Now that more consumers are turning to online retailers to do their shopping, brick-and-mortar stores and shopping malls are emptying in droves. The coronavirus pandemic has done its part to turn once-vibrant shopping districts into empty spaces.
The 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California, has had a long-standing reputation as a popular hot spot for tourists and local residents. Located in downtown Santa Monica, it boasts three blocks of open-air, car-free space with everything from farmers market produce to designer fashion.
The Promenade has not been immune to the big-box retail crisis. Old Navy, Banana Republic and Adidas are just a few of the tenants who have left the beachside shopping district.
Instead of becoming discouraged, city officials and landlords of space on the Promenade are working together to offer unique opportunities for pop-up or short-term rental to tenants that could turn into long-term occupancy if successful.
As shopping malls and other spaces look for new ways to attract customers, pickleball’s rapid growth has paved the way for pop-up locations. Steph McCaffrey and Erin Robertson, partners in business and life, decided to take advantage of this concept and opened Pickle Pop, a 10,000-square-foot indoor venue that offers an affordable option to advanced players and beginners.
Pickle Pop now occupies the space that once belonged to Adidas. The venue contains three PPA-approved pickleball courts, open play round robins, social events and private parties.
McCaffrey, a former professional soccer player, is an investor for a consumer-focused growth equity fund. Her office is located near the Promenade, and she frequently walks there to have coffee. She couldn’t help but notice the increasing number of vacant stores in the shopping district.
“I remember walking around here pre-COVID, and this was like the street to be at in Southern California,” McCaffrey told the Los Angeles Times.
Now, McCaffrey says, there are fewer shoppers and tourists, and the area is much quieter than it used to be. This gave her an idea.
Instead of a traditional lease of retail space, McCaffrey’s concept involved opening a pickleball facility based on lower rent with a short-term location, then extend the lease long-term if successful.
When McCaffrey pitched her idea to Robertson, a fashion designer who won season 15 of Bravo’s competition series “Project Runway,” she loved the idea. Robertson had previous experience with retail pop-ups but was intrigued by McCaffrey’s unique approach.
Robertson put her extensive design experience to good use. The three pickleball courts are a custom dark red, and the seating area is lined with space-age furniture from the Rose Bowl Flea Market. Baby-blue velvet curtains adorn the walls.
A $55 monthly membership offers reservations and discounts for court times and ticketed events, although anyone is welcome to play. Non-members pay around $20 an hour, compared to $12 an hour for members. Open play is available for advanced, intermediate and beginning players, and clinics for all levels are also offered.
A week before its official opening, Pickle Pop began hosting small corporate events after inviting players to sign up on the venue’s Instagram page and pay for early access. Food and drinks are served in Pickle Pop’s kitchen through a partnership with a nearby Mexican restaurant. Patrons can also purchase merchandise designed by Robertson, including pickleball paddles printed with an ombre rainbow pattern.
Pickle Pop held a “soft launch” the weekend of September 9 with ticketed events, court bookings and a full bar and catered food. McCaffrey and Robertson signed a lease at the old Adidas storefront that runs until the end of January 2024, but they are hopeful of an extension. Plans are also underway to open two bigger locations in the Los Angeles area.
Ventures like Pickle Pop are breathing new life into an area that has struggled not only with a retail downturn but crime and an increased homeless population as well. Santa Monica officials, concerned about the district’s decline, have put a major effort into reviving the Promenade.
Ordinances have been changed to make it easier for new businesses to open faster. The process of obtaining an alcohol permit was also adjusted, and conditional-use permits are no longer required for entertainment-based businesses that wish to sell alcohol.
McCaffrey is confident the Promenade will once again become a vibrant community, especially for pickleball enthusiasts.
“I think this is a great building that needs some love,” she told the Times. “When you’re a tenant and buildings have been vacant for a really long time, you have an opportunity to get attractive terms.”
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