Officials hope new rules for the Promenade won’t turn it into a mall food court but a recent decision by Council to lift restrictions on large chain restaurants has reopened the door for fast food businesses to locate to the city’s flagship retail zone.
A ban on businesses with over 150 locations along the Promenade was suspended Tuesday with a request from Council for regular updates on any incoming businesses to head off any potential fast food flood.
Restaurant restrictions have fluctuated on the Promenade over the years. Starting in the early days, concerns arose over the number of alcohol licenses and restaurants per block prompting the first round of limitations. However, eventually the pendulum swung the other direction with concerns over too few eating options and a new prohibition established on converting restaurants to retail uses. The status quo persisted with growing concerns over the number of active restaurants and outdoor dining options through 2018 when Council first banned fast food businesses with more than 100 locations nationwide. Those rules were made permanent in 2021 with an increased threshold of 150 nationwide locations. At that time, the City also combined what had been multiple definitions of restaurant (fast casual, incidental seating, full service etc. etc.) into a single classification and instead regulate all restaurants based on their size.
Under those rules, existing locations that wanted to move locations could not expand if they wanted to. Staff said there had been interest expressed by some restaurants in downtown locations who were banned by the rules and recently, the Yogurtland location just feet from the Promenade was blocked from moving onto the Promenade proper by the rules.
Proponents of the idea said it wasn’t about any specific business but rather an attempt to address the desperate state of Downtown with significant vacancies and a lack of options to draw customers.
“I think we’re in a position now where although we would like to be able to be picky and choosy, in an effort to really help revitalize the economic recovery of our downtown areas, specifically the promenade, we could use an anchor store,” said Mayor Pro Tem Lana Negrete.
Negrete said the change would open up the option for franchises that could be entry points for entrepreneurs starting their first businesses and that as the city was building affordable housing in the area, those residents may want lower cost options.
“So I do think we have to be cognizant and aware that although we may not want to see some of the what we consider to be lower quality chain retail food places, those are the more affordable options for families and for people who can’t afford them or higher end dining as it pertains to food,” she said.
While the repeal was unanimous, Mayor Gleam Davis had the strongest criticism of the action.
She said any arguments about access to low cost food or entrepreneurship were moot because the prohibition only applies to the three blocks of the Promenade. Any kind of restaurant can open without restriction on any of the other streets Downtown. She also pointed to the propensity of typical fast food businesses to attract homeless people and pointed to the McDonald’s location on 2nd street that was forced to change its operating hours and store layout after becoming the most crime ridden businesses in the city.
“I’m not criticizing homeless people for wanting to go outside and be warm and have a cup of coffee,” she said. “But when I hear a bunch of landowners and business owners say we want to do everything we can to not encourage homeless people to come to the Promenade and then in the next breath say let’s put some more fast food on, I feel a disconnect,” she said.
Davis said large corporations have a competitive advantage over small operators in both the cost of doing business and their appeal to landlords that could drive out the unique businesses that have been cited as the Promenade’s best feature.
“We’re going to lose our own local mom and pop owned businesses, because they’re going to be forced out by the economies of scale that corporate owned franchises can use,” she said. “And so once we start to lose that authenticity, then are we not really endangering what has made the promenade so special all these years.”
In addition to her economic fears, Davis said she had concerns over the health impacts of promoting fast food specifically to children but as she had previously advocated for loosening zoning restrictions as a means of economic recovery, she would back the proposal provided council received regular reports on the kinds of businesses applying for downtown spaces so they could modify rules if necessary.
Councilman Phil Brock said he’d rather see Downtown storefronts filled with chain stores than see the spaces vacant and that public safety resources were the solution to potential problems with homelessness in the area.
“If our justification for keeping food away from the Promenade is that homeless people may go there and cause problems, then our real problem is adding more public safety and security to the promenade so all of the tenants and all of the customers can prosper,” he said.
Downtown Santa Monica CEO Andrew Thomas said his board backed the idea with many of the same concerns as the Council. He said the concern over proliferation of fast food was outweighed by the flexibility provided by lifting the restriction and that many of the Promenade’s spaces were too large to be a good fit for traditional fast food.
“We also understand from the City that if we see a proliferation, we can always pull back,” he said.