Friday, July 8, 2011

When Locals Matter

High-end "lifestyle hubs" are all the rage -- highly scripted spaces designed as consumer-tourist emporiums; pumped up heirs of Disney and Vegas, as genuine as The Truman Show. Rick Caruso's Grove and Americana at Brand in L.A. are perfect examples. Yet, these "concepts," which look so brilliant on the drawing boards, have shown their limits as instruments of urban development and revitalization.

As highlighted in Urban Land's The New Geography of International Retail Development, glitter is not the answer, even in emerging markets such as the BRIC or Dubai. Why? Because, unless they serve local demand -- "hypermarts and smaller shops rather than Gucci" -- they don't work, especially in this economic climate. Developers all over are rediscovering the virtues of catering for the middle class, "with more affordable retail choices that serve the local demand," a focus on "community, place and [civic] pride," and projects "designed to reflect the social and cultural life of the local society."

Our little Santa Monica is a case in point. In an effort to revitalize its downtown, the City signed off chunks of land to a corporation charged with the redevelopment and management of what is now called the Third Street Promenade. Public space was privatized and turned into a retail mix that caters essentially to tourists and visitors, with chi-chi stores that don't meet local needs. The adjacent Santa Monica Place mall was also recently revamped into luxury boutiques and high-end restaurants. Conclusion? Locals have shunned the area. They don't have a choice: they can't afford, or even find what they need in town (how about schlepping all the way to Culver City or WeHo for the nearest Target store?)

But now, Santa Monica wants its locals back. As reported in the SMDP, the downtown area is being re-branded, with a new "Everyone's Downtown" slogan aimed at letting people know that "Downtown is the place to be and that it is open to everyone, [with] an overhaul of events and activities held on the promenade and throughout the district to change the perception of it as simply a mall or tourist trap [...] By attracting locals, the district hopes to create an authentic Santa Monica experience that will feel natural and be more interesting to tourists that come to visit." That's a first step, even if this revived interest in locals seems to be as mere gimmicks.

The next step may be coming from a
SMMirror report that sales in the new Santa Monica Place are not meeting expectations. Even with 6.5 million visitors per year (vs. a population of 85,000,) there are only so many Vuitton bag one can sell in a day, yet there will always be a need for a good shoe or watch repair, or affordable food, clothing and home fare for all -- a need that is not adequately met. Santa Monica has been so busy puffing itself into a high-end international resort and "lifestyle hub" that it's forgotten all about its locals and true character. Now may be a good time for a reality check.

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