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Our View: Newhall going back to the future

The Signal Editorial Board

Posted: December 25, 2010 10:03 p.m.
Updated: December 26, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Saloons and general stores dominated the scene along Old Newhall’s Main Street in this picture from the 1890s. Two general stores, a judge’s residence and two saloons occupied the street during that decade. Efforts to improve downtown Newhall date as far back as 1921.

 

Spread out over a year, the headlines might not seem like much. An intersection realigned here, an old building flattened there. Grading work here, a sidewalk widened there.

In between, a parade and arts festivals and a farmers market and some Western concerts and history lectures and theatrical performances and small-business grants and food for the needy and ... taken together, you realize what a big year it was for Old Town Newhall.

For the second consecutive year, 2010 saw the plans for redeveloping Old Town Newhall move off the drawing board and into the physical realm.

The fact that it’s happened in an economy during which most cities are struggling for mere survival shows that somebody is doing an exemplary job of minding the pocketbook at Santa Clarita City Hall.

Of course, progress hasn’t come without its share of pain. A decade ago, people were wondering when real redevelopment would start. As businesses come and go and customers dodge traffic cones and fight for precious parking spaces, folks are starting to wonder when it will ever end.

It may never fully “end” — there will always be more work to do — but the short-term pain will end when we’re able to enjoy the long-term gain of a huge new library at one end, an artistic roundabout at the other and the attractions of a pedestrian-friendly downtown in-between.

If it seems like it has been a long time in coming, you don’t know the half of it.

The story of Old Town Newhall is the saga of a typical American frontier town that has struggled to maintain currency in the face of changing trends. It’s a story that dates so far back that only lifelong Newhall resident Gladys Laney, who turned 100 in July, can possibly remember it.

Newhall sprouted in the late 1870s with the Southern Pacific Railroad. Saloons outnumbered churches in this town of a few hundred people. There was no Canyon Country nor Valencia. “Downtown” Saugus (where the Saugus Cafe is) came a decade later.

Newhall was our valley’s central business district and the heart of the valley. The main street was Railroad Avenue.

Merchants leased space from the Southern Pacific. Oil was booming and so was the town, enough so that the SP decided to raise rents in 1914 when Gladys was but a toddler.

The merchants balked. They picked up stakes and moved a block back to Spruce Street, today’s Main Street.

It was a busy time. The Ridge Route opened the following year, easing travel between Los Angeles and Bakersfield.

Newhall filled up with these newfangled horseless carriages as travelers stopped to fill their gas cans and vulcanize their tires before continuing along their half-day journey up the Grapevine.

Today, we have the Old Town Newhall Association. In 1921, the merchants formed the Newhall Improvement Association and in 1923, the Chamber of Commerce.

They had lofty goals. They wanted to rip out all of those darned trees that were blocking drivers’ view of their stores, and they wanted the county to pave Spruce Street. (We weren’t a city until 1987.)

They succeeded. They ripped out the trees and even created a marketing brochure that flaunted a hotel, drugstore, cafe, not one but two churches, and curiously, some chickens. In 1926, the county paved the street.

And they were done.

World War II changed the face of Southern California. At war’s end, Midwestern farm boys who’d shipped out from our sunny ports remembered what they’d seen and moved their young families out West.

With “The Lone Ranger” on the radio and Johnny Mack Brown shooting dozens of B-Westerns at today’s Melody Ranch, Newhall’s merchants thought they could attract attention to their town by redoing their storefronts in Western motif.

They drew elaborate architectural plans — but that’s as far as it went. They were on their own. They couldn’t afford the investment. They had no municipal government to spur them along, and the far-away county Board of Supervisors had other priorities.

The county saw its future not in fixing up old buildings, but in providing those young, post-war families with places to live. Unlike agricultural Ventura County which wanted to keep people away, Los Angeles County reshaped its tax structure to make it financially impractical to maintain family farms.

It wanted to turn those farms into subdivisions.

With Bing Crosby and Gene Autry vowing to “settle down and never more roam, and make the San Fernando Valley my home,” the county didn’t even need a marketing strategy.

One by one, Santa Clarita Valley landowners jumped on the bandwagon, starting with the Bonelli tract in 1947. For big-time growth to come here, however, a few things would have to happen.

The election of Jerry Brown’s father, Pat, as California governor in 1958 paved the way for the SCV’s biggest landowner, the heirs of Henry Mayo Newhall, to turn things up a notch.

The family company’s executives hired an architect to design an entire new town called Valencia. But if they were going to transform their cattle pastures and farmland into housing tracts, they would need better roads to get people here and enough water for them to drink.

Having founded the Stanford Business School, they leveraged their relationships in Sacramento to assure that the new interstate freeway, which was to replace the old Ridge Route (by this time, Highway 99), would run right through their property. And they flexed their political muscle for inclusion in, and voter approval of, the State Water Project bond act of 1960.

Now they were ready. Their ducks in a row, in 1969, they opened a new shopping center to serve the new homes they built off of Lyons Avenue.

One by one, the people of the Santa Clarita Valley left little old Newhall behind.

It’s understandable. People like new things, and businesses like to be where the people are.

Valencia wasn’t just about homes. It was to be an entire town. Plans called for schools and roads and colleges and bigger work centers and a bigger hospital and a bigger governmental complex — all the things a large, isolated community 35 miles from downtown Los Angeles would need to survive on its own.

So the townspeople moved. The sheriff’s station moved from 6th Street to an expanded facility in Valencia. The Ford and Chevy dealerships were right behind. The bank left. The drug store closed. The hotel was long gone.

In 1980, just months before the election of Supervisor Mike D. Antonovich, the county recognized what had happened to Newhall. It hired consultants and crafted a plan to stem Newhall’s economic decline.

In 1981, the county put brick pavers in the crosswalks and installed the two Walk of Stars monuments at either end of the district. And that was it. The money ran out before the county could do any more than put lipstick on this pig — and the lipstick in the crosswalks quickly smeared with rubber from tires that sped past the shops at 40 mph or better.

A few more years of fast-paced growth and the people of our valley were ready to seize the governmental reins.

Twenty-three years ago this month, they formed a city. Relatively speaking, the new city quickly turned its attention to Newhall. Within six years, it hired consultants to craft a new plan. Then came the 1994 earthquake and, long story short,
the city redoubled its redevelopment efforts.

By 1997 it was implementing a new plan — which was fine as far as it went, but it didn’t go far enough. It was long on lipstick and short on substance.

So the city came back a decade later with a new, more aggressive plan that is taking physical form now, with an anchor library and cozy sidewalks and live theater and, over the next several years, three- and maybe four-story buildings with trendy shops below and residential units above.

In other words, the things that come to mind when you think “old town.”

Buildout will have to be done carefully and methodically, and there will be more growing pangs. Newhall must continue to serve the needs of the adjacent neighborhoods while adding the types of amenities and night life that will attract college students, shoppers, diners and entertainment seekers from the wider community.

“Why should my tax dollars pay for this?” You ask. In the long run, with the exception of government buildings like the library which would have to be built anyway, your tax dollars don’t pay for it. Private developers do.

Rather, the government does what private enterprise can’t do on its own. It rezones property. It accumulates parcels and repackages them. Developers buy the property and build to the city’s specifications. In some cases, even the cost of the pretty new public sidewalks will get passed along to developers.

Those aren’t the sorts of things that Newhall’s merchants can do by themselves. They couldn’t do it in 1920 or 1940 or 1980, and they can’t do it in 2010.

But with cityhood and prudent fiscal management and continued public support and a great deal of patience, Santa Clarita can.

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