Twenty years later, and there’s a Target in downtown Santa Monica?

Did you receive it? The coupon in the mail giving five dollars off on a purchase of $15 or more at the new Target store at Fifth and Broadway? Of course I had to rush over as soon as I could to see the new store, which is in a remodel of what was Fred Segal. I had to smile when I saw it: what a prosaic denouement to a drama from 20 years ago.

The new Target store at Fifth and Broadway.

In 2000, when I started writing my weekly column for the Santa Monica Lookout News, the planning issue that more than any other defined what was going on in Santa Monica was whether Target could build a store at the corner of Fifth and Santa Monica. The site had been the parking lot behind Henshey’s, Santa Monica’s homegrown department store, destroyed in the 1994 earthquake.

I wrote a number of columns about Target, including one in December 2000 that was the first column I wrote about a development issue. Having just reread it, it’s one that with a few revisions I could adapt for one of today’s controversies over whether Santa Monicans need to consider the needs of working-class people when they make planning decisions.

Target was controversial, to say the least. The project embodied a new trend in urbanism that many in Santa Monica were not ready for. While urban Targets are common now, back then Santa Monica’s would have been only the second one. Instead of a box surrounded by parking near an off-ramp in the suburbs, this store would be three stories on a busy downtown corner. The parking would have been underground and would have been open to the public on the same terms as the City’s parking structures.

Public hearings at both the Planning Commission and then at City Council extended over multiple evenings and late into the night. Ultimately Target lost, on a 5-2 City Council vote. Then as now, there were Santa Monicans who, while complaining that Santa Monica was too dense, still prayed to the gods of suburbia for relief if not vengeance.

The five no votes reflected attacks on the project from two directions. Three of the no votes came from three-quarters of the councilmembers who were then considered Santa Monica’s anti-development majority: Kevin McKeown, Richard Bloom, and Michael Feinstein. They reflected the concerns of the usual suspects opposed to change. McKeown summarized those concerns with the words, “it’s the traffic, stupid.”

The primary impact that the Target would have had on traffic would have been to make life more convenient for Santa Monica residents who wouldn’t have had to drive to Culver City to buy a cheap set of towels. Back then environmental analysis didn’t consider a development’s impact on per capita vehicle miles traveled.

The three from the no-growth side would not have been enough to kill Target but for the surprising no votes of Robert Holbrook and the late Herb Katz. Holbrook and Katz more or less represented the traditional business community in Santa Monica, and they generally supported development. This time they voted no. While they gave various rationales, not all consistent, it was clear from testimony that their friends who ran businesses downtown were worried about the competition that Target would bring as a discount department store.

The two yes votes came from Pam O’Conner, the councilmember most attuned to urbanism, and, from the late Ken Genser, the original growth-skeptic on the council and normally the other one-quarter of the anti-development majority.

O’Connor’s vote was not a surprise. She cut through the rhetorical thicket by pointing out that all the council was being asked to do was to approve a department store on the site of what had been a department store, and that, in particular, this would be a department store that marketed itself to working people, as opposed to the high-end department stores at Santa Monica Place.

Genser’s yes vote was a surprise to many people, but not to me. While Genser had emerged from the anti-development wing of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights in the 80s, he had a nuanced view about development and could not be pigeon-holed. While fiercely protective of Santa Monica’s neighborhoods, he was a big supporter of development in downtown Santa Monica, in part to relieve pressure on the neighborhoods, but also because he liked downtown ambiance. Some years later, not long before he died, I heard Genser speak at a Santa Monica Democratic Club event. Someone asked him what was the most surprising thing that had happened during his long career on the council. Genser shook his head and replied that he still couldn’t understand why the council had not approved Target.

I don’t know when, but at some point it became common wisdom that rejecting Target had been a mistake. I remember Ted Winterer, when he was running for City Council on an anti-development platform, saying that he couldn’t understand why Target hadn’t been approved. After I lost my race for City Council in 2012, I had a coffee with one of the other losing candidates. He was from the anti-development side but we’d become friendly during the campaign. I was flabbergasted when he told me that it was big mistake not to approve the Target. Yet he didn’t see the connection with his no-growth politics. To him, there was some kind of mysterious force, some “they,” who had killed Target.

It didn’t kill me that Target was killed. A Target would have been great for that corner, but I knew that if the developers could not build a commercial development, they would build housing. In fact, under the zoning then in effect, they could build twice as much housing as they could commercial. That’s what they did. Instead of a three-story Target, they built five story buildings with ground floor retail and four floors of apartments.

The apartments on the Fifth Street side of the original Target site.
The apartments from Santa Monica Boulevard.

And 20 years later, there’s a Target in downtown Santa Monica, one block away from the original location. Go buy some towels.

Thanks for reading.

In case you’re interested, here are links to my columns on Target:

“Who do we think we are?” (First column on Target, after the Planning Commission vote)

“Target: Panic in the Streets” (Preceding the City Council hearing)

“Target: Tale of Two Cities” (After the hearing)

Return to Target, A Play in Many Acts (After the council’s vote)