The Experiment started last fall with some boldly painted Adirondack chairs and lawn games designed to invite shoppers to linger on the northernmost block of the Third Street Promenade.
Last week, The Experiment spread through the rest of the pedestrian-only shopping district, scattering colorful seating, play structures and art installations in front of stores and restaurants. Steven Welliver, deputy chief executive of Downtown Santa Monica, Inc., said the new features will boost public perception of the Promenade and help it compete with other shopping destinations in the Los Angeles area.
“Having amenities in the public space that people can engage with keeps us top of mind when someone is deciding whether to visit the Promenade or other regional shopping destinations,” Welliver said.
The Promenade’s total taxable sales rose 4.2% last year after falling 8.2% between 2015 and 2017 as many stores closed due to competition from online retailers. But the Promenade is still peppered with vacant storefronts, and visitors who were surveyed last December identified other issues, such as homelessness and an overly corporate identity.
DTSM is betting that a $250,000 investment in the second phase of The Experiment will make the Promenade a more enjoyable place to shop and dine. The business improvement district will solicit feedback on The Experiment from visitors to shape Promenade 3.0, a long-term project to reimagine the shopping district.
Different elements have been installed on the Promenade’s three blocks to give each a distinct identity, Welliver said.
“The Promenade is very uniform,” he said. “In the long term design plan, we have to decide the pieces that unify all three parts of the Promenade and let the public know it’s a distinct place, and the elements of each block that give you a reason to visit all three.”
Welliver said visitors typically arrive at the 1400 block of the Promenade as they leave the Expo Line, freeway or Santa Monica Place. The survey conducted by research firm Gehl last December found the 1400 block attracts the most people, but they move on quickly.
On that southernmost block, a rainbow of Adirondack chairs lining both sides of the street and bistro tables positioned in the middle invite shoppers to stop and sit down without creating a bottleneck.
“We tried to leave that block a little more open, because people flow into the space and orient themselves,” Welliver said.
The middle block of the Promenade, where there are more restaurants and cafes, sports several long picnic tables interspersed with planters. Welliver said he could barely keep customers at nearby restaurants from taking their food out to the tables as they were being installed last Friday.
Also on the 1300 block, a play structure made out of multicolored wedges and wooden blocks that used to line the Colorado Esplanade sits between two of the Promenade’s iconic dinosaur sculptures. Above the structure, a beach ball-inspired art installation casts circular blue and green shadows.
Welliver said the play structure is meant to give families with children a place to play that feels contained from the three busy streets that separate the blocks of the Promenade.
“We have this idea of dividing the Promenade into rooms — creating spaces that are a little more intimate and feel more like a space to gather,” he said.
The Experiment has not been left unchanged on the 1200 block, where the Gehl survey recorded the lowest number of visitors and the most vacancies.
DTSM has added a small stage with daily programming scheduled until Sept. 30, which will include free salsa and fitness classes, trivia, improv, live music and family events. Bar seating, rocking chairs and rows of planters surround the stage and an overhead black-and-white art installation inspired by beach towels provides shade.
“If the entertainment is here at the north end of the Promenade, if it’s a featured element, it can act as a beacon to draw people a little farther north,” Welliver said.
DTSM will study the impacts The Experiment has made on foot traffic and other metrics after Gehl conducts a second survey this fall.