Chronicle SMa.rt: Remembering our past for our future

When I read that Madame Wu passed away after so many years, it sparked a bit of nostalgia in me. There were many original and iconic companies in the past, some of which are still around, but most have been superseded for one reason or another, some good, some bad. Take Wilshire Blvd, for example (there were many more in downtown SM and on Main Street, Pico Blvd. and Santa Monica Blvd. as well).

Madame Wu started at Wilshire Blvd and Princeton as Madame Wu’s Garden serving about 50 people, then, due to its unique menu and celebrity status; she moved to a much larger freestanding building that used to be the Swiss Chalet Café, frequented by celebrities like Princess Grace of Monaco, Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Carey Grant, George Burns. Ronald Reagan, Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, to name a few. What a story of success and empowerment his life has been on so many levels; it hits the mark and is even more relevant today.

If you look at the photo, can you just imagine what it must have looked like then? Now we have Whole Foods there, a large retail outlet, which provides a much needed community service, but like so many new business developments they are more about big business commerce and less about style and unique architectures. Across the street was the Branding Room, a popular steakhouse, piano bar and lounge, now Earth Wind and Flower, and that building still stands. There was Jack’s at the Beach, then Pacific Dining Car, which will now be a 24-hour emergency pet hospital since it closed a few years ago.
We still have a few regulars like Snug Harbour, an authentic little 40’s style cafe with an outdoor terrace at the back, a place for ‘regulars’ and newcomers alike. It and other vintage local spots are a refreshing and warm place for the same reason the original Los Angeles Farmer’s Market on Fairfax and the 3rd is still standing and operating as it always has with many family owned businesses. origin still there. We could get something out of it!

I remember the Ball on Wilshire, a topless restaurant and bar that finally closed in the early 80s. It was an ugly dinosaur that finally sank into the tar pits!

Of course, there is a need for positive change and growth in response to the demands of the people and society, and that’s a good thing, and to be clear, there are many single-storey buildings in the Wilshire which have decayed, are functionally and economically obsolete, and are strong candidates for redevelopment and transformation. There is now an opportunity to create a better boulevard that reflects the 21st century but in a way that preserves the essence of Santa Monica’s history and not simply by replacing or redeveloping these buildings with “copy-cat” architecture. stick”, just a mass of cold concrete. and steel, with metal and wood cladding.

The main point is that we have a dangerous streak and focus on unplanned and unsustained long-term growth over anything else, to the detriment of some of the unique places and family businesses that we are and have been known.

Reality Check: Where will Santa Monica get the financial capacity without creating additional debt and burdens for small businesses to upgrade needed infrastructure, police, fire and maintenance services ? There is no doubt that times are already tough on this front, and the pressure is mostly felt by local, private, family businesses that can barely hold their own in some cases.

Places, for example, like Big Jo’s Hamburgers, are being replaced by businesses in Santa Monica like Shake Shack, which can well afford today’s high market rents. The new development does not provide an economic opportunity for affordable business relocation or perhaps staying in the new project if that makes sense. Awesome places like Wildflower Pizza on Main St., with its sawdust floors and unique beach vibes, have been closed and “upgraded” to Ashland Hill, which is a nice place but so generic like many other places . We should consider providing economic protections to qualified and established family businesses instead of continuing to lose them or kick them out of town.

Look back for a moment and remember that Santa Monica started out as a beach town and resort with beach cottages and homes for Angelenos and foreigners. It was a laid back beach town at its heart. Beginning in the early 1900s, when amusement parks and attractions were popular, Santa Monica began to attract vacationers and well-heeled Orientals seeking to relocate to the West.

Tourism was (and arguably still is to a large extent) Santa Monica’s mainstay economy. There was a downturn during the Great Depression, but after that Santa Monica slowly but steadily transformed into a more modern and developed city for the rest of the 20th century.

McDonnell Douglas built aircraft as part of the war effort (WWII), employing over 40,000 people. The post-war boom and demand for aviation kept this industry highly profitable and supported major economic growth and expansion.

Additionally, ticking about twenty years later and the completion of the Santa Monica Freeway for the first time connected the downtown Santa Monica Los Angeles freeway system, increasing access and volume of traffic to and from Santa Monica almost immediately. This was a huge contribution to the exponential growth that took place over the next twenty-five years or so, laying the foundation for what our city has become today.

I remember in the 1980s the full support of the city for the development and improvement of the downtown core. For many years, this growth and development continued to bring prosperity. But today, downtown Santa Monica is an ailing, bloated, staggering business district saturated with job vacancies and increased crime problems as local “mom and pop” small businesses are driven out with the rising rents and displacement by national chain stores and a lack of vision in our leadership.

What will happen next? Downtown and all of our main thoroughfares are essential and will be of major impact and concern to most local businesses and residents, including visitors and tourists. The brakes should be put on major future developments here for now. Instead, let’s focus on and encourage the repurposing of existing commercial property where warranted and let ourselves be guided by what has made us unique and special! It’s that simple. Our past is a wise teacher of not just what has worked but what still can, guided by a formative and balanced citywide master plan.

It is much smarter to control the quality of buildings, traffic and architecture before the fact rather than to wait and be forced into second-best solutions later because we lack vision or were influenced by external economic interests. We need our government to be really smarter than that.

Michel Jolly, AIRRE
Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Future: Ron Goldman, FAIA Architect; Dan Jansenson, Architect, Building and Fire Safety Commissioner; Mario Fonda Bonardi AIA, commissioner for urban planning; Robert H. Taylor, Architect AIA: Thane Roberts, Architect; Samuel Tolkin architect and urban planning commissioner; Marc Verville retired accountant; Michael Jolly, AIRCRE [email protected]

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