Retail in Santa Monica’s main shopping drag is set to get a new look in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic under an evolving plan with a modest budget.

The Third Street Promenade, a draw for tourists in Los Angeles’ largest beach city since it opened in its current iteration in the late 1980s, was hit hard over the last year. Made up of major chain retailers, chain restaurants and a movie theater, the shopping strip was mostly closed at the start of the pandemic. But even though retail has remained open with capacity restrictions for months and people have been out shopping despite record surges in the virus, several stores and restaurants in the three block region of the Promenade have closed outright, like Patagonia and Desigual.

Now a new committee, made up of city representatives, real estate types, some retailers and business owners, is looking to redevelop the area for a post-COVID consumer world, with a deemphasis on traditional retail.

“While there are still difficult days ahead, we stand at the precipice of reinvention today,” Kathleen Rawson, chief executive officer of Downtown Santa Monica Inc., said. The company is a non-profit formed by the City of Santa Monica to oversee the Downtown area, including the Promenade. 

“The pandemic only exacerbated the impacts of online shopping on brick-and-mortar retail,” Rawson added. She noted that in recent years, the Promenade has had “vacancies for the first time in decades.”

“Promenade property owners have had trouble leasing their exceptionally large spaces to the smaller contingent of retailers who are still opening brick and mortar shops,” Rawson said.

The plan to revamp the shopping district is being called The Stabilization and Economic Vitality Plan, and while it has not yet been laid out, general areas of focus will be on “private uses and creative zoning that will spark the change we need,” Rawson said. The plan is expected to come together more fully in the next three months and the cost is expected to be low. Rawson said the budget is just $230,000.

Currently, the Promenade is zoned only for retail, dining and office space, something the committee is looking to change. Recommendations for zoning changes will be in an effort to allow everything from “experiential retail” and nightlife to “small scale manufacturing” and housing, DTSM said.

“Recommended zoning changes will be complemented by a strategic, targeted tenant strategy for each of the three blocks and tools to help landlords understand how to adapt their spaces to modern market demands,” the group said.

Strategies will be deployed for spaces and properties in demise or empty and those in need of redevelopment “to attract new and desirable uses.” There will also be a focus on “enhancing diversity, equity and inclusion among both patrons and business operators.” Retail businesses in the Promenade are almost entirely major chain stores, while rival outdoor shopping strips like Abbot Kinney in neighboring Venice Beach have mostly smaller-scale businesses. Abbot Kinney has remained relatively bustling throughout the pandemic, unlike the Promenade.   

Some changes were already under review and being planned for a redesign since 2018. Called Promenade 3.0, that redesign has been shelved due to the financial impacts of the pandemic, the city said. Santa Monica lost about $100 million in general revenue in the last year due to the drop in tourism and related spending, according to city data.

But that plan is being used as something of a starting point for the new Vitality efforts, DTSM said. Generally, the 3.0 plan called for a clear move away from what is now almost a sole focus on physical retail. Some store space would be replaced with more green space (of which there is currently almost none), public art installations, an interactive water feature and performance stage, along with more independent businesses and restaurants. While the city may not be able to afford all that right now, it does seem to want to move forward with altering the functionality of the shopping spaces as soon as possible. 

“Investing in public life pays off,” the 3.0 plan said.