Capturing the Rhythm of
Downtown Santa Monica
Santa Monica Centric
Lincoln Blvd’s transformation begins
By Kevin Herrera

It’s been described as the ugliest street in America. Pretty harsh words for Lincoln Boulevard, but certainly not hyperbole when considering its defining features are crumbling asphalt, dark corridors, and dilapidated buildings.


Pedestrians are treated to narrow sidewalks and a shortage of shady street trees. Cyclists fair much worse, sustaining injuries caused by impatient and inattentive drivers and an abundance of gnarly potholes.


But all that is about to change, not overnight, but rather in small increments, starting with a series of mixed-use developments and streetscape enhancements to transform Lincoln — from Interstate 10 to Wilshire Boulevard — into a welcoming gateway to downtown Santa Monica instead of a highway catering to vehicles.

 (A rendering of a proposed mixed-use housing development on Lincoln Boulevard)


Seven mixed-use developments have been approved and are about to break ground, while another four are pending approvals, according to city records. Once completed these projects will bring nearly 1,000 housing units to the boulevard and roughly 80,000 square feet of commercial space that are sure to activate Lincoln. The goal over the next 20 to 30 years is to make Lincoln more like a neighborhood street rather than an extension of Interstate 10, further incorporating it into downtown, as outlined in planning documents approved by the City Council.


“This is a tremendous opportunity to bring more foot traffic to a corridor that has long been overlooked,” said Noreen Husain, a member of the Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. Board of Directors and operations manager for property development company Palisades, which owns two buildings adjacent to Lincoln. “Lincoln Boulevard has a significant amount of unrealized potential, and with the city’s plan to enhance the streetscapes and parkways, there is definitely incentive for investors to get in on the ground floor of what promises to be a vibrant stretch of Santa Monica … complimentary to the Third Street Promenade.”


(Even Larry David has to think twice before taking Lincoln Boulevard) 

Change has already taken place along Lincoln. It started with the City of Santa Monica gaining control over the boulevard from the California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans. For decades Caltrans was simply interested in maintaining Lincoln as a highway dedicated to automobiles rather than a complex street serving the needs of pedestrians and cyclists as well. A lack of funds for regular maintenance left Lincoln to the elements, creating a bumpy ride for everyone. After a decade of legal struggles, the City in 2012 gained ownership of the portion of Lincoln that runs through Santa Monica, giving it more flexibility in shaping the boulevard’s future.  


That paved the way for the City to conduct a series of community meetings to develop The LiNC, otherwise known as the Lincoln Neighborhood Corridor Plan, which covers the portion of Lincoln south of Interstate 10. The LiNC incorporates design elements to make the boulevard safer for cyclists, more pedestrian friendly and help businesses on the street be visible to those passing by.


The plan, which was approved by the City Council in May of this year, is in its first phase, which includes the creation of bus-only lanes during rush hour and the planting of trees for shade. New bicycle connections and amenities, as well as three new crosswalks, will accompany several landscaped medians and curb extensions next year through May 2019, city officials said. Some crosswalks will be overhauled to promote walkability and pedestrian safety.


(Lincoln Boulevard as it looks today, between Colorado Avenue and Broadway.) 

The LiNC’s key elements will most likely be incorporated into the northern section of the boulevard that runs through downtown Santa Monica, according to sections of the Downtown Community Plan (DCP). People will begin to see that vision become reality over the next two years as construction begins on housing projects between Colorado Avenue and the freeway. Those developments, and others planned for other areas of Lincoln, include units of various sizes and affordability to accommodate singles as well as families of various income levels.


“A thoughtful streetscape on Lincoln Boulevard would improve the pedestrian experience for the expanding residential neighborhood and the neighborhood directly east of Downtown while creating new gateways from Lincoln Boulevard to downtown,” reads the DCP. “Anticipated land-use changes and expanded sidewalk areas … will accommodate pedestrians walking from the new residential buildings on Lincoln Boulevard to the nearby Expo Light Rail station. Attractive streetscape amenities such as decorative lighting, pedestrian-oriented ground floors and bus service accommodation, will encourage people to walk to the station.


“Ground floor uses for this area should activate the street and serve the local community with a mixture of cafes, smaller restaurants, grocery stores and convenient shops and services. Office and other uses that are not intended for walk-up services should include pedestrian-oriented design and animate the street.”


In Venice the transformation is in full swing, much to the chagrin of some long-time residents who view the changes with skepticism, worried that the influx of hipster coffee bars and boutiques will accelerate the gentrification already taking place in the former hippie haven.


The same applies to Santa Monica’s Lincoln. Some residents like Lincoln for what it is, a place to get their cars serviced while picking up a funky lamp from a furniture store or a Godmother sandwich from Bay Cities.


“Lincoln is everybody's ugliest street, but I still sort of love it: the bizarreness, the juxtaposition of the billboards against the funny little huts selling tacos cheek-by-jowl with the car showroom and the big open sky," design journalist and broadcaster Frances Anderton told KCET’s Colin Marshall, an essayist who’s writing a novel on Los Angeles.


Opponents of change feel the metamorphosis of Lincoln will lead to more traffic congestion and put a further strain on city services, while supporters of new housing construction hope Lincoln can provide the variety of units needed to serve families as well as young professionals who will choose to walk to work in Santa Monica instead of driving from their homes further inland or to the south.


Lincoln property owner Susan Rubinyi, a writer by trade, finds herself somewhere in the middle, open to change but still very concerned about preserving the history and character of the boulevard so it does not become pasteurized.


(Lincoln property owner Susan Rubinyi stares out at Lincoln Boulevard from the inside or the commercial building she owns.)

Having spent many years studying in Europe, Rubinyi has a fondness for the diversity of uses she found in Paris, where she could walk out of her apartment and take care of most of her errands without having to drive. During her childhood, she remembers Lincoln as being dominated by auto repair shops. While she believes there still is a need for them along the boulevard, she likes the idea of a new Lincoln dotted with cafes, art galleries, performances spaces and small pocket parks or plazas where people can congregate and relax.


“Lincoln could be a very vibrant arts destination, a living, breathing place that people want to visit instead of just pass through,” she said while seated inside the cavernous, vacant building just north of Broadway that her grandmother purchased in the 1970s.

Unlike other property owners on the block, Rubinyi has no plan to demolish her 1920s structure, but instead wants to preserve it and rent it to tenants with an arts or entertainment focus who also appreciate its historic elements.


“I think we need to have more discussions about what constitutes change and hopefully find common ground where we can work together as a community,” said Rubinyi, who wore a shirt decorated with flowers spelling out “All You Need Is (Love).”


DTSM, Inc. has formed a Lincoln Sub-committee comprised of property owners to work with city planners on design elements and infrastructure improvements. Currently DTSM, Inc., at the direction of the committee, is banking cash (the goal is to have just over $300,000 by 2018) collected from property assessments until enough is available to make impactful improvements to the aesthetics. Those could include planters for flowers, new street furniture or decorative lighting to make pedestrians feel more comfortable.


Eventually money could be set aside for events, like a block party or art walk, as well as branding that lets visitors know they are in downtown when they arrive.


City planners will be meeting with DTSM, Inc. to do more “high-level” thinking for Lincoln, said Jing Yeo, planning manager for the city.


“We’ll be looking at the data to see what it is telling us, the places we should focus on first to make the greatest impact,” she said. “But the change will be incremental. As vacant lots turn into mixed-use projects, one by one over time we will eventually get those generous setbacks making sidewalks wider and nicer.”


That being said, the city understands Lincoln’s importance as a transportation corridor and there are no plans to remove traffic lanes.


Architects involved in the housing projects are excited for the opportunity to create a complete street.


“Housing alone won’t accomplish this goal,” said Jesse Ottinger, senior associate with architecture firm KFA. “With an emphasis on neighborhood servicing retail, wider sidewalks with landscaping, seating, decorative paving and outdoor dining opportunities, we’re creating an environment where people want to be.”


By designing buildings with the proper scale and texture, pedestrians will feel more at ease walking down the Lincoln of the future.


“Whether through overhangs, canopies or awnings, creating spaces that feel comfortable and appropriate for people is very important,” Ottinger said. “By emphasizing the front doors of these projects, whether through a break in the façade, setbacks, materiality, or canopies, the people who will live in these buildings will also have a sense of identity and home on Lincoln Blvd.”




“Lincoln could be a very vibrant arts destination, a living, breathing place that people want to visit instead of just pass through.” — Susan Rubinyi

Kevin Herrera is a former journalist turned marketing and communication expert, beer enthusiast, cyclist, cultural observer/commentator and expert on all things Downtown Santa Monica. He is currently the sr. marketing & communication manager for Downtown Santa Monica, Inc.