NY Times

A Plan to Open a 1980 Gehry Mall Design to the Air


Frank Gehry won acclaim as an innovative architect when he redesigned his home in this beachside city. But another local Gehry design, the enclosed 1980 mall known as Santa Monica Place, has long been regarded as obsolete — a suburban-style shopping center that turns its back on a thriving urban corridor.

Last week, Santa Monica Place, bounded by Colorado Avenue, Broadway and Second and Fourth Streets, was shuttered. Macerich, a Santa Monica-based real estate investment trust that bought the mall in 1999, will transform it into an open-air shopping center with a restaurant deck overlooking the Pacific Ocean, which is just a couple of blocks away.

The mall is often described as a “cork” that cuts off pedestrian traffic from the adjacent Third Street Promenade, a pedestrians-only shopping strip that has been hugely popular since it was refurbished in 1989. In redeveloping the mall, the original back door will be opened up, the steps will be replaced by a ramp, and brick pavers and jacaranda trees will be added, echoing those at the Promenade across the street.

“There will be a seamless connection,” said David E. Rogers, a senior vice president at the Jerde Partnership, an architectural firm in Venice, Calif., in charge of the redesign of Santa Monica Place. “You won’t feel like you’ve walked into a separate project.” The roofless mall is expected to reopen in the fall of 2009. Macerich has not disclosed how much it is spending.

The plans, which will slightly reduce the mall’s footprint of 550,000 square feet, call for widening the corridors; replacing the dark, cluttered courtyard with a larger, elliptical space; and bringing in more upscale tenants.

The project’s scale represents a triumph for residents, who beat back Macerich’s far more ambitious plan, unveiled in 2004, to tear down the mall and replace it with a 10-acre complex of high-rise residential buildings, office space and stores.

Since 1980, Santa Monica, with a population of 88,000, has more than doubled its stock of office space to about 13.1 million square feet, said Andy Agle, the city’s director for housing and economic development. Many office workers commute long distances because of the steep housing costs in Santa Monica and adjacent neighborhoods on the Westside of Los Angeles.

The proposed high-density complex at Santa Monica Place raised fears that traffic gridlock would worsen, said Diana Gordon, a co-chairwoman of the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, a group that opposed the project. “The towers were lightning rods for the frustrations about traffic and overdevelopment,” she said.

Randy Brant, a Macerich executive vice president, said his company came up with the plan for the large-scale project at the urging of the city, which was working to update the nearby Civic Center and connect it to the city’s downtown. But he conceded that Macerich was caught short.

“We’ll take full blame for misreading the community, thinking they would want something like that,” Mr. Brant said. “Once we took it out to the community, we knew immediately that it wasn’t going to work.”

In response to the protests, the city held a series of well-attended public workshops. During that process, Macerich bought 11 stores that Federated Department Stores (now Macy’s Inc.) had acquired from May Department Stores, including one store of the defunct Robinsons-May chain at Santa Monica Place.

The purchase of that store gives Macerich a chance to attract a new anchor tenant — perhaps Nordstrom, which has a store in the Westside Pavilion, another Macerich mall only six miles away. Other candidates are Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s, all already represented on the Westside. (Macy’s owns its store at Santa Monica Place, which will remain open during the mall’s redevelopment.)

Normally retailers would hesitate to open a second store so close by. But in Los Angeles the heavy traffic creates distinct shopping districts, said Jim Sullivan, an analyst at Green Street Advisors, a research company in Newport Beach, Calif., that focuses on REITs. “The rules of thumb don’t apply when you talk about West L.A.,” he said.

No tenants have been announced, but Tony Grossi, another Macerich executive vice president, said the retailers are not likely to compete with the Third Street Promenade, where the stores largely cater to shoppers aged 18 to 30. “Santa Monica has a wealthy resident population,” he said, “and they have no immediate choices for luxury or near-luxury shopping.” Macerich has gradually emptied out the mall by making its leases short term.

Judging by the success of the Third Street Promenade, which occupies three city blocks, analysts say they expect the revamped mall to do very well. Over the years, the independent retailers that lined the Promenade, including several bookstores, have given way to the type of chain stores that can be found in shopping malls throughout the country.

These national retailers, of course, can pay higher rents. Jan Sweetnam, the West Coast asset manager for Federal Realty Investment Trust, a REIT based in Rockville, Md., that owns most of the buildings on the two northernmost blocks of the Promenade, said annual rents were $20 to $25 a square foot in 1996 and have climbed to $220 a square foot now. “We have people looking at spaces for 2010 and 2011,” he said.

Santa Monica Place could have been an open-air mall from the outset. Three decades ago, Jon A. Jerde, chairman and president of the Jerde Partnership, the firm that has redesigned the mall, proposed such a design but lost out to Mr. Gehry.

The Rouse Company, the developer of the mall, “was an East Coast firm, and they always put roofs on shopping centers because it snows there,” said Mr. Jerde, who also designed Horton Plaza in San Diego. Horton Plaza, which opened five years after Santa Monica Place, is a multilevel shopping center without a roof.

Mr. Gehry declined to be interviewed about the redevelopment plans, but Mr. Jerde said he was not likely to be upset about them. “This was a client-conceived building,” Mr. Jerde said. The mall was extensively remodeled once before, in 1990.

This is not the first time a Gehry building has encountered a wrecking ball. Last year, the University of California, Irvine, tore down a two-story building designed by Mr. Gehry, saying it was too small for the campus’s needs.

But Mr. Agle said the city, which owns the parking structures adjacent to Santa Monica Place, was likely to retain one distinctive feature of the mall: a mesh sign, now obscured by ficus trees, that recalls Mr. Gehry’s penchant early in his career for working with ordinary materials.

Mr. Jerde said the sign was a “perfect remnant of Frank’s chain-link aesthetic.” The architecture firm Pugh & Scarpa will remodel the facades of the parking structures, Mr. Agle said.

With the mall redevelopment about to begin, Ms. Gordon said the Santa Monica coalition was happy with Macerich’s plan. “We think that’s what residents want — an intelligent redevelopment of an existing building,” she said. “Big new commercial developments don’t work for Santa Monica anymore.”