As construction workers in hard hats rushed past concrete barriers, traffic cones and yellow caution tape to upgrade the deserted Lido Marina Village, designer Steve Jones set foot on the brick-paved street, glanced up at the two-story property and cupped his chin in his hand.
"It's always interesting when you peel back walls," Jones said.
He has been removing layers for some time.
Jones, who owns BetterShelter, a boutique real estate development company, is strategizing the aesthetic side of the renovation of Lido Marina Village.
The prime piece of waterfront real estate situated at the entrance to the Balboa Peninsula was once a popular retail center where crowds thronged to eat and shop, but the foot traffic languished in recent years as owners eased off in maintaining the grounds, resulting in vacant storefronts. Past developers considered demolishing the shopping center and replacing it with a skyscraper.
But in 2012, the village was acquired by DJM Capital Partners, a private equity investment, development and asset management firm specializing in the retail sector. The company envisioned bringing back the village's charm and vibrancy by restoring upscale shopping, dining and marina activities to the location.
DJM, whose portfolio boasts the revitalization of Bella Terra retail and residential center in Huntington Beach, began work in February and collaborated with Jones to implement a casual and sophisticated charm into the property.
Jones, who first worked with DJM on Pacific City, a beachfront mixed-use development off Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach, is responsible for making subtle yet important changes to upgrade building exteriors, landscaping, lighting and decks that reflect the coastal location.
"It has this ocean, nautical theme with classic and timeless architecture," Jones said. "We want it to feel fresh and contemporary so that when people come here, they leave inspired."
To brainstorm ideas, Jones compiled an inspiration board, filled with magazine and book clippings demonstrating a classic resort style. Pictures ranging from women dressed in Lilly Pulitzer sheaths to Frank Sinatra walking on a boardwalk were pinned on a wall in his office overlooking the marina.
He then thought of creating the feel of a small neighborhood found nestled inside a big city.
"It's smaller but there's more of an intimacy," he said. "Nothing exists like this property in Orange County and we want to keep it very comfortable and classic. Each building here should have snap."
To keep in theme, Jones said, each storefront will be painted in one of three colors — white, gray or black. Some storefronts will be accessorized with awnings. The shiplap used on a few exteriors will be restored with a crisp finishing. Drought-tolerant California native plants will be interspersed throughout the property.
The grounds, Jones, said will appeal to all ages.
He is designing a wide fountain where children and families can rent miniature sail boats and watch them float. It's a special touch to the center Jones wanted to bring back from a visit to France. He observed locals chase wooden sailboats at the large fountain at Jardin du Luxembourg.
Throughout the process, Jones said he has found hidden gems.
"We were in a building on the corner of Via Lido and we peeled back a roof when and found this beautiful ceiling," Jones said. "Why was that not exposed?"
According to DJM, the 116,000-square-feet of boutique retail, restaurants and offices will feature a tenant mix of fashion and food, reflective of the casual style of the upscale community surrounding the project.
The marina will be upgraded with a 47-slip marina, with docks and decks overlooking the marina to attract high-end stores and restaurants overlooking the water.
Jones said the boardwalk will be widened 6 feet and the alleyways throughout the center will be replaced with updated wood.
The center's passageways, he said, should offer a sense of discovery while visitors explore and find hidden niches.
Dan Schmenk, owner of Lido Village Books, has sold books, newspapers and magazines for the past 15 years. He said despite having a closed street in front of his shop, he has been able to carry on business with his loyal customer base and visitors who stay in the nearby cottages. He has seen the plans for the exterior of his future building and he will relocate one door down from his current address.
"The construction has really been hurting my business — definitely — but at the same time, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel," Schmenk said. "I think it's going to be a very important location and it's going to be a destination.
"I'm very excited about what's around the corner," he added. "I think these people are doing a wonderful job."
Lido Marina Village, developed in 1971, was constructed as a pedestrian-friendly center for dining and shopping but stagnated during the recession.
The redevelopment, which hasn't yet specified a finishing date, will feature an upscale mix of restaurants, cafes, food purveyors, home decor and gift shops.