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Hopes high for low-profile mall

A developer seeks to give Santa Monica Place an open-air redesign. It drops high-rise plans.

March 05, 2007|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

A long-awaited remodeling of aging Santa Monica Place could begin as soon as a year from now if the city approves a design by Macerich Co., the mall's owner, to peel off the roof and open the center to ocean breezes and the Third Street Promenade.

Macerich executives say they expect to meet today with city officials, and then on Tuesday submit plans detailing how they would update the shopping center, which opened in 1980 and was an early project of architect Frank O. Gehry.

The "adaptive reuse" plan marks a significant scaling down of a 2004 proposal by Macerich that called for tearing down the flagging mall and replacing it with a 10-acre complex of high-rise condos, shops and offices.

Many community members protested the prospect of such a grandiose project, saying it would ruin the city's generally low-rise ambience and exacerbate traffic congestion. Chastened, Macerich last June scrapped those plans and began diligently seeking community input to ensure that its replacement design would meet with approval.

"What we're trying to accomplish is to convert this suburban shopping center ... to fit more with the urban fabric of the city," said Robert D. Aptaker, vice president of real estate for Macerich, based in Santa Monica.

A city official said previews of the proposal indicated that Macerich had tried to satisfy community desires. "It looks like they spent a lot of time listening to the community," said Andy Agle, director of housing and economic development. "It looks to be more in line with some of the feedback we've heard."

Victor Fresco, co-chairman of the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, agreed. He said he was pleased that the new plan would slightly decrease, rather than dramatically increase, the center's size.

"An addition would have had huge negative impacts on traffic and parking," Fresco said. Already, he added, "downtown has become almost impossible to navigate."

The remodeled center, only 47% of which is leased, now has 570,000 square feet.

Aptaker cautioned that the design for the center, which Macerich bought in 1999, was still evolving. But he listed a number of elements that he said were integral to the new concept. In addition to stripping away the roof, the company plans to create public walkways, large gathering places and a third-floor dining deck with ocean views. Other amenities would include a children's play area, a public art installation and a gallery for exhibiting artists' work.

Aptaker said Macerich expected the renovated mall to "be a partner with the Third Street Promenade" but with more distinctive, upscale retailers for a "more mature customer." He said many retailers had expressed enthusiasm about being in Santa Monica, but he said the company had not yet signed any new leases.

Once construction gets underway, Aptaker said, all shops except for Macy's department store would close. The two parking levels, with just under 2,000 spaces, would remain open. If construction begins in early 2008, as Macerich hopes, the mall would reopen in fall 2009.

"It won't feel like a mall anymore," Aptaker said. "We want it to feel like part of the community."

Agle said the city would analyze the project according to the guidelines of the California Environmental Quality Act.

Because the revamped mall would be smaller, he said he doubted that Macerich would have to complete an environmental report.

The approval process, he said, could be completed by late summer.

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martha.groves@latimes.com

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