Santa Monica Place Swaps Gehry for Airy

Santa Monica Place Swaps Gehry for Airy

Omniplan has transformed Santa Monica Place from a typical — if Frank Gehry-designed — mall into a sustainable, open-air luxury shopping complex.
Courtesy Omniplan

Thirty years ago a little-known architect named Frank Gehry designed a three-story indoor mall near the beach in Santa Monica while working at Gruen Associates. It was a far cry from the sumptuous buildings he creates today, but the use of metal, glass, and expressive forms was still there, in its infancy. 

Now, little of the original Santa Monica Place remains, as it has been renovated and reconfigured into an outdoor luxury shopping center by Dallas-based Omniplan. Save for some chain link signage, it is an entirely different place, less jazzy and more natural, less claustrophobic and more connected, a classy joint—at least by mall standards—that the developer hopes will attract the crowds that never flocked here before.

One of the main reasons for opening up the wall was to create better connections to the surrounding neighborhood.
Courtesy Omniplan
Looking out toward the promenade.
Marissa Gluck

“It struggled as an indoor mall,” John Hampton, an Omniplan associate principal, said of the Gehry mall. “We had to make more outdoor space.” To do that, the architects ripped off the roof, gutted the interior, rebuilt the common areas, and opened multiple entrances to the street, creating a more seamless transition to the city’s Third Street Promenade.

Developer Macerich Co, which bought the mall in 1999, first planned a 10-acre mixed-use complex of condominium towers, offices and shopping, but neighborhood opposition scuttled that proposal. The ambitious plan was scaled down in 2007 to a $265 million, 750,000 square foot shopping center that essentially preserves the footprint of the older mall while adding public walkways, an indoor/outdoor dining deck with views of the ocean, and a ground floor plaza for events.

The dining deck, with upscale eateries and views of the ocean, is a main attraction.
Marisa Gluck

Converting an indoor mall into an outdoor one presented unique challenges. Omniplan, in association with LA-based Jerde Partnership, had to rebuild the structure with more durable materials, including lithocrete floors, terracotta cladding, and swooping glass escalator canopies. A 9,000-square-foot dining deck sits atop the new roof. “We had to build 8 inches of structure on the roof to allow for drainage,” Hampton said.

Perhaps the most dramatic change is that there are no longer any gates, doors or fences separating the shops from the street. Instead, there are four pedestrian access points, exposing the shopping center to the surrounding neighborhood and to local street life. According to the architects, each entrance references its adjacent neighborhood. For instance the 2nd Street entry, closest to the beach, features organic forms, including a wide, curving eave reminiscent of a wave’s crest.

Outside Gehry’s mall.
Courtesy Shape of Now

The architects have also incorporated sustainable elements into the structure. In addition to the reduced need for air conditioning and heating as a result of its outdoor conversion, the landscaping consists of drought-resistant plants and a green roof above the concierge stand. There is also solar roofing, sustainably sourced wood, and various products using recycled materials. The developer is aiming for LEED Silver certification.

Another significant shift is the tenant mix, abandoning many of the mid-priced stores for more high-end tenants. The mall will be re-opening with department stores Nordstrom and Bloomingdales. The third leg in the mall’s tenant mix is a focus on food, with sit-down restaurants and an outdoor wine bar, an upscale food court, and an upcoming gourmet market place inspired by San Francisco’s Ferry Building.

Few of Gehry’s flamboyant flourishes remain, but the roofs of the escalators do recall the mall’s prior architect.
Marisa Gluck


Gehry’s original atrium, which was replaced with the courtyard above.
Bobak Ha’Eri/Wikimedia Commons

Macerich Co. also installed several public art projects as part of Santa Monica’s Percent for Art (PFA) Program. Rising in the midst of the ovoid plaza is the 60-foot tall “Sliver” by Christian Moeller. The dynamic, phallus-like structure shows a constantly changing “slivers” of news media such as CNN. Other pieces include Ball Nogues Studio’s “Cradle,” 335 mirror-polished stainless steel spheres suspended from the wall of the Pugh + Scarpa-designed parking structure. Anne Marie Karlsen’s “Wheels” sits on an opposite parking structure, a tile mural inspired by the old ferris wheel on the Santa Monica Pier.