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Walk of Acclaim : Santa Monica's Thriving Promenade Tries to Maintain Its Shine


Mitch Kato threads his way through the Saturday night crowd on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, past a bare-chested escape artist and a banjo player, past twinkling movie marquees and tinkling wine glasses.

Enticing aromas of pizza and espresso mingle with the sea breeze, but Kato's attention is on the sound of the place--the happy hum of people at play. As he zigzags down the Promenade, he is hugged and thumped on the back. Everyone is glad to see Mitch.

They are meant to see him, too, for Kato is a Santa Monica cop walking the Promenade beat. His job is to ensure everyone's safety at the beach city's outdoor party spot, which attracts crowds of 15,000 on busy weekends to its three-block array of movies, restaurants and shops. His presence illustrates that, although the Promenade seems like an anything-goes kind of place, it is as carefully tended as a yuppie baby.

A web of strategies is at work beneath the hubbub of the night, aimed at keeping this regional rumpus room as full of revelers as it has been since becoming an instant success when it opened in September, 1989. Many of them involve managing too much of a good thing.

"We tried to build a utility vehicle . . . and we got a Ferrari," said Tom Carroll, who managed the renovation of the Promenade and oversaw its opening. "It goes 140 m.p.h. and you always have to mind the controls."

The visibility of Kato and as many as seven other officers, some of them on bicycles, is a vital part of minding the controls. Among the other strategies is a new curfew law that police say will help them deal with packs of teen-agers meandering around late at night. Meanwhile, alleys adjacent to the Promenade are lit up like hospital operating rooms so there is no place to hide. Merchants have a special beeper number so they can summon police when trouble strikes.

Two new campaigns discourage panhandling by asking customers to contribute to homeless charities instead. On outdoor dining patios, alcohol is served only with food, so the patios don't turn into rowdy bars.

The parking structures may soon have attendants instead of meters, adding safety and allowing visitors to linger (and spend money) without suffering "meter anxiety."

The next push will be to ask the Santa Monica City Council to further regulate the street performers, who give the place pizazz but tend to clog foot traffic and block store entrances. The Bayside District Corp., the quasi-public agency that runs the Promenade, also is seeking a regulation--if it is legal--that would keep panhandlers several feet from diners on restaurant patios.

Merchants say unrelenting panhandling is the No. 1 cause of customer dissatisfaction, and some independent market research by Promenade restaurateurs has pointed toward the same conclusion. But, as legally protected free speech, it is difficult to curb.

The overall strategy at the Promenade is one of constant attention to detail in a tricky, fluid situation--managing a place where people of all ages, ethnicities and income levels will feel comfortable, as long as they behave.

"Everybody's welcome; it's an unusual concept," said Santa Monica Police Sgt. Gary Gallinot, who ran the Promenade detail for several years. "You can be a millionaire and go down there and have a good time or be broke and go down there and have a good time."

The pride of becoming an "in spot" is, however, dampened by fear that the Promenade might collapse under the weight of its own success, as Westwood Village did several years ago.

"The fragility of that thing out there called the Promenade is very apparent to me," said Ernie Kaplan, a property owner and key player in the center's development. "It could come apart faster than it came together."

That crowd control would become an issue on Third Street "would have seemed a preposterous notion" to the Promenade's planners, said Dennis Zane, a former Santa Monica councilman and mayor.

Zane is widely credited for his role in turning what was once a sow's ear into a silk purse bulging with gold for all involved. Last fiscal year, despite the recession, the city pulled in $600,000 in sales tax revenue from the Promenade. The city's cut from the sales tax is one cent per dollar, which means Promenade businesses had $60 million in taxable sales.

In addition, the city received $3 million from parking lots and leases, and more than $300,000 in business license taxes.

Only a decade ago, Santa Monica was saddled with a woebegone outdoor pedestrian mall, desperately in need of redevelopment. Earlier efforts to rejuvenate the Third Street mall had collapsed in a heap of distrust between the business community and the City Hall crowd.

There were no models in other cities to turn to. Conventional wisdom in the early 1980s held that outdoor shopping areas were dead. Nonetheless, a group representing all segments of the community coalesced around an idea for a multifaceted entertainment, restaurant and shopping district.

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