Sometimes if you build it, they won't come.
That can be said of many privately owned plazas across the world. Built to provide more light, air and open space in dense urban environments, these plazas lacked many of the amenities needed to attract the people they were meant to cater to, such as seating, shade and interactive elements like art, musical performances or food vending.
The austere, cold concrete plazas that dominated the 1960s, '70s, and '80s are slowly being remodeled to meet the needs of today. One only has to look at three of Downtown Santa Monica's most prominent commercial buildings to witness the changes called for in the Downtown Community Plan, a comprehensive land-use roadmap intended to dictate development within the downtown.
At the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Ocean Avenue, the General Telephone office building, Santa Monica's tallest structure and now known as 100 Wilshire, construction crews are busy ripping out the old plaza to create a more inviting space that better connects to the street and the pedestrians passing by. A few blocks east, at 401 Wilshire, property owner Douglas Emmett, which also owns 100 Wilshire, is breathing new life into that building's plaza by adding space for restaurants or retail in hopes of meeting the DCP's goals. It's doing something similar at 1299 Ocean Avenue, another office complex with open space currently closed off from the street.
(A rendering of 100 Wilshire, courtesy of Douglas Emmett.)
"The new plaza at Fourth and Wilshire incorporates a generous open design at an important corner, and will include an outdoor dining area and updated landscaping with new planters," said Michele Aronson, senior vice president with Douglas Emmett and a member of the Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. Board of Directors. "It is anticipated that two new restaurants will open on the plaza level which should draw both residents and visitors to gather in the new open space and create additional pedestrian traffic flow up to Wilshire through the 1400 block of Third Street Promenade.
"Douglas Emmett is proud to support the City of Santa Monica's Downtown Community Plan and shares the City's commitment to reinvestment in, and the creation of public open space for, the local community."
(Construction underway at 400 Wilshire. The underutilized plaza will soon be home to at least one restaurant to help activate the space.)
They're not alone.
After purchasing an office building at 520 Broadway for a reported $117 million, the Olive Hill Group invested more capital into improving the plaza in response to a growing desire for more outdoor space on behalf of downtown residents and workers. Michael Cho, president of Olive Hill Group, feels the plaza can be an extension of the Promenade. There are plans to place a shipping container-like structure there that would house a food service business or other type of use that would help activate the space. The ground floor includes a spin studio, while the upper floors are occupied by WeWork, a co-working giant that leases offices to start-up companies.
Art and new seating will also play significant roles.
"We see ourselves and the area around us as they gateway to Downtown Santa Monica," Cho said. "There's a Metro stop right here, people are walking down the street, so we wanted to make the space usable, friendly and inviting.
Cho's company did something similar to an office building in Culver City and rebranded it The Courtyard. It comes equipped with food trucks, free Wi-Fi, USB ports and other lifestyle amenities. Olive Hill Group pumped $1.5 million into the space, which also includes an automated parking system in the garage and flexible outdoor workspaces.
"We've found that the average worker today sees it as a work, live, play environment," he said. "They want to relax outside and not just come in and sit in their cubicles. It's about the whole experience."
The Culver City property includes hammocks and a lending library. In addition to being an outdoor workspace, tenants are encouraged to use the space for their own events.
Cho has a similar vision for 500 Broadway and wants not just tenants to use the space, but residents and visitors to the downtown as well. While it requires a significant monetary investment, Cho believes Downtown Santa Monica is a "unbelievable location" that will pay dividends for years to come.
"Santa Monica is the most attractive market … . We believe in the coastal location and the charm of Santa Monica itself."
In the coming months, DTSM, Inc. will work with the City and property owners to develop programming for other privately-owned plazas to serve the growing residential and employee population in downtown.
While not on the scale of Douglas Emmett or Olive Hill Group, the owner of three storefronts on the Third Street Promenade recently won approval to remodel their building's façade to make the spaces more attractive to restaurant and retail tenants. The popular Silverlake Ramen restaurant occupies one space and features exposed brick and modern design elements.
Architect Josh Shedd designed the Silverlake Ramen location and is working on the updates for the two remaining spaces. He believes the new look, which will also include exposed brick and curved metal roofing with aluminum awnings, will attract tenants and millennial customers.
"We're getting rid of the tired, boxy look and going with a edgy, clean look, without losing the building itself," he said. "I think the building is beautiful with the brick and earthquake bracing. I just took the design from there."
In essence, Shedd is embracing the building's original look, going away from the tacky facades of the 1960s and '70s that used to dominate storefronts before Third Street was reimagined into the Promenade in the late '80s. During the process, buildings' original faces, which included stunning art deco elements and rich brickwork, were exposed and embraced.
As nearby shopping centers pour hundreds of millions of dollars into renovations and complete remodels, property owners along the Promenade and other parts of Downtown Santa Monica will have to reinvest as well to remain attractive to future tenants.
"We simply have to evolve with the times in order to maintain the vibrancy of our community, DTSM, Inc. CEO Kathleen Rawson said. "Renovations and upgrades to buildings that line the Third Street Promenade will play a key role in the continued success of the street."
With these façade improvements, along with the complete remodel of the Promenade food court, now dubbed The Gallery Food Hall, the district is embracing change and the need to reinvigorate itself.
It's all part of the Promenade 3.0 process, an extensive, community-driven plan to update the Promenade from an outdoor mall and into a community gathering space, which was the original intent of its creators. DTSM, Inc. is engaging property owners, the City and other community stakeholders to develop a vision for the Promenade moving forward and will be releasing the results of a recent public space/public life study of the Promenade, which focused on how people use the space and what amenities they would like to see added.