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Third Street Promenade Is Just Another Disneyland Facsimile

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Aaron Betsky, a West Hollywood resident, writes and teaches about architecture

The recently completely renovation of the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica has turned the three blocks stretching between Wilshire Boulevard and Santa Monica Place into a pleasant thoroughfare lined with movie theaters, outdoor eating terraces and trendy stores.

Palm trees and jacarandas define the edges of the street; colorful banners give a sense of rhythm, and simple street furniture provides places to rest. It has lighting and all the other amenities associated with a well-dressed downtown street. Two kiosks in the center of the mall even house a florist, a coffeeshop and newsstand. It is only when you start to notice the rather homogeneous character of the clientele and the prices in the stores that you wonder whether this is a real downtown, or a facsimile of one created for the benefit of the wealthy inhabitants of Santa Monica, Pacific Palisades and Brentwood.

The Santa Monica Promenade used to be a rather mixed bag. The area between Fourth Street and Ocean was in many ways reminiscent of the somewhat seedy Santa Monica celebrated by Raymond Chandler, a stagnant downtown sitting next to the homes of movie stars and lawyers. Turning Third Street into a pedestrian mall in 1965 didn’t help much, since it left it a broad, undefined expanse between small-scale stores. This urban wasteland wasn’t even helped much when Santa Monica Place was finished on its southern edge in 1980. People drove into the shopping center, shopped and left again without showing much interest in mingling with the elderly, ex-hippies and office workers who populated the mall.

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In 1984, the Third Street Development Corp. started to take action. The corporation added parking spaces and created a graphic identity for the mall. They persuaded several developers to build office buildings above restaurants and stores, and talked movie theater chains into providing 4,800 theater seats on to the mall.

The model for the mall was Westwood Village, one of the few outdoor shopping and entertainment areas in Los Angeles. The street was partially opened to traffic again, and now sidewalks help to steer pedestrians closer to the storefronts on the sides.

The theaters have attracted hordes of visitors, who in turn patronize the many new restaurants. Economically, the Third Street Promenade has been a resounding success. The old stores, many of which catered to the Latino community, are being edged out by restaurants, and on a Saturday night the place has the lively air of a European downtown.

Interestingly, the actual design of the new components of the mall ranges from serviceable to atrocious. The copper-roofed pavilions that provide focal points at the center of the mall are confused little structures trying to be 19th-Century market stalls. The lighting fixtures are anonymous, green-painted poles from which pots of plants hang precariously. The street benches look inviting while being designed to discourage the homeless from using them as resting places. Ivy-covered dinosaurs spouting water stand in for public sculpture. The cineplexes and office buildings loom over their smaller neighbors, their bulk decorated with a ridiculous collection of arches, columns and parapets.

The lesson of the Third Street Promenade is that none of that matters. If you can provide parking spaces, attractions, and incentives near a wealthy community, you can create a lively atmosphere. Yet I miss walking through the old Santa Monica, one of the few places in the Los Angeles area where you might meet people different from you, where you might get a sense that the Westside is made of real buildings, some of them new, some of them falling apart, but all of them part of a real place. Instead, we have a second Westwood Village, a Disneyland version of Main Street dolled up with a Postmodern flourish.


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