Santa Monicans, famous for their outspoken and contentious spirits, are applying that volatility to a favorite pastime: shopping for bargains.
While most say they love the prices and merchandise of the leviathan Target department store chain, many are not sure they want a 125,000-square-foot branch to open smack-dab in the center of the beach-side community’s already congested downtown.
Tonight, the seven-member City Council is scheduled to decide whether to allow Target to turn the parking lot where the Henshey’s department store once stood into what proponents call “permanent, affordable retail.”
Opponents have said the proposed location, at 5th Street and Santa Monica Boulevard, will make an already bad traffic situation into a misery and harm downtown’s pedestrian-friendly scale. Supporters have contended that such opposition masks a Westside snobbery that prefers trendy boutiques to Target’s populist shopping.
In recent years, Santa Monica has lost such mid-priced department stores as Henshey’s and JC Penney. Smaller upscale stores, including five Gap clothing boutiques, have poured into town. Two higher-end chain department stores remain in the downtown Santa Monica Place mall, and a more modestly priced Sears Roebuck & Co. survives nearby. Many residents have said Target would increase the opportunity for affordable shopping.
At a City Council hearing Tuesday, Erika Willhite complained about having to drive through traffic to buy shoes and house supplies at the Target in Culver City. She noted that it often takes four or five traffic light changes for a car to cross at Santa Monica’s major intersections. “There’s no question we need a Target,” she said, “but not in downtown Santa Monica.”
The store’s developers are proposing a four-story structure with a four-level, 580-space underground garage. To appease Santa Monicans’ aesthetic sense, architect David Forbes Hibbert returned to the drawing board last fall and created a more attractive design, breaking the facade into a series of small faux storefronts.
“Target [would] be phenomenally successful in that location,” said Larry Kosmont, a Los Angeles real estate consultant, who is not connected to the plan. He cited the discount chain Costco store in Culver City, which he said is considered one of the most successful Costcos in the nation. “That [success] is because of Westside shopping and Westside demographics,” he said.
In a Santa Monica survey last year, paid for by the property owners, about 70% of those questioned favored the Target proposal. But the city’s Planning Commission ruled against the project in October. The commission cited likely significant traffic increases at seven major intersections in a city already flooded with tourists and out-of-town shoppers.
Craig Johnson, senior vice president of Pacifica Capital Group, the developers of the Target project, acknowledged that traffic would increase but said Target is offering $600,000 to help mitigate congestion.
In addition, Target plans to encourage shoppers to use public transportation and will give out free bus tokens with each purchase. In a presentation at Tuesday’s hearing, Johnson likened the proposed store to a K-Mart built in downtown Manhattan at a stop on the subway line.
“This ain’t New York,” yelled an audience member.
Planning Commissioner Kelly Olson said he was hard-pressed to imagine that many of the store’s about 5,520 weekday visitors and 7,020 weekend shoppers would take their ovens and stereo equipment home on the Big Blue Bus.
Johnson characterized some of the opposition as elitism. “We were in a meeting with officials, and someone said, ‘I really wanted a Nordstrom’s,’ ” Johnson recalled. City officials denied any snobbery.
Suzanne Frick, the city’s director of planning and community development, said that approving the project does not necessarily mean that a Target will remain there. “A high-end retailer could come in. There’s no guarantee in the long run that it’s going to stay as an affordable retail,” she said.
In recent weeks, developers have sent direct mail to residents warning that “powerful interests are trying to say ‘no’ to Target,” and have taken out full-page newspaper ads that promised environmental responsibility and money for community projects. Kosmont said the Target campaign to win Santa Monicans’ support is the most extensive he has ever seen for a single store.
Last summer Target sponsored the city’s summer evening concert series on the Santa Monica Pier. Company officials insist that there was no connection between those concerts and the council vote.
Supporters point to how a 7-year-old Target store on Pasadena’s Colorado Boulevard has attracted shoppers to that area’s other retail shops. Although a Target already exists in Culver City and another on La Cienega and Jefferson boulevards in Los Angeles, supporters say most Westside shoppers north of Santa Monica would head to the new store.
The Planning Commission has suggested that Target look at other sites outside downtown, but Target representatives said they are not interested.
“This is the only site we will locate in Santa Monica,” said Target Corporate Communications Director Carolyn Brookter. “If they say ‘no’, that’s it.”