Capturing the Rhythm of
Downtown Santa Monica
Santa Monica Centric
From fist-fights to French fries: How DTSM transformed the corner of Ocean & Colorado
By Kevin Herrera

It's one of the most desirable locations in all of sunny Santa Monica, but until recently it was a place most people avoided.


The corner of Ocean and Colorado avenues, which was improved as part of the Colorado Esplanade and Tongva  Park projects, offers shade, public seating, sea breezes and the perfect view of the iconic Santa Monica Pier sign. Hundreds of people walk by daily, but instead of gazing at the natural beauty, many were treated to unsavory anti-social behavior that included public urination, drug dealing and fist fights. The corner, designed to be a pleasant resting spot, had become an eye-sore.


"It was basically a place you didn't want to walk by. I didn't feel safe," said Lynne Thomas, the director of sales and marketing at The Lobster, a popular seafood restaurant located adjacent to the pier and directly across the street from Colorado and Ocean. "I would literally run by that corner and try not to look at it when I was outside the restaurant. Now it's completely evolved."


Seeing an opportunity to transform an underutilized and potentially dangerous public space, Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. staff secured an outdoor dining permit from the City of Santa Monica and entered into a leasing agreement with a food vendor to activate the corner and provide visitors to the downtown another amenity.


Out went the drug dealing and other illegal activity and in went a gourmet French-fry concept, along with seating and active monitoring by downtown ambassadors and the food vendor and their employees.


(A screenshot from Google Maps shows people camping and loitering at the corner of Ocean and Colorado avenues in May of 2015.)


Now visitors can enjoy delectable fries from the Great American Fries Co. and take in the views without fear of being verbally or physically assaulted. DTSM, Inc. may explore adding more vendors in the near future.


"The key for us was to create a positive activity at the plaza so people would own it, use it and be good stewards of the space," said Steven Welliver, deputy chief executive of DTSM, Inc. "By allowing vending on that corner we created a situation where the vendors are there day after day, they know the area and they become force multipliers for us."


(Visitors to Downtown Santa Monica snap a photo in front of the Great American Fries truck at the corner of Colorado and Ocean avenues.)


DTSM, Inc. is in the process of identifying more underutilized public and private spaces throughout downtown to see how areas can be programmed, providing those who live and work here more options and opportunities to enjoy the beautiful weather Santa Monica has to offer. The Downtown Community Plan, which dictates how land is used in the district, calls for the activation of these spaces as part of creating more community connections. These spaces will offer people more chances to interact with one another and help create a greater sense of belonging. Some spaces could host more food concepts or become performance space for musicians, dancers and other performing artists.


All across the globe, public space management organizations like DTSM, Inc. are working to identify new opportunities and programming for these smaller public and private spaces in hopes of making them safe and inviting for all.


For a public space to be seen as safe, comfortable and successful, a diverse range of people need to actively use it. In a workshop at the 2017 EcoCity World Summit in Melbourne, experts discussed challenges in everyday practices of developing and maintaining inclusive public spaces. The discussions led to a common understanding of what these spaces look like.


Several key elements of successful public space were identified:

• Public space should not favor specific groups or promote gentrification. Sometimes, architectural design of public spaces can restrict the free use of space.

• Inclusive spaces work by encouraging a diverse mix of people who feel safe and comfortable in them. This mix should be intergenerational as well as intercultural.

• Inclusive spaces can thrive only when they are open, free and accessible. The space should allow some flexibility in its use to suit changing needs. When streets and plazas accommodate multiple activities, they are activated at all times, even if used differently at different times.

• Inclusive spaces must respect and acknowledge the needs of all genders and recognize children as active users of space. World Vision International, for instance, engages children as change agents who inform planning decisions for better and safer spaces.

• Public space is accessible when it is well integrated and connected with surrounding land uses and transport options. If we design for people rather than cars, we can create places that more people are able to access and use.

To help manage the space, DTSM, Inc. instituted a few rules. They include a ban on smoking, drug and alcohol use, sleeping, panhandling, camping, obstructing access ways or maintenance activities, leaving food or property unattended. There are also hours of operation: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. The space is open to the public and no purchase of food or drinks is necessary to enjoy it.


DTSM, Inc. has also taken over the grassy area called Triangle Square that is just west of the old Sears on the Colorado Esplanade. DTSM, Inc. and the city are using the area to host a rotating public art series called ROAM. The hope is to continue the art series, however, if funding is not identified, DTSM, Inc. may look at other ways to activate the space that could include an interactive pathway like a labyrinth, and landscaping.

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.