Main Street by the shore differs a bit from its namesakes in the heartland. With its mildly Bohemian charm, it’s the perfect place to show your Aunt Martha those good-luck crystals she’s been reading about or the most far-out collection of chair art in the universe.
The street boasts famous browsers like Madonna and Cher and a group of trendy celebrity property owners and merchants to match. The Terminator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is opening a trattoria named Schatzi on Main in the red brick building he owns at the south end of the 11-block strip.
In an interview, Schwarzenegger said such a venture would have been out of the question 20 years ago when he first came to Main Street to pump up those famous muscles.
“Main Street was a place where drug addicts and alcoholics hung out,” Schwarzenegger said. “It was a low-class street during the early ‘70s.”
Schwarzenegger will be joining such culinary company as Wolfgang Puck and Sonny Bono’s sister, who are among a slew of restaurateurs and retailers who line the business district from Pico Boulevard to the southern edge of Santa Monica and on into Venice.
So what else could Main Street want?
A plan for the future, peace with the neighbors and parity with the Third Street Promenade, that’s all.
Lastweek, Main Street merchants took a major step toward these goals when the Santa Monica City Council adopted a master plan for the street that had been the subject of two years of negotiations.
After the unanimous vote for the plan, Santa Monica Mayor Judy Abdo applauded the committee for bringing “consensus to a neighborhood and to a City Council.”
The plan calls for a more pedestrian-friendly street with wider sidewalks, outdoor dining, and validated parking in the metered lot between Main Street and Neilson Way to carve out parking for retail customers who are shut out of the lots on weekends by beach-goers. Large-scale development and new bars south of Ocean Park Boulevard will be outlawed by new zoning regulations.
One of the most important things on the merchants’ wish list is to narrow the street to one lane of traffic in each direction. The City Council agreed to conduct a trial run.
Currently, the street is being used as a north-south thoroughfare. Merchants complain that crossing the street is a major production that dissuades customers from shopping both sides of the street.
A failing of the master plan is that it doesn’t set up an assessment district and a partnership with the city, a method that worked well in the revitalization of the Promenade, merchants say.
“They gave us a great vision but no way to realize it,” said Brandon MacNeal, co-chair of the Main Street Merchants’ Assn. and the owner of Stems Village Store.
Since the Promenade has boomed, Main Street business has suffered accordingly. Russ Barnard, owner of Tavern on Main and co-chair of the merchants’ group, said sales tax revenue for the last quarter of 1990 was down 15% on Main Street from the previous year and up 15% on the Promenade.
But Main Street merchants hope to rebound by offering a more locally oriented, cozy alternative to the hustle-bustle atmosphere on the Promenade.
“People who don’t want to fight the Promenade come here to relax,” said Tony Fasce, co-owner with his wife, Christy Bono, of the cafe Bono Fortuna. “Confidence has resurfaced in the neighborhood now. . . . We don’t want it to go back to being Skid Row.
That’s a fair description of the street in the 1970s, according to those familiar with its long, checkered history. It was missions, thrift shops and bars, MacNeal said.
And before that, a great deal more. Priscilla Forsyth says that since she moved to Santa Monica in 1919, the Main Street area has had as many lives as a cat. Forsyth gives tours and runs the gift shop at the Santa Monica Heritage Museum, a restored turn-of-the-century house moved to Main from Ocean Avenue in 1977.
In the early days, the neighborhood around Main had ballrooms, carousels, Coney Island hot dogs, saltwater taffy and a snake pit, Forsyth said. It was a seashore retreat for those seeking respite from the inland heat of Pasadena, Riverside and Los Angeles.
During World War II, American and Allied troops enjoyed a break from combat at an R & R camp hastily set up for them, Forsyth said. “‘Shortly after that, it began to deteriorate,” she said.
A brief revival occurred in the 1950s, when Pacific Ocean Park, a would-be Disneyland competitor, was built on a pier that jutted out into the ocean between Pier Avenue and Marine Street. Disneyland won, and the deserted pier attracted transients and runaways who built fires to cook and keep warm, Forsyth said.
The pier was torn down, and the revitalization began. The area’s history is to be celebrated further if an effort to protect its historic buildings succeeds.
Despite the area’s past as being a regional draw, the newest master plan emphasizes a more home-grown approach. “The neighborhood wants to get to know each other in a social setting, a kind of serendipitous encounter with familiar faces,” City Councilman Dennis Zane said.
“We don’t want a neon palace,” Fasce added. “We want warmth and friendliness.”