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Aging mall to close for renewal

Overhaul will give Santa Monica Place a more upscale flavor.

January 31, 2008|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

Santa Monica Place, the 28-year-old shopping center designed by Frank O. Gehry, is a ghost mall.

The once-bustling shoppers' hub will close today for a multimillion-dollar renovation, slated to begin in March, that will lift the roof off the aging complex and turn it topsy-turvy, putting the food court on top and shops offering luxury and "fashion forward" goods on the two lower levels.

When it reopens, possibly as early as the fall of 2009, the center will feature a California native oak tree on the third level, alfresco dining and ocean views, thanks to an open-air design by the Jerde Partnership.

As stores in the center have dwindled to a hardy few, last-minute shoppers have been wandering the increasingly empty floors in hopes of taking advantage of "everything must go" sales. Macy's department store, an anchor, will remain open throughout the construction period.

Some regular shoppers said they were delighted by the promise of an updated, upscale center. But others dread the prospect of having to do without their favorite consumer haunt for nearly two years.

"I'm very upset about the closing of the mall," said Karen Valladares of Santa Monica. "I live 10 minutes from here. I come here constantly. It's going to force me to go to Westside Pavilion." If the mall becomes too pricey, she added, "it could throw some people out of the ballpark. If it's mostly Gucci and Pucci, I'd probably have to go someplace else."

A spokesman for Macerich, the Santa Monica-based owner of the property, said it was time for the 550,000-square-foot mall to take better advantage of its location two blocks from the beach at the southeastern tip of the Third Street Promenade. With that pedestrian stretch geared to shoppers 18 to 30, the owners of Santa Monica Place intend for it to become the go-to spot for the city's older, more affluent shoppers.

"There's a lot of demand for higher-quality stores," said Randy Brant, executive vice president of development for Macerich.

The center's primary customer base extends from Marina del Rey to the Santa Monica Mountains and inland to Beverly Hills. Average per capita income in that vicinity is $49,356, according to a report by Jeff Green Partners, a Northern California firm that studies retail markets. The report also found that average annual household incomes topped $100,000 across the area, with the average in Santa Monica's "north of Montana" neighborhood hitting $195,000.

Macerich hopes the new Santa Monica Place will better reflect and meld with its urban surroundings. On Broadway, for example, plans call for eliminating the steps at the current entrance and continuing the Promenade's gently sloping surface across the street. Jacarandas, the trees that line 3rd Street, will be set along the shopping gallery. Along 2nd Street, the side closer to the beach, plans call for a curvilinear edge for the third-level deck that is supposed to suggest an ocean wave, atop the second level's glass facades and the stone-finished first level. Walking areas will be paved in shades of tan and beige, intended to be reminiscent of sand and crushed seashells.

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

That plan outraged residents, who contended that it would spoil the city's generally low-rise ambience and worsen traffic congestion. Chastened, Macerich scrapped those plans and began seeking community input to ensure that its replacement design would meet with approval. In December, the California Coastal Commission and Santa Monica's Architectural Review Board gave the project the final thumbs up. Brant said the company expects soon to receive construction permits from the city of Santa Monica.

When Santa Monica Place opened in 1980, it was envisioned as an upscale antidote to what was then called the Santa Monica Mall (today's Promenade), a tawdry mix of T-shirt and novelty shops. But when the city opened the refurbished Third Street Promenade in 1989, it quickly became a popular destination, upstaging the shopping center.

Based on sales tax data from Bayside District Corp., a public-private partnership that oversees downtown Santa Monica, the center had sales of roughly $100 million in 2006, down from 1998's $160 million. Third Street Promenade, by contrast, had 2006 sales of about $300 million.

"The mall has been in a declining state for several years, and that has definitely had an impact on the surrounding area," said Bayside Executive Director Kathleen Rawson. "If the mall is successful and thriving, then there's more than one reason to come to downtown Santa Monica."

She added that the project was a "very welcome" piece of a larger downtown revitalization plan. The city will soon seek a developer for a movie complex in a space now occupied by a municipal parking structure on 4th Street between Santa Monica Boulevard and Arizona Avenue.

Santa Monica Place merchants and their employees are scattering, with some heading to the Promenade or 2nd Street in the expectation of returning when the renovation is complete. Others will take spots in the Westside Pavilion, also owned by Macerich.

Sandy Naylor, shopping Forever 21's two-for-one sale Wednesday night with her daughter Alexandra, applauded the idea of opening the mall to the usually temperate seaside climate. "It was claustrophobic," the Santa Monica resident said of the current layout. Alexandra, 20, noting that she "grew up on this mall since I was a little kid," said she looked forward to the revamping because "change is good."

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martha.groves@latimes.com

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