The sneaker store Skechers installed a row of undulating neon purple triangles above its glass storefront when it moved into a 1949 Streamline Moderne building on the Third Street Promenade last year.
Santa Monica’s Architectural Review Board approved the addition to the building that housed the five-and-dime store Woolworth for more than 50 years. But while the historic features of 1322 Third Street Promenade were preserved under the removable addition, board members felt it was a shame to cover them up in the first place.
The board echoed that sentiment at its meeting Wednesday night as it discussed what the Promenade should look like in the future.
“If we want to have historic character on the street, it feels counterproductive to allow the merchants to come in and cover the character-defining elements up,” said board chair Therese Kelly.
Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. and City Hall are in the early stages of a project called Promenade 3.0, which aims to revitalize the shopping destination by launching new events and marketing, tweaking its physical design and making it easier for new tenants to open up shop.
The Architectural Review Board believes the historic buildings that still stand on the street help the Promenade compete with more conventional shopping destinations. Many buildings were constructed between 1910 and 1940, decades before the street was converted into a pedestrian mall in 1965, and retain their original architectural details.
On Wednesday, the board agreed to rework its design review process to incentivize new tenants to preserve their historic storefronts rather than hide them behind heavy branding.
“Maybe stores need to brand themselves to be economically viable, but … when we lose authenticity, we lose a sense of place, which is more economically viable than a Promenade that looks like a mall anywhere,” said board member Barbara Kaplan.
Under the new design review process the board proposed, tenants who make minimal changes to Promenade properties on the city’s Historic Resources Inventory would get approval from city staff instead of the Architectural Review Board.
That would allow tenants to open significantly more quickly — which is crucial for the independent businesses that Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. wants to attract more of, said DTSM CEO Kathleen Rawson.
“The retail climate is very, very difficult right now,” Rawson told the board. “Independent businesses have a hard time with the city approval process because of the time that it takes. Their savings get depleted in the time it takes for them to open.”
Board member Joshua Rosen said while he supports streamlining the review process to encourage historic preservation, he also thinks buildings constructed more recently may not be worth preserving.
“I think we should support good new design,” Rosen said.
City staff will return to the board with a proposed design process for a formal vote.