In a significant victory for Westside slow-growth forces, a developer has scrapped plans to tear down the aging Santa Monica Place mall and replace it with a 10-acre complex of high-rise condos, shops and offices that critics said would overwhelm the city’s downtown.
The project, which was expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, had been closely watched because it was one of the largest of several high-rise complexes proposed or underway on the Westside, which is undergoing the biggest development boom in 25 years.
Mall giant Macerich Co., which has owned Santa Monica Place for seven years, said it was formulating a more modest renovation plan for the Frank O. Gehry-designed center that would remove much of the roof and open the center both to the Third Street Promenade and to the ocean, a block to the west.
Macerich officials acknowledged in interviews that they were humbled by widespread community disdain for the grandiose plan they presented in late 2004. At the time, the prospect of three 21-story condo towers drew cries of derision from residents, who said the buildings would wreck the coastal community’s low-rise ambience and exacerbate traffic and congestion.
“We misread the community,” said Tracey Gotsis, the mall owner’s senior vice president of marketing. “We had big visions for this project.”
The visions have been drastically scaled back, she said, in an effort to “wipe the slate clean” and reflect the community’s “expectations and desires for this property.” Those include creating a better mix of unusual shops, moving the ground-level food court to a third-floor patio overlooking the ocean and providing a stronger connection to the promenade and the rest of the outside world.
Opponents of the original plan say they hope the developer offers a project that fits the community rather than overshadows it.
Diana Gordon, a spokeswoman for the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, said her group was “gratified that Macerich has gotten the message that residents want development in keeping with the size and scale of the current mall and that it has abandoned plans for luxury residential towers.”
The Santa Monica Place project is one of several controversial developments roiling the Westside.
Community activists are battling separate proposals for more building on the stretch of federal land between Westwood and Brentwood.
Developers also have proposed tearing down the old Robinsons-May store at Wilshire and Santa Monica boulevards in Beverly Hills to build condo towers. The owner of the Beverly Hilton, at the same corner, also hopes to add two 13-story condominium towers and a 15-story “condo hotel,” where rooms would be rented to guests when their owners are away.
In Century City, several residential towers have been proposed. Meanwhile, developer Alan Casden is building a major condo and retail project in the once-bustling Westwood Village shopping district.
The scope of development in a relatively small area has raised worries that the region’s notoriously congested streets could become gridlocked. There is, however, a school of thought that some of the dense housing could alleviate traffic by allowing people to live closer to where they work.
Congestion concerns, in part, prompted Macerich to set its sights on a much more modest renovation at Santa Monica Place.
Gotsis said the company planned to find a mix that would better complement the existing shopping on the Third Street Promenade, Montana Avenue and other Santa Monica streets. Residents have requested more restaurants and stores that sell women’s fashions and home furnishings, she said.
Randy Brant, senior vice president of development leasing, said the center hoped to draw as many as half a dozen new restaurants.
In recent years, enclosed malls have fallen out of favor as open-air shopping centers such as the promenade and the Grove, near the Farmers Market at 3rd Street and Fairfax Avenue, have become the vogue.
Gotsis said the company plans to begin meeting with community groups and residents the week of June 12 to describe what the company is considering.
“Outreach to the community will be the first step and will be an ongoing part of the planning,” said Assistant City Manager Gordon R. Anderson in a notice posted on the city’s website.
Macerich, which is based in Santa Monica, said it was also contemplating adding four stories of office space atop the mall’s eastern side, to be used as the company’s new headquarters. The 100,000-square-foot addition, which would rise above the existing limit of 56 feet, would require a development agreement with the city.
When it opened in 1980, Santa Monica Place, bounded by Colorado Avenue and Broadway and 2nd and 4th streets, was envisioned as an upscale antidote to what was then called the Santa Monica Mall (today’s promenade), with its mix of T-shirt and novelty shops. But in 1989, the city opened a refurbished Santa Monica Mall as the Third Street Promenade, and it quickly became a popular destination, upstaging the shopping center.
In recent years, critics have dismissed the enclosed Santa Monica Place as an inappropriately suburban-style center in an urban setting. The center has struggled in the last few years to retain tenants. About 72% of the 570,000-square-foot mall is now leased, but many tenants are on short-term leases.
The mall was last remodeled in 1990. Macerich bought it in 1999 and soon began devising a plan to revitalize the center.
In November 2004, Macerich applied for a development agreement that would have allowed it to demolish the existing building and parking structures and replace them with stores, restaurants, apartments, condos, offices and underground parking. The plan immediately sparked strong opposition.
Three months later, the Santa Monica City Council rejected the proposal and directed the company to seek community input before proceeding with a revised plan. Four workshops drew more than 400 participants. But some critics say the results did not accurately reflect residents’ concerns and wishes.
Those critics, though still cautious, say Macerich now appears to be on a better path.
“Overall, people like the way Santa Monica looks,” said Julie Lopez Dad, a Santa Monica planning commissioner. “People didn’t want tall buildings.”