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Our View: Redevelopment vital to success

Posted: July 31, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: July 31, 2011 1:57 a.m.

 

Old Town Newhall is a success.

It has been a long and bumpy road, and there is still much work to do. Redevelopment came too late to save sentimental favorites like Newhall Hardware, but even as the future of the redevelopment-financing mechanism hangs in limbo, the ball is rolling on Newhall’s Main Street, and it can’t be unrolled.

City Hall is “all-in” on Old Town Newhall, and that’s what made the difference. The city is in the midst of constructing a $25 million centerpiece library. It has purchased entire blocks that it will redevelop with private-developer partners.

It created an inviting pedestrian atmosphere and launched a series of events that drew a whopping 3,000 people last week — crowds that haven’t been seen in Newhall, ever. Not even in what we tend to consider Newhall’s heyday. Truth be told, Newhall’s heyday is yet to come.

It’s happening for one reason only: commitment. Our local government is committed to it.

That wasn’t always the case. Prior to cityhood in the late 1970s, our local government — the county — took a stab at fixing up our old downtown, but it wasn’t all-in. It didn’t make a commitment, financially or otherwise. It’s a big county, and it had other priorities.

It took several years for the new city of Santa Clarita to get its feet on the ground after its 1987 incorporation. By the mid-1990s, Newhall residents and business owners were looking to the city for help.

Help came in the form of well-attended community meetings that resulted in a revitalization plan for the area, complete with new architectural styles, pedestrian walkways and a Metrolink station to attract visitors.

The Metrolink station came. The new architectural styles were added to the code books. Property owners were granted public funds to help transform their buildings into El Trocadero restaurant and the Canyon Theatre.

Importantly, the mid-1990s revitalization plan specified a funding mechanism to pay for the public improvements, in this case, redevelopment financing.

Redevelopment dollars are initially slow to come, for reasons we won’t go into here. (Besides, under current California law, it’s essentially moot.)

Suffice it to say, it took about 10 years for the city to gather together enough redevelopment dollars to make the particular improvements you’ve seen the city roll out over the past three years.

Halfway through its third decade, our city is all grown up, and now it’s looking to spread the joy to other parts of town.

This summer, the city launched the Santa Clarita Corridor Plan. You can check it out online at SantaClaritaCorridorPlan.com. The idea is to take a look at the city’s major thoroughfares — Lyons Avenue, Sierra Highway, Bouquet and Soledad Canyon roads — and talk to the community, then figure out what the city can do to make the residential and particularly the office and retail environments work better.

It’s not unlike the approach the city took to Old Town Newhall in the mid-1990s. Beginning with Lyons Avenue, the city is holding outreach meetings with residents, business and property owners to learn what they want Lyons Avenue to look like. Watch for the next such meeting in October.

Already we hear people ask, “What will it look like?”

That’s the wrong question.

The city isn’t entering into this with a preconceived notion. It wants the people who live and work there to say what they envision for Lyons Avenue. Then the city will take the information and turn it into new building codes that apply only to
Lyons Avenue.

It’s actual “planning” of an entire part of town.

Whatever Lyons is today, you can’t accuse anyone of planning it in the past. Thanks to decades of past planning practices that approved just about any type of development that complied with state law, it has turned into a mishmash.

Some things work great. Some things don’t. Some areas have buildings set back behind vast seas of underutilized parking.
Some shops come right to the sidewalk, and you can’t find a parking spot three blocks away. Pedestrians have to dodge bicyclists who can’t be expected to dodge cars doing 45 mph or more. Medical offices are doing booming business, while some stores have been shuttered for two or three years.

Try to figure out the character of the strip by looking at the architectural styles of the buildings, and your head explodes.

At the end of the day, or rather the end of next year, the city should have a roadmap to guide future (re-)development of the area.

Should traffic be slowed? Should there be bike paths? Should shops be oriented to the street? Should there be shared parking lots? Should there be turn lanes into shopping centers? Should there be a comprehensive landscaping plan?
Should there be special sign codes for the area? Should there be a cohesive architectural blueprint?

These are the types of questions the city is asking now. It’s asking because we’ve got a city manager and planning director who are committed to taking a comprehensive approach to planning entire sections of this city and making them work better.

Gone are the days of “anything-goes-as-long-as-it’s-legal” planning — one hopes, forever.

There are a few more things we hope come out of this process.

One, we hope the city takes a cue from its Newhall revitalization plan of the mid-1990s and identifies a funding source at least for the “public improvement” part of the Lyons Avenue Corridor Plan, so the plan doesn’t end up on a shelf.

Two, we hope the city rolls out the corridor plans concurrently, not consecutively.

From our vantage point, Soledad Canyon Road can’t wait any longer.

It has already waited long enough for a comprehensive planning approach. It has waited at least since 1992, when the Valencia Town Center mall opened, and the giant sucking sound you heard was the economic vitality of Canyon Country heading west.

That’s a big statement, but follow us on this. Once upon a time, Canyon County had specialty markets and upscale apparel and appliance and furniture stores that were every bit as viable as the businesses in “old” Old Town Newhall prior to 1974 when the auto dealers pulled out and followed their customers to Valencia.

Of course, we don’t begrudge the birth of Valencia. That’s silly. What happened to the economic vitality of other parts of our town is simply a fact of life that mirrors the experience of growing cities everywhere.

Stand back and take a broad look. Today, we’ve got deep-discount retailers where once were Howard & Phil’s Western
Wear and Appliances. We’re about to get a Goodwill store where once was a furniture showroom. What happened?

Make no mistake. We love Goodwill, and it has been a great community partner. Besides, the furniture storeroom has been vacant for years.

When the choice is Goodwill or nothing, we’ll gladly take Goodwill. But would it be directly on a major thoroughfare in a healthy community? No. It wouldn’t be able to afford the rent.

As one citizen said during Goodwill’s Planning Commission hearing, “It’s not a location for a Nordstrom. I get that.”

Why? Why do we accept that? Why shouldn’t it be a location for a Nordstrom? It was previously. (Not Nordstrom, but of that ilk.)

Yes, we can add. Add up the retail dollars that aren’t being spent in certain pockets of Soledad, and you’re likely to meet the state’s legal definition of “economic blight.”

But we don’t accept the permanence of the situation. Clever planning can reverse the decline.

To be sure, the city and others have made sizable, piecemeal investments in Canyon Country. The city paid for and built the Canyon Country Jo Ann Darcy Library and helped develop a nice shopping center next to it.

The Sulphur Springs Union School District turned an under-enrolled elementary school into a well-hoofed Edwards theatre, and a shopping center where certain individual business owners, such as George Thomas of Route 66 Classic Grill, help out by hosting big car shows that attract hundreds of patrons. And the city has spent beaucoup bucks on center medians and landscaping to keep up appearances.

As on Lyons, some things on Soledad work. Some things on Soledad could work better.

Can the city determine which retailers can and can’t open up shop in a given location? No.

But what the city can do is exactly what it’s doing with Lyons — and what the city has said it will do on Soledad in the future: Take a comprehensive approach to planning the corridor.

The city can and will ask residents, business and property owners what they want, and turn those wishes into horses in the code books to make the area work together better, and make Soledad more appealing to upscale retailers who come to
Santa Clarita looking to set up shop in a part of town where they know the government is committed to helping them succeed.

All we’re saying to the city is this: Thanks for doing Lyons. Please start on Soledad today.

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