Main Street is one of the crown jewels of the Ocean Park Neighborhood with its collection of boutiques and restaurants. (Photo courtesy LA Eco Village Blog)

Pandemic-era changes seeking to support the economic recovery of businesses throughout Santa Monica will continue following the approval of a new pilot program called “Santa Monica Outdoors.”

The one-year pilot allows for the continued use of parklets, streets, sidewalks, and public spaces in areas like the Santa Monica Pier and Third Street Promenade for uses relating to outdoor dining, retail, and fitness. Fee waivers associated with temporary use permits have been extended through the rest of 2021 as well to assist the small businesses that are continuing to face hardship.

Council also directed staff to move forward with a pilot program that would close a one-and-a-half block-long portion of Main Street to automobiles and expand outdoor business operations once a month over the course of three or four weekends.

The first weekend closure of Hill Street to Kinney Street is anticipated in mid-July or August, according to city leaders, who touted the Main Street Pilot Program as a way to provide more space for businesses who want to expand their operations and allow neighbors to safely enjoy the company of each other.

But not everybody has been sold on the benefits of the program.
Longtime resident and real-estate agent Rob Maschio took issue with survey results, which city staff said revealed the community’s overwhelming support for continuing parklets, outdoor dining, and other outdoor commercial uses.

Hunter Hall, who in partnership with Main Street Business Improvement Association and Ocean Park Association, will evaluate the neighborhood impacts of the pilot said, “We all talk about how we should adapt for our future, but how can we test any ideas without a pilot program.”

Hall, a proponent of the original parklet pilot in 2015 and the existing Al-fresco layout seen in the area throughout the pandemic, added he strongly believes pedestrian- and cyclists-oriented cities are the future.

“That’s why we need to do this pilot to see how that might positively or negatively change the dynamic of the neighborhood, even just for a few days,” he said. “People love pedestrian-oriented areas and it’s proven that merchants within these areas thrive. We want to see how that looks and feels on Main Street… This is about long-term economic recovery and survival. It’s about coming up with creative ideas, doing tests, collecting data and intelligently moving towards a city that is better prepared to weather the macroeconomic shifts that started a decade ago and that COVID has only accelerated.”

Carl Hansen, co-chair of Santa Monica Forward, agreed with Hall when he called in to say approving the pilot is the right move for the city.

“We all love communities that we can walk in and enjoy the outdoors and get out of our cars, which is what the ideal city experience is like,” Hansen said. “As I mentioned at the last hearing on this item, the data strongly supports that programs like this increase pedestrian activity, decrease traffic, and increase spending to local businesses, which is exactly what we should be pursuing now as we come out of the pandemic.”

Councilmember Phil Brock said after hearing from the dozen callers that he was surprised by resident response to the pilot as he detailed how he’s been a supporter of street closures for Summer Solstice and other city events in the past. But Brock said he shared some residents concerns’ about traffic congesting the city’s main throughway before he eventually voted no on initiating the closures

“I am concerned about that and I’m concerned about the people who live on Second Street from planning commissioners to landmark commissioners to all these residents who live in that area and love their area, and they’re concerned about an entire Saturday and Sunday closure, and a closure that will probably extend into the nighttime,” Brock said, proposing to reopen streets around 9 p.m. so patrons aren’t stumbling to their car late at night in the neighborhood. “I’m not normally against closing the street because I normally want to see us have more street closures and more places to shop. On the other hand, we already have the Promenade and, for the moment, the Promenade needs to be a huge priority in that part of town, and we already have three blocks that are closed — four blocks if you include Santa Monica Place.”

A majority of Council disagreed and voted 4-1-1 to kickstart the pilot program in a few months.

Councilmember Oscar de la Torreabstained from voting on the matter. MayorSue Himmelrich called him a “coward” in response.

“I do understand that people are concerned about it. But I also believe that it’s important to try this,” Himmelrich added before the vote. “I think that Main Street until three weeks ago was a barren desert, basically… I think this will activate it… I think that it is a great time to try it, and I think that if we don’t, as a Council, go in being more adventurous and more enterprising in finding new approaches without immediately having a knee-jerk reaction of that’s different and I’m not going to try it, then we’re never going to go anywhere in terms of our economic recovery or in finding different sources of economic recovery other than tourism. So, I do understand that people are afraid that it will muck up the neighborhood, but I think we ought to try it; it’s a block and a half and see how it goes and if it doesn’t go well we can stop.”

Brennon@smdp.com