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Friday, Jun 9, 2023

PROJECT — Merchant Concerns Fade as Boulevard Work Shapes Up

While business owners’ complaints can still be heard along the torn up stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, they are now being accompanied by sounds of excited anticipation as tangible results of the project begin to surface.

The new sidewalks going in are almost wide enough to land a plane on, and eateries are already setting up outdoor dining areas that are attracting plenty of customers.

It’s enough to have local observers chatting about how, in the not-too-distant future, traffic will flow more smoothly and newly landscaped streets will beckon for lazy afternoon strolls. Some observers predict the stretch might become a shopping destination along the lines of Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica or Old Pasadena after the boulevard work is completed next summer.

Russ Wilson of Koontz Hardware initially fought the project, but admits that for most businesses on the strip it will be a positive change.

“It’s going to be an extraordinary positive for anybody with a restaurant or a nightclub or anything like that, with additional sidewalk space,” Wilson said though he added that his own business won’t benefit much because a hardware store doesn’t need the extra sidewalk space.

Cafes and nightclubs, meanwhile, are gearing up to take advantage of the new amenities.

Rage, a gay club for the past 18 years, has seen its business drop 60 percent during the day and 20 percent in the evenings. The owners have used the drop in business as an occasion to make a $175,000 investment, revamping the kitchen and bar.

Once the 24-foot-wide sidewalk in front of the club is completed workers start pouring concrete this week it will be able to use 15 feet of that space for tables, up from three feet a year ago. The owners expect to add a retractable awning and expand to 16 outdoor tables.

“As much as I like to bitch about it, when it’s done, I think everybody’s going to benefit from it,” manager Michel LeChasseur said.

Not all merchants have the resources of the popular Rage. But smaller businesses such as Greenwich Village Pizza also plan to put up new awnings or add tables outside.

“People like to sit outdoors,” Greenwich Village Pizza manager Emmik Gonzalez said. “I’m European. I know.”

The city’s Santa Monica Boulevard Reconstruction Project was prompted by an offer from the California Department of Transportation to pay the city millions to take over ownership of the boulevard, part of the historic Route 66. The result is the largest public-works project the city has ever undertaken, and midway through construction with a year to go, it’s starting to take shape. Eventually, new landscaping and numerous amenities will line the boulevard, which at just under three miles, spans the length and bisects the heart of West Hollywood.

A key component of the project is a slew of massive improvements, especially west of La Cienega Boulevard, where the pre-existing median is being dramatically narrowed and sidewalks expanded to as wide as 24 feet.

Despite its growing number of supporters, the project still has its opponents. Councilman Paul Koretz, the only city policymaker to vote against the project in 1998, said he isn’t sure the results will be notable enough to make it worth two years of lost business.

Many struggling merchants, especially on the east side of the city where there is more daytime foot traffic, have reported lost business, as much as 50 percent or more during weekdays.

“I don’t think the difference will be so dramatic that it will create a complete new feel for the street,” Koretz said. “What I see so far doesn’t make me think this is something that would necessarily be worth it.”

Now that a $3.5 million boost from the state has reduced the city’s cost of the project to $1.5 million, Koretz plans to ask city staffers to look this week into speeding up the work. Meanwhile, some businesses plan to take advantage of a city proposal set for approval this week that would temporarily cut red tape and lower permit costs for businesses that want to renovate.

Creating more outdoor eating space was one of the primary objectives of city planners when the project was first proposed. Rather than looking to the crowded Third Street Promenade or Westwood Village, city leaders looked to Market Street in San Francisco as a model for their envisioned European boulevard, West Hollywood-style, said Hassan Haghani, a city planner.

“(Residents) wanted a community-oriented boulevard with all the features of a grand boulevard, from mom-and-pop stores to high-end restaurants, and shoe stores, and shops as well,” Haghani said. “It’s Main Street.”

The improvements will undoubtedly usher in some changes to the mix of businesses along the boulevard, although opinions vary as to how much. Real estate agents say property values will increase and rental rates along with them, especially at the west end of the city where the wider street will allow for more improvements.

Real estate experts note that West Hollywood’s ever-present parking crunch will limit retail growth, and requirements that new businesses accommodate parking will limit new construction. Parking is a perennial challenge in densely populated West Hollywood, where 20,000 people reside per square mile. But the city is packed with new developments that will include surplus parking, including the Sunset Millennium project and the Gateway project.

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