expanded on his previous comments regarding DTSM and provided the first glimpse of his vision for the future.
Cole spent about half of his 22-minute speech lauding the history of the Promenade and surrounding area. He started by saying Downtown is a counterpoint to the idea that no one walks in Los Angeles.
“We proved that people will drive a long, long way to get out of their cars and walk on the Third Street Promenade and so when I look out at this room and this setting and I feel the energy in this room, that has been created over the last 30 years I share your pride I think that what has been accomplished is a remarkable example of a successful and resilient public private partnership.”
He said the public/private partnership is responsible for the maintenance programs that keep Downtown a clean, attractive and safe place for pedestrians including many Santa Monica residents.
“Our joint work with other community partners like the chamber of commerce and Santa Monica travel and tourism … have built an international brand for Downtown Santa Monica,” he said. “And WinterLit and ICE in Santa Monica are both events that emphasize the continuing local pride that people feel in their city center and continues to draw residents even as we hear the complaint that no-one local goes there anymore because its too crowded. And because of these three decades of public private partnership, our Downtown has become an iconic destination, in the same way that our pier is, in the same way that our beach is, it’s a remarkable triple threat.”
Cole described Downtown as a business center, a retail center, a dining center, an entertainment center and a civic center.
“Downtown Santa Monica has emerged as a genuine economic powerhouse on the Westside,” he said. “With less than 5 percent of our city 8.3 square miles, Downtown alone generates more than a third of our total citywide sales tax revenues. And it’s become a magnet for local residents, for Westside nearby residents, for business travelers and for national and international tourists.
And the makeover of Santa Monica place has proven to be a smart bet and the projects underway now and in the pipeline to expand and improve our theaters mean that we’re going to see more people coming, they’re going to stay longer and they’re going to spend more money. And the last decade has also seen a remarkable and intentional growth in residential development here in downtown Santa Monica.”
He said the city is continuing to invest in the area including upgrades in anticipation of Expo and expansion of the Downtown model to Lincoln Boulevard.
“And of course the completion of the Expo line is a game changer,” he said. “It is the biggest thing to happen in Santa Monica since 1965 and the completion of the Santa Monica freeway. It will not only connect us up with the emerging regional transit system that the county has invested in, this line alone is a billion and a half dollar investment, but much more importantly it will begin to change the way we think about how we get around.”
Cole said the connections provided by Expo are key to managing future traffic.
“We’re rerouting our Big Blue Bus to make it possible that the first mile and the last mile, which has just kept people from using transit, that it will be easier, safer, more convenient and more affordable to choose alternatives to the single occupancy vehicle. So in the long run, that really is the solution to our traffic challenges,” he said.
After clearly establishing the current version of Downtown as a success, Cole turned to his vision of a future Downtown.
He described one option as more of the same, essentially continued growth using the same model that has worked so far. “Despite the strong economic market for that scenario, there is a clear risk in pursuing that course,” he said. “For more and more residents of Santa Monica, that sounds like more and more visitors and that translates to them to more and more traffic and the one thing they are not clamoring for, is more and more traffic.”
He praised the efforts leading up to this point and then said there was a compromise position that could continue growth while satisfying critics.
“Downtown Santa Monica today owes its existence to the courageous and bold leadership of civic and elected leaders and for the ongoing and incredibly important economic investment of developers of investors of merchants and property owners,” he said. “They have invested over the last 30 years in a growing Downtown. So obviously we can’t stop all new development and expect that downtown will continue to be enhanced and to prosper and to sustain its long-term attractiveness as a place to visit as a place to work as a place to work and a place to enjoy a vibrant civic life.
But I think there is an alternative to the artificial and binary choices of either freezing the status quo or simply pursuing more of the same. For want of a better term let me suggest a strategy we might describe as strengthening Downtown Santa Monica as the civic and cultural heart of Santa Monica.
We might call this fostering a hometown-downtown, we might call this emphasizing the intown-downtown over the out-of-town downtown, we might call this a better downtown rather than just a bigger downtown.”
Cole said the foundation of his new downtown was already in place.
“And above all lets not forget the thousands of people who’ve chosen Downtown Santa Monica as a place to live. For those people, Downtown Santa Monica is already home, so what if we focused on expanding the range and attractiveness of these local serving institutions and places. And events and culture and art and services to continue to draw the people who live within easy walking distance, or easy biking distance or easy driving distance or easy Lyft, Uber, Big Blue Bus. What if we focused on retaining their interest in a wider and deeper range of cultural offerings and amenities designed for the people of this community to ensure they continue to enjoy their Downtown, the Downtown that they have been investing in for more than 30 years?”
He said such a strategy would debunk the myth that locals don’t visit Downtown and would reinforce the existing pride in the city. He also made an economic argument for a cultural revitalization.
“Think about the places that you remember fondly visiting, I think you and discerning visitors from all over this country and all over this world, actually prefer places that retain a sense of place, that boast a unique identity, that retain their local flavor, that nurture their authenticity, that emphasize their cultural and artistic richness,” he said.
According to Cole, it is the selective promotion of new strategies that will keep Downtown ascendant and the focus on unique, Santa Monica specific features that will provide repeat visitors.
“You come to Downtown Santa Monica because there are libraries and museums and concerts and art shows and galleries, you come to Downtown Santa Monica because it’s a real place. It’s a place that people love, it’s a sense of history, a sense that this is a ‘there’ there.
“Lets work together to retain the support of all the residents for their vibrant downtown. Lets not count on the residents of this city to have the same enthusiasm that they’ve had over the last 30 years for more of the same, lets strengthen, genuine public private partnerships and lets refine our direction and lets quit stalling and adopt a meaningful specific plan that has teeth in it, so that we don’t rely on the roulette wheel of development agreements to decide what we want for our Downtown. Lets carefully balance our formula for success and ensure that success is sustained for decades to come.”