King of the road? Since 1965, the pedestrian rather than the private automobile has reigned over a three-block stretch of downtown Santa Monica. Today, the Third Street Promenade is one of the Southland's best-known examples of a public space that prioritizes pedestrians over cars.
But while it's tempting to view the Promenade as a precursor to complete-streets initiatives like Bringing Back Broadway and the Sunset Triangle Plaza, the bayside city's pedestrian mall is actually a legacy of the same "urban renewal" impulse that such initiatives seek to correct.
Across the nation, planners in the 1950s and '60s weren't sure how to stanch the flow of commerce from central business districts to more automobile-friendly suburbs. Many saw traffic congestion as the main culprit, and one response was to turn downtown streets over to the automobile completely, relegating foot traffic to skybridges, pedways, and other dedicated pedestrian corridors. In Los Angeles, no less a figure than J. Edward Martin of architectural firm AC Martin Partners floated such an idea in a 1959 interview with the Los Angeles Times. "If we take the pedestrian off the streets and separate them from the automobiles," he said, "we could increase our traffic circulation 100%."
Pioneered by Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1959, pedestrian malls represented the opposite approach to the same perceived problem. Hoping to woo customers back to their central business districts with "traffic-free shopping," dozens of U.S. cities closed their main shopping corridors to vehicles and then redesigned the streetscapes to mimic the indoor malls of the suburbs. Though outwardly designed for the pedestrian, such urban retrofits upended the old model of the street as a shared public space. They also often entailed massive new parking garages and surface lots, sapping the vitality of adjacent streets.
In Santa Monica, merchants led by Chamber of Commerce president and J.C. Penney general manager Ernest Gulsrud first proposed closing Third Street to cars in 1959. Third Street had long been the city's main commercial strip, but by the late 1950s it was struggling to compete with the newer regional shopping centers, which offered easy freeway access and sprawling blacktop parking lots. Inspired by Kalamazoo's example, a committee of Santa Monica merchants called for a three-block pedestrian mall along Third Street between Broadway and Wilshire.
Their plan was controversial. Although 65 percent of merchants along the proposed mall supported it, property owners were initially cool to the idea, and Ralphs, which operated a supermarket at Third and Wilshire, challenged the plan's constitutionality in court. But the city council pledged its support, and by 1965 the plan had overcome all its legal and political obstacles. On April 22, a three-minute blast of car horns marked the beginning of construction. Workers tore up Third Street's asphalt roadway and replaced it with planters, reflecting pools, trees, and other landscape elements designed by Charles Luckman and Associates. Construction cost $700,000, not including another $800,000 spent on updated facades and store modernizations. On November 8, Third Street reopened -- to pedestrians only -- as the Santa Monica Mall.
At first, the pedestrian mall did lure shoppers back to Third Street, but it ultimately failed to arrest the decline of Santa Monica's business district. The addition of new garages on Second and Fourth streets only compounded problems by killing street life in the surrounding neighborhood, and the 1980 opening of the indoor Santa Monica Place shopping center at the mall's southern end accelerated the exodus of shoppers and retailers. By the mid-decade, discount shops and vacant storefronts outnumbered thriving businesses.
The Santa Monica Mall's struggles were anything but atypical. Across the U.S., pedestrian malls installed in the 1960s and '70s to combat "urban blight" fell on hard times in the '80s and '90s. (A 2013 study pegged their success rate at 11 percent.) Many have since reopened to automobile traffic -- including former pedestrian malls in Burbank, Oxnard, and Pomona.
The Santa Monica Mall might have met the same fate, but in 1987 the city opted to double down on the pedestrian-oriented concept. A two-year, $10-million renovation addressed many of the mall's shortcomings: a lack of entertainment and dining options and a design that seemed to thwart rather than encourage the flow of foot traffic down the street and into stores.
The update by San Francisco-based ROMA Design Group did reflect some ambivalence about shutting out cars completely. When the mall reopened September 16, 1989, as the Third Street Promenade, a twenty-foot roadway snaked down its center, flanked by thirty-foot sidewalks. But though autos did initially share the Promenade during off-peak hours, the renovated mall exceeded all expectations, and swollen crowds of shoppers, diners, and moviegoers soon made vehicular traffic impractical. Bollards went up at the Promenade's entrances to keep Third Street car-free. They remain in place to this day.
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