By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. May 16, 2016

With the return of passenger rail to Santa Monica this week after 63 years, there is much reason to celebrate, but also deep reason to lament. Because while the new Expo Light Rail line will likely be great, we failed to make a key, synergistic land use choice nearby.

In the early-to-mid-2000s Santa Monica had a once-in-a-100-year opportunity to better connect the Pier, Promenade, Civic Center and Expo Light Rail station – by tearing down and remodeling Santa Monica Place, putting all of the parking underground, and extending the Third Street Promenade through the entire block. Yet out of fear of bad development, we failed to realize a historic opportunity for good.

Re-envisioning the Santa Monica Place super-block

In 1999, the Macerich Corporation acquired Santa Monica Place. At that time Santa Monica Place was an indoor mall and business was depressed, while on the adjacent, open-air Third Street Promenade, business was thriving.

In response, Macerich and the City of Santa Monica began exploratory talks to open up Santa Monica Place to the sky and open air; and to better coordinate on parking. As Mayor during that time, I also met with Macerich officials to brainstorm.  All this led to a June 2002 special joint meeting and study session between the City Council, the Promenade Uses Task Force and the Civic Center Working Group, to discuss “Santa Monica Place Master Planning Concepts.”

The circulation pattern discussed that day was in the shape of a peace sign. On the north/south axis, the Third Street Promenade would extend one block southward from Broadway to Colorado, and be open to the air. Then there would be two 45-degree tangents from the Promenade to the corners at 4th/Colorado and 2nd/Colorado, allowing for a pedestrian flow from the Expo Station to the Promenade (from 4th/Colorado); and from the Pier to the Promenade (through 2nd/Colorado).

To enable this, the parking structures at 4th/Broadway and 2nd/Colorado would be demolished and the parking put underground. This allowed for more flexibility to design new passageways though the super-block, and it gained incredibly valuable ground-level retail space – a form of economic development without requiring excessive new heights, all by taking better advantage of the pedestrian flow already there.

“The mall is a major impediment, sitting in the middle, blocking full circulation among all of those destinations,” the LA Times quoted me at the time. “If we can remove the blood clot, then the arteries of the city can flow free.”

At that June 2002 meeting, there was also discussion of adding two floors of up to 450 units of housing, in a mix of market rate and affordable units. Located just kitty-corner from the Expo station, the units could be built with far less parking -decreasing their cost and increasing their affordability, while attracting people who primarily want to walk and use public transit.

Based upon feedback that evening, Macerich continued to develop this concept. Then during the fall of 2004, they presented their updated vision to councilmembers in a series of one-on-one meetings, as well as to the Bayside District Corporation board of directors.

Rewarding creativity

At my one-on-one meeting, I remember being astonished at the boldness and brashness of what Macerich had come up. While I personally felt what they proposed was too high, and at heights many in the community would find extreme, it was clear to me that Macerich wanted to think outside the box. Rather than saying “no” to their open-mindedness and creativity, I thought they should be engaged. Therefore my mind immediately went to a series of alternative scenarios that could fund the capital costs necessary to underground the parking and create the connective passageways, without the need for high-end high-rises.

First was the extension of the Promenade. Today there is a north/south, partly-open-to-the-air passageway through Santa Monica Place that continues south from the Promenade at Broadway. That passageway is a legally private space on private land, operated in a semi-public manner (like in other shopping malls in the U.S.) Therefore many laws governing freedom of speech, movement and expression don’t apply there. As part of the agreement with Macerich, the City could have paid City Redevelopment Agency (RDA) funds for the value of the land in order to both extend the Promenade, and to convert the land into public ownership, ensuring all of the rights that go with public spaces.

Second, it was already on the table to dedicate RDA funds to help underground the parking, the question was simply how much. Similarly, instead of excessive heights at Santa Monica Place, the project could have also included developing the nearby publicly owned land south of the Expo Station (and north of the I-10 freeway) – something that we are finally now talking about as part of the Gateway Area Master Planning process.

I looked forward to exploring these scenarios with City Staff, should I be re-elected in the November 2004 elections. However I was not re-elected, and hence not on the Council when the project came back in January 2005.

At that meeting Macerich proposed three 21-story luxury housing towers, each 300 feet high – far exceeding what most Santa Monicans would support. This generated significant community backlash, to which the Council responded by de facto “taking the 21 stories off the table” and asking for a lower, more pedestrian-scaled project.

While initially enthusiastic about continuing, eventually the strum und drang of the contentious community process led Macerich to decide not to pursue extending the Promenade nor putting the parking underground. Instead they chose to undertake an adaptive reuse of their existing structure, that did not require any major discretionary approvals.

The result was while their remodel opened up the mall to the sky and made other positive improvements, the major connectivity between the Pier, Promenade, Expo Station and the Civic Center was lost, including opening 4th/Colorado to the thousands of people getting off of Expo, as well as extending the Promenade to Colorado Ave. and the Esplanade. Those are the kind of urban connections the world’s great cities have – connections we unilaterally threw away because we were scared of our own shadow over fear of bad development.

Fear or success

When during the June 2002 City Council study session, we explored adding two floors of housing, the big debate was whether it would be OK to go above Santa Monica Place’s then existing 56 feet, to the 84 feet maximum allowed in the City’s zoning code. Just two years ago, the Council approved the addition of the Arc Light Theaters on the top of Santa Monica Place at that same height, and there was barely any community debate. Furthermore the City Council has indicated that the only place that any new buildings up to the 84 foot limit in downtown is near the Expo station – like Santa Monica Place.

One of the sad ironies of the failure to truly transform Santa Monica Place, is that there was a great project to be had within existing City height limits. However we failed to achieve it, because we got so caught up in opposing what we didn’t like, that we couldn’t see our way through to what we did.

We clearly need to prevent bad development in our community. But that’s not an end in itself. If we allow fear to consume us, we’ll be driven by failure and not success.

Three part series on Santa Monica and the Expo Light Rail Line

Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004) .  He can be reached via Twitter @mikefeinstein

Inside/Outside‘ is a periodic column about civic affairs Feinstein writes for the Daily Press, that takes advantage of his experience inside and outside of government.