Council recently passed a temporary ban on new fast food chains Downtown. DTSM, and by extension the City Council, wanted to keep the Crowns and Clowns of fast food off the Promenade. The intent is very specific and entirely valid but it doesn’t address the larger problems of the Promenade’s future.
Traditional fast food as exemplified by the likes of McDonald’s, Burger King, Jack in the Box, Carl’s Jr. and Taco Bell were banned from the Promenade for almost 20 years. The old rule wasn’t carried through to the recent Downtown Community Plan because it needed clarification due to the proliferation of new fast-casual dining models. These newer eateries, think Chipotle or Tender Greens, have their own set of Pros and Cons requiring more specific thought.
The lapse in the ban opened the door for the big burger crowd to start aggressively scouting the Promenade as a possible location and while those huge chains appeal to landlords looking to maximize their individual rents, they’re not good for the street as a whole. Santa Monica has had problems with bad behavior at existing fast food locations (so much so that the McDonald’s on Colorado was recently ordered to shutter overnight by a court) and there’s an entire ecosystem that accompanies them with some businesses refusing to be on the same block and by default, others filling the space.
The Promenade should be more than a bad mall food court which makes the fast food ban appropriate but that begs a larger question, what exactly should the Promenade be? To put it in the language frequently used by officials, what is Uniquely Santa Monica?
Is it Beverly Hills by the Beach with luxury retail and $30 cheeseburgers? Is it an Epcot center of retail with national brands opening money-losing stores as an advertising exercise? Is it an outdoor mall repackaging Everytown U.S.A. with some glossy street furniture outside the same shoe store available everywhere else?
Right now, it’s a little bit of all those and kind of not doing any of them really well. What’s needed is a guiding vision that lets retailers know who can succeed here and gives customers a sense of what to expect.
We think that founding principle should be creativity. This is a city defined by the creative industries and the concentration of artists, performers, designers, writers, directors and other professionals who work in the creative sector is more than six times the national average. By some measures, half of Santa Monica adults make some of their living in an arts-related field.
Creativity should be what guides the evolution of the City’s most prominent streets and that includes the tech sector, local artists and food.
The Amazon store in the Marina should have come here near Apple as a reflection of the new products coming out of the tech industry. They should be flanked by a bitcoin ATM, a Snapchat vending machine and a VR showroom. Utilize the street itself to provide booths for local artists who can create a rotating art walk every weekend. Create a process for incentivizing popup retail that allows exploration of new concepts, limited product runs or food concepts from interesting chefs. The inspiration for retail next to the Farmers Market should be The San Francisco Ferry Building, Pike’s Place Market, Eataly or Grand Central Market.
There’s a lot to think about in the street’s future and we’ll get there in future editorials but for now, closing a loophole to keep the biggest fast food chains off the street is a good place to start.