When it opened 24 years ago with clever design touches by hometown architect Frank O. Gehry, Santa Monica Place seemed a haven for shoppers tired of threadbare 3rd Street.
Now Gehry's creation has become old hat, while Third Street Promenade has become a regional model for pedestrian retail streets.
The old mall's days have appeared numbered since owner Macerich Co. announced plans to replace it with a mix of stores, offices, housing and parks that would effectively extend the Promenade.
Residents now wonder if Santa Monica needs more -- and a more souped-up -- Third Street Promenade.
Of particular worry, many say, is the proposal to build three 21-story towers of apartments and condominiums that would sit atop two stories of retail space, rising to a total of 300 feet just blocks from the city's famous beach. That would match the height of 100 Wilshire, the tallest building in town.
"I don't think they should build towers," said Robert Friedman, a high school teacher and a lifelong resident who was on his way into Santa Monica Place. "I like Santa Monica to be more open air."
"Twenty-one stories is quite large for around here," said Stefanie Burke, a Venice resident who often shops at the Promenade and Santa Monica Place. "How long does a pedestrian mall have to be? I just walked the length of the Promenade, and it's pretty long."
Talk of growth limits is nothing new in Santa Monica, a city that for decades has waged battles over building heights, density and traffic.
But the Macerich proposal comes at a sensitive time, when the city is in the early stages of grappling with the development of a new land-use plan. Guidelines being considered include a 15-story cap on buildings.
For quite some time, city officials and residents have been debating what to do with the civic center area, just south of Santa Monica Place.
After many community meetings, the council last year agreed in concept to install parks and sports fields, alter roadways and bridges, add parking behind the courthouse and possibly build a new municipal office building. That plan, expected to take at least 10 years, must go through an environmental review process.
Thus far, though, any changes to the area have been on a modest scale. Across from City Hall, the new headquarters for Rand Corp., the renowned Santa Monica think tank, is massive, but its low profile matches the character of most structures in that part of town.
Aesthetics aside, replacing the mall reopens the issue of how best to design an important crossroads for traffic from the pier and beach, the municipal center and the shopping areas. Many critics say the mall served as a clot interrupting the flow of traffic and pedestrians among those key destinations.
"As a piece of urban infill, it was always a failure," City Councilman Ken Genser said of the mall. "It had some connection to the street, but primarily it turned a blank face to the public streets and never was a good connection."
Randy Brant, senior vice president of Macerich, a Santa Monica real estate investment trust with more than 60 malls in its portfolio, emphasized that the company had just begun the process of introducing its plan to the populace. He added that the developer's plan for 300 condos and 150 apartments met the city's desire for more residential development downtown. Nearly a third of the apartments, he said, would be designated as affordable.
"Our research showed that towers that are tall and thin are a little less invasive than shorter, fatter, wall-like buildings," Brant said. Even so, some city watchers expressed skepticism.
When he first saw the proposal a few months ago, Councilman-elect Bobby Shriver said, he was stunned by the scale. "I told them it would never fly in that form."
Some residents fear that approval of 300-foot-tall buildings would open the floodgates for a more vertical city.
"If these high-rises are built ... then all along Ocean [Avenue] people will want to do high-rises," said Doris Sosin, founder of the North of Montana Assn., a group of residents who live in that affluent section of town. "I want to preserve the sanctity of Santa Monica as a beach city."
Ruthann Lehrer, a retired chairwoman of the Santa Monica Landmarks Commission, said she expected the city to insist on a thorough public planning process.
"It's hard to envision an upswell of public support for high-rises in this location," she said. "Twenty-one stories is just plain too tall."