Downtown: The area around the Promenade is under scrutiny. Clara Harter

As the worst of the pandemic subsides, Downtown Santa Monica has emerged as the focal point of a community debate around crime, homelessness and economic recovery.

There is a coalition of property owners who believe that deteriorating conditions on the Promenade and in Downtown parking garages and alleys are deterring visitors and businesses from coming to the area.

“If we don’t do something now visitors will shop elsewhere,” said Janet Morris, member of the Bayside Property Owners Association in a Sept. 14 City Council meeting. “How long do you think shoppers will keep coming if they feel unsafe in the parking structures? How will the elderly and persons with disabilities navigate the parking structures if the elevators are not working?”

One property owner John Alle has taken his complaints so far as to sue the City over its upkeep of the area.

“Business owners here in Santa Monica want you and Council to focus on safety and security here and now on the Promenade, Downtown, and eliminate the taking over of our garages, dumpster rooms, stairwells, elevators and sidewalks by vagrants, many of whom are armed and dangerous,” said Alle in a Sept. 17 letter to Mayor Sue Himmelrich.

Two discussions will take place soon to address the future of Downtown and what steps can be taken to respond to resident and property owners’ concerns.

The first is a City Council discussion of the Promenade Vitality Plan, which Mayor Sue Himmelrich said will take place during next Council meeting (Sept. 28), include a staff report and convene multiple stakeholders. The vitality plan presents a long-term vision for the modernization of businesses and activities on the Promenade.

The second discussion is a town hall meeting hosted by Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. (DTSM) focused on public safety efforts along the Third Street Promenade and the adjacent neighborhood. SMPD officers will present the latest crime statistics and an update on deployment levels and crime suppression strategies, while DTSM will share information on its Safety Ambassador Program.

The meeting will take place on Sept. 29 from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Santa Monica Place.

“We’re happy to convene that meeting. My Board Chair in the last six weeks or so has been having one-on-one conversations with smaller groups of property owners,” said DTSM CEO Kathleen Rawson. “The top concern is definitely safety, perception of safety and homelessness.”

Rawson said that issues around homelessness increased during the pandemic when shelter capacities were reduced and the area was largely devoid of visitors. She said that she has anecdotally observed an additional uptick in homelessness following the July encampment clean-up along the Venice Boardwalk.

DTSM is currently working to address concerns through its team of safety, hospitality, maintenance and quality of life ambassadors.

Ambassadors are on call 24/7 and serve a variety of roles including escorting people to and from vehicles and businesses upon request, patrolling the district to address unwanted activities, reporting incidents to SMPD and providing custodial services for parking structures, public restrooms, alleyways and sidewalks. Ambassadors are unarmed and do not have crime enforcement abilities.

SMPD has 12 officers assigned to its Downtown Services Unit and supplements this team with patrols of Public Service Officers and officers in its Homeless Liaison Program.

Both DTSM and SMPD have said that their resources are currently strained.

According to SMPD Public Information Officer Rudy Flores, one of the key challenges the department faces in tackling issues Downtown is the “strong demand for increased staffing throughout the entire city.”

Flores also pointed to an increase in the number of homeless individuals and changes in California’s legal code that have eliminated jail or bail for certain crimes as challenges.

DTSM faced significant budget cuts due to the pandemic, lost around 30 percent of its team and has picked up several duties that used to be under the City’s purview. DTSM Director of Marketing and Communications Mackenzie Carter said that some of these new duties include maintaining the Promenade fountains, paying for certain capital improvements on the Promenade and locking up the garage bin rooms at night.

Rawson expressed frustration at the amount of vitriol directed at her organization and said that there is often confusion over what is DTSM’s responsibility versus that of the City. For example, while DTSM ambassadors help clean the Downtown garages, the organization is not responsible for elevator maintenance or bathroom repairs.

“It’s really important to make the distinction that everything that we do is supposed to be additive to the baseline of the city services, but as this baseline went lower and lower and lower, we had to pick up the slack,” said Rawson.

City Council has indicated a desire to work on these issues and directed staff to review safety and security measures Downtown.

“I’m aware of the condition of Downtown and I’ve met with several of the property owners,” said Himmelrich. “I do think we need to make progress and make it soon in this area.”

Himmelrich outlined several of the hurdles the City has faced in directing efforts Downtown, including the lack of a permanent City Manager and City Attorney, strained resources due to pandemic budget cuts and the need to also be responsive to issues in other areas of the City.