By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
But success has come with a price. The corporate stores have nudged out many of the unique independent outlets — the small booksellers, record shops and funky boutiques — threatening the eclectic flavor that has helped make the Promenade a success.
"When leases are coming up, they can’t hold on," said Margie Ghiz, owner of Midnight Special Bookstore, a progressive independent book seller flanked by Borders and Barnes & Noble. Ghiz says she is fortunate to have a generous landlord who supports her community-oriented cultural approach. But she worries that other independents aren’t so lucky: "You’re seeing this mass moving-in of chain retailers. I don’t think there are 10 independents any more."
It was the independents that helped give the Promenade its "hip image," said Tony Palermo, partner in Teasers restaurant, one of the pioneering businesses on the revitalized strip. Now, he said, "It’s just turning out like corporate America. I think the Promenade is a great place, but I think the greed is setting in. I think people are going to be priced out of the market."
That is the fear that has spurred the City Council into action. "There are trends on the Promenade which, if not reversed, could lead to its demise," said Councilman Michael Feinstein, a state Green Party leader. "We lost so many small stores when it moved to large national chains that it’s out of balance."
Feinstein is particularly disturbed by the imminent demise of the International Food Court, one of his favorite culinary haunts, which is losing its lease to make way for a Bebe chain store. Feinstein is quick to note that the September closing, which in great part spurred the proposed moratorium, comes on the heels of the loss of the King George Pub — "an inviting social space" — which has been replaced by the Gap, turning the intersection of Third Street and Santa Monica Boulevard into "a cold corner where its front door reveals an elevator."
To stem the tide, Feinstein and fellow councilman Paul Rosenstein have asked staff to study the possibility of imposing a moratorium on the conversion of restaurants to retail spaces. "The restaurant owners made it clear to me that they thought their days were numbered," Rosenstein said. "They had their doubts they could afford the exorbitant rates being charged." Ironically, the proposal flies in the face of a previous measure that restricted the number of restaurants and liquor outlets per block.
And there also is talk of imposing a limitation on the square footage retailers can occupy, a proposal former mayor Zane endorsed at a July 26 meeting of the Santa Monica Leaders Club. "My concern is the loss of smaller indigenous retailers who have been there from the beginning that find themselves the victim of their own successes," Zane, who often lectures on the success of the Promenade, told the gathering of civic leaders. "How many Banana Republics and Starbucks can there be?"
The battle between property owners and city officials went public the following week, when a group of concerned landlords met on August 4 at one of the Promenade’s three movie theaters to discuss the proposed moratorium on restaurant conversions. The landlords sent a clear message, heeded by the Bayside District board, which voted unanimously to oppose the declaration of an emergency: Mess with market forces, they warned, and you will send a chilling effect that could help starve the goose.
"It’s hard to understand how suddenly we have an emergency," said property owner Ernie Kaplan. "I never heard anybody say there is a problem. We live in a capitalist economy. The market drives what basically will be on the Promenade. The Promenade has been healthy because these market forces have been working."
Feinstein, who was at the meeting, disagreed. "As a city, we don’t want to simply sit back and let market forces entirely shape an area that is such an important social center," Feinstein said. "Our role is not to just hope that market forces that go up and down are going to give us everything for everybody."
"A lot of Santa Monica money has gone into creating the Promenade," said Councilman Kevin McKeown, who also is a member of the Green Party. "If we allow the success to crowd out our people, we do our community a disservice. If we’re just chain stores, why not just go to the Galleria?"
The resurgence of the Promenade never relied solely on market forces. In fact, it was the result of a groundbreaking partnership between the public and private sectors, a partnership that capped a 25-year effort by the city to pump life into its dying downtown center.
The first attempt came in 1965, when the city — following the recommendations of a consultant’s report from the 1950s — closed the street to automobile traffic, encouraging pedestrians to walk the three-block stretch, which was renamed the Santa Monica Mall. It also improved parking, eventually building six parking structures on Second and Fourth streets over the next few years. The opening drew nationwide attention, but the initial interest soon waned. "After the groundbreaking, people came to see it for the first six months," said City Manager John Jalili, "and they never came back."