People shop on the Third Street Promenade. (File photo)

City Manager Rick Cole thinks the future success of the Third Street Promenade will come from a recommitment to the founding concept of the downtown: pedestrian access in a culture dominated by cars.

Cole spoke at the annual Downtown Santa Monica Inc. meeting this week and outlined his vision for Downtown that improves the pedestrian experience on the existing streets while contemplating an expanded pedestrian zone.

He said the economic future of the Downtown zone will be improved if the focus is moved away from making money and onto creating a pleasurable experience.

“Here is the paradox we have to remember: The best way to make money is not to appeal to the lowest common denominator,” he said. “The best way to make money is not to invest in the flavor of the month. The best way to make money is not to set out to make money.  The best way to make a billion dollars’ worth of sales is to create a fantastic place, a place that people want to come to. A place that people feel is cared for, a place that people feel is local and unique. Lots of people want to make money, very few people want to make great places, and the people who make great places, ironically, make the most money.”

Cole said the traditional shopping mall experience of a place that exists purely as a sales experience has failed and that successful economies are incorporating sales into other kinds of experiences. He cited the Santa Monica Farmers Market as an example of a placemaking success that provides economic opportunities for businesses but he acknowledged there are immediate problems that endanger the Downtown including crime, homelessness and soaring rents.

He said the city has a team of individuals working to provide safety and security downtown.

“Crime is up in downtown, our new chief, Cynthia Renaud, is a crime fighter, committed to leading an extraordinary team that you all see out there every day,” he said.

Cole said it was unconscionable to allow 56,000 people to sleep outside in the county but while police are necessary to address crime, they are not the only solution to homelessness.

“We also have to realize that there’s a compassionate part of our heart that is unique to Santa Monica,” he said. “Our approach to homelessness is not to police our way out of it, not to arrest our way out of it. Our way is to put people in housing, to connect them to services, to get them the help they need.”

Cole said the solution to the growing number of vacancies on the Promenade requires landlords to understand the reality of high rents.

“So, we’ve gotta deal with vacancies, and frankly I think this will be the most unpopular thing I’ll say here today, but I think landlords need to be realistic about ground floor rents,” he said. “If we’re not gonna have a bunch of vacancies and butcher paper on our ground floor on the Third Street Promenade, people have either gotta put in pop-up retail or suck it up and get people who are going to add to the street’s vitality. Holding out for a jackpot is going to kill us. We’ve gotta fill those vacancies, because people don’t come to places with lots of “for lease” signs. I think the property owners have to be realistic about this.”

While Cole acknowledged the current challenges, he said the city should consider expanding the concept of the Promenade.

“We have this extraordinary street called Ocean Avenue, I mean it’s just an amazing street with Palisades Park, and it’s by definition three blocks from the 3rd Street Promenade, although sometimes it feels like it’s a world away,” he said. “So we have to connect 3rd Street and Ocean, and we do that every Wednesday and Saturday when we close Arizona. We need to think about closing Arizona just like the people were willing to make the decision to close Third Street so many years ago.”

Cole said a square of pedestrian friendly streets including the Promenade, Colorado Esplanade, Ocean/Palisades Park and Arizona would create a signature outdoor experience.

“We’ve gotta put all these pieces together so when you get to downtown, you’re not coming to our Third Street Promenade, you’re not coming to our pier, you’re not coming to Ocean Avenue, you’re not coming to Palisades Park, you’re coming to a place where all of those work together, seamlessly,” he said.

He said future development in the area needed to recognize that cars are not the focus of a successful city.

“6,000 years of human civilization have taught us that people like people, they like doors, they like windows, they like things built to human scale,” he said. “For the previous 50 years before the Third Street Promenade, America decided to build its cities around cars, not people, it was a fundamental blunder, it had huge social, environment, and economic catastrophic costs on how we live. We’ve decided that there’s a better way to live.”

Matthew Hall has a Masters Degree in International Journalism from City University in London and has been Editor-in-Chief of SMDP since 2014. Prior to working at SMDP he managed a chain of weekly papers...