Years ago, I wrote about a burgeoning proposal to encourage the Palo Alto city government to turn University Ave. into a pedestrian promenade - a road without cars where people can feel free to spill into the center of the street and walk around. The possibilities in terms of urban development are extensive: fountains, trattoria restaurants, community spaces, green space, additional shops and street vendors are just some of the options that open up without cars taking up the street.
Palo Alto has obviously been hesitant to investigate the promenade proposal, and not without good reason. Downtown Palo Alto these days is more of a business destination than it is a shopping or culinary district. That isn’t to say that there aren’t good restaurants in the city, or a lively performance scene, but the city has certainly kept its priorities for the area quite clear.
That discussion aside, I just visited Los Angeles last week, and stopped by Santa Monica to visit the beach. This city has truly focused on providing the very best in urban planning and design, and the results are magnificent. The city has redeveloped 3rd Street as a pedestrian promenade, and the result is every bit as positive as I and others envisioned three years ago for Palo Alto.
First, I want to point out some of the beautiful modern architecture located in this district. The area has several distinctive hotels and shopping areas that are certainly worth a look. The Shore Hotel, which is located right on the beach, provides a distinctively modern and industrial feel in its architectural style. Every hotel room also gets a full balcony for viewing the city or the beach depending on which side of the building the room lies on.
On the other side of the hotel is the Santa Monica Place, a very nicely accented open-air shopping mall. This is perhaps less impressive than the other buildings here under discussion, but the mall does have its distinctive views of the ocean from its food court tables. Part of the feel is the newness, but I also like the open and modern industrial accents of the mall - they are really a strong combination. Add in the sunset and ocean in the evening, and the color palette is incredibly well done as well.
Santa Monica Place is at the pole of the 3rd street promenade, and what a sight the road is to see. I went here on a Sunday night during Labor Day weekend after going to the beach, and the level of activity was fantastic. There were extensive shops and restaurants on both sides of the streets, and beautiful fountains and benches in the center of the street, along with several small cafe vendors.
While the shops were well-organized, what was even more impressive was the bountiful street performers, including several comedy acts, singers, and instrumentalists, located throughout the promenade at nicely spaced intervals. Each one had about 50-100 people watching, listening, and even participating, which I found quite extraordinary. The whole scene was urban without feeling rushed as well as eclectic, electric, and downright fun. My favorite part was the group joining in social dance mid-way down the promenade.
Walking around Palo Alto on weekend nights, you get some of this feel. Lytton Plaza generally has several street performers, all of whom offer a lot to the surrounding restaurants and shops. However, there are still numerous traffic signal lights on University Ave., and the sidewalks are clearly not the center of attention on street. I realize there is a sort of impracticalness to the pedestrian walkway, but if Santa Monica is any indication, it might actually be one of the most transformative decisions the city has made in some time.