City Adjusts to Future With Timely Changes

Times Staff Writer

"Watch us . . . We're Changing."

The sign brings smiles in the city hall of Paramount, located about 15 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, because the changes in this town of 40,000 residents are vast and visible.

John H. Baker, vice president of the Newport Beach architectural and planning firm of McLellan Cruz Gaylord & Associates, suggested just how extensive the changes are when he said, "Now when you drive down some of the streets here, it looks like somebody dropped a bomb."

It's true. There are some large stretches of vacant lots where substandard structures have been cleared away in readiness for new development, but there are also a lot of new and recently renovated buildings and construction under way.

Since 1983, when the city hired McLellan Cruz Gaylord as architects for redevelopment of its central business district, the firm has been involved in more than 70 projects in Paramount.

Richard R. Powers, director of community development, estimated retail and commercial projects under construction to be "in the range of $30 million."

"And the housing portion is just starting," he said. "The redevelopment agency has been acquiring land as some large users, like a refinery built in the '30s, have been leaving. So there are some large land masses--like one of 80 acres--that are coming up."

Just what will be built on these properties and by whom will be determined after Alfred Gobar Associates Inc. of Brea completes its final "Housing Market Opportunities in Paramount" report.

Most of what is happening in Paramount began after Gobar completed a study in 1981 to determine if there was a future for retail/commercial development there. The question was a good one since a 1981 Rand Report labeled Paramount as one of several disaster cities in terms of economic viability.

After the farmers who had made Paramount a thriving dairy and hay-producing region left for Cerritos and Chino in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Paramount, underwent what Powers calls "the lean years--probably 20 years when the area was not as attractive to developers as Orange County and elsewhere, where the land was cheaper."

Two Areas Combined

In 1957 the city was incorporated, combining the communities known as Clearwater and Hynes into five square miles, now bordered by the Long Beach, 605, 91 and the planned 105 (Century) freeways. Dairy land gave way to industrial uses. And many residents moved.

"The freeway alone took out 4,000 middle-income residents," Powers said, referring to the razing of homes in preparation for construction of the Century Freeway. "Everything seemed to work against Paramount for so long."

The clincher came when the city's lifeblood--industry--began to trickle away. "Industrial re-use of dairy lands had formed a strong tax base," Powers explained. Then the demand for industrial space started to wane.

"We are recipients of the changes in the United States as a whole, going from industrial to office workers," he said. With this movement came another: the return of many residents from the suburbs to areas--like Paramount--nearer to downtowns.

This was first perceived in Paramount in the 1970s, when the city's redevelopment agency was formed and issued $26 million in mortgage revenue bonds for the construction of 350 condominiums that were quickly purchased by middle-income people. Powers likes to think of this as the "bellwether of the community's perception of itself."

Dutch Settlers

The community--including numerous descendants of the Dutch who first settled the area--recognized a need for balance. There were still some strong industrial users in town. Paramount was still known for the Zamboni ice-grooming machine, which is manufactured there and is used to groom ice rinks all over the world. But--as Powers pointed out--one supermarket for 40,000 people was not enough.

That was the case in 1981, when the first Gobar study determined that there was an unmet demand of at least 80,000 to 110,000 square feet of new space for basic goods and services and a shortage of nearly 50,000 square feet of professional offices.

The study found that because of these limitations, new residents probably wouldn't live long in Paramount and, in fact, more of the older population would likely move away, despite the fact that 221,000 people with an average income of $25,000 lived within a three-mile radius. With few places to shop in Paramount, the outflow of sales to surrounding communities was estimated at $20 million to $30 million a year.

However, the study also determined that the city could support a redevelopment program because of the high tax base that resulted from the city's concerted efforts in the 1950s to attract manufacturing.

Incentive to Upgrade

Another finding: The city had no discernable downtown.

Creating one was Bill Holt's first mission as city manager. He was hired in 1980. Powers was hired in 1981. And McClellan Cruz Gaylord was retained in 1983.

"I've never known before of an old city that retained an architectural firm for redevelopment," Powers said. The firm was asked to establish all of the architectural guidelines and sign standards that would normally be created for a new community.

Then the firm was asked to provide, as an incentive for owners to upgrade their buildings, architectural design and, sometimes, planning and construction drawings--all at the city's expense. (McClellan Cruz Gaylord has completed or is currently designing a total of about 110,000 square feet of space under this program.)

The city also set up a relocation program for businesses moved from parcels being assembled for larger projects, with the city paying up to 100% of the owners' costs to replace holdings and equipment. (McClellan Cruz Gaylord designed a total of about 93,000 square feet of space for these businesses.)

New developments were planned and built on parcels that the city assembled or in other parts of what the city determined to be its Central Business District. (McLellan Cruz Gaylord designed a total of about 315,000 square feet of buildings for these properties.)

Enforcement Process

And the architectural firm completed renovation design for the city hall and library--altogether, about 15,000 square feet.

Along with the redevelopment efforts begun in 1981, the city initiated what Powers calls "the code enforcement process."

"It doesn't do any good to encourage re-investment (in real estate) if cars are wrecked and turned upside down in front of somebody's house or if other slum conditions exist," he said. "So the city implemented the code enforcement process, which purges substandard structures and sees that they are rehabilitated or demolished rapidly and efficiently."

Every piece of property in the city was analyzed and if found in violation of Chapter 99 of the state Uniform Building Code, which addresses substandard conditions, the owner is cited and ordered to appear before the city's Planning Commission, which also serves as a board of appeals. The double-duty idea was conceived as a way of eliminating bureaucracy and saving time.

"It also gives owners a chance to get tips on how to solve their problems and makes them ask themselves if their properties are worth fixing up when the land value is changing," he said. "In essence, what we're doing is forcing a business decision on the property owner."

Community Motivated

So far, the process has resulted in widespread demolition. In one neighborhood of 50 acres, 30% of the structures were torn down, and new housing is being built through private financing.

It might seem that the city is treading on property rights, but the community's reaction to the process has been positive, he said.

"One reason I believe there has been such great willingness to change by the community at large is that they sat here for many years and watched the region decay," he said.

"If you taste what it's like to nearly slip off the edge, once you have the hope of turning around you want to grab on and run as never before. So there is a level of motivation here that I've never seen anywhere, and I've been in planning for 25 years."

An indication of this motivation was apparent as the city amassed parcels to define the redevelopment area and create an identifiable downtown.

Two hundred parcels, including businesses and residences, were assembled. "And we haven't had one full condemnation to date," Powers said.

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