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Oceanside : At Long Last, Redevelopment Program Begins to Pay Off

Times Staff Writer

Back in the early 1970s, Bette Butters sold real estate in Oceanside.

Better make that tried to sell real estate in Oceanside.

“You couldn’t give the stuff away,” Butters recalled. “Crime, Marines, girlie houses all over the place. It was dreadful. I’d show a young family a home and there would be illegals squatting inside.”

Frustrated and unable to make a living, Butters packed her bags and moved to Orange County, bidding the coastal city what she believed was a final farewell.

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But Bette Butters is back. And this time, she’s downright bullish on Oceanside.

Three weeks ago, the blond, well-tanned woman, now retired, took up residence in a handsome new beachfront condominium on the edge of the city’s historically seamy downtown. Gazing out her living room window one day recently at the surf rolling in gently over the wide, white-sand beach, Butters proclaimed Oceanside “a splendid place to live.”

“If you had told me when I left here 10 years ago that I’d be buying property and living in downtown Oceanside, I would have told you you were nuts,” Butters said. “But crime is down, most of the trashy girlie houses are gone and redevelopment has really cleaned the place up. So here I am.”

Butters is among the first of what city officials hope will be a rising tide of gutsy pioneers who are scorning Oceanside’s persistent reputation as a crime-infested haven for Marines and investing in homes in the downtown area.

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So far, the newcomers have only trickled in. Nonetheless, their arrival has prompted city leaders to declare that, after 10 years of painfully slow progress and a slew of setbacks, Oceanside’s controversial redevelopment efforts are beginning to bear fruit.

“This city is on a roll, a roll of success and positive, constructive action,” said Margueretta Gulati, the city’s redevelopment director. “A radical transformation, both visual and in demographics, is taking place in the downtown. In 10 months, you will not recognize the area. We’re going to knock your socks off.”

That’s heady stuff, but Gulati insists she has reason to brag. Last month, the first 50-unit phase of a long-awaited, $42-million waterfront condominium project opened. In addition to Butters, 21 families have already settled in the condominiums--nearly all of which have been sold--and work on a second batch of units begins in October.

Last month the City Council decided to spend $1.8-million to help rebuild Oceanside’s historic

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wooden pier. Efforts to relocate the downtown railroad switching yards--a $3.5-million endeavor that will clear a large swath of land for commercial development--have begun and should be completed by fall of 1986.

A major developer, Winner’s Circle International of Del Mar, has announced plans to demolish a dilapidated apartment complex on The Strand, the city’s beachfront street, and build a snazzy, 44-unit time-share condominium resort.

And after years of foot-dragging, the City Council recently agreed to finance a civic center on a three-block site east of Hill Street, downtown Oceanside’s major north-south thoroughfare. An architectural design competition for the structure will commence shortly, and officials say they hope to award a contract for the $20-million project by February.

Despite such accomplishments --and the accompanying rose-colored assertions of city leaders--a glance around town suggests that to declare Oceanside in the throes of an urban renaissance may be a bit premature.

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Across the street from the site of the new civic center, for example, the marquis at the Towne Theater recently invited passers-by to a showing of “Fearless Master” and other, more crudely titled X-rated flicks. A few blocks westward, Marines and other folks pay $4 to see “Totally Nude” dancers at the neon-lighted Playgirl Teen Theatre.

A stone’s throw from Bette Butters’ new blue and white condominium lies a neigborhood of ratty cottages that could be straight off the pages of “Tobacco Road.” And perhaps most distressingly, a two-block area on Hill Street leveled for office development three years ago remains vacant, a symbol of the city’s continuing struggle to persuade investors it’s safe to do business in Oceanside.

Such physical signs are supported by the grumbling of many merchants, who complain that while redevelopment may be producing condos on the beach, it has done nothing to inject life into the city’s slumping downtown business sector.

“Like the man from Missouri, I hear it’s happening, but I gotta see it to believe it,” said Hal Weeks, who owns T-shirt Express on Hill Street. “So far, they’ve just been blowing a lot of smoke and spending a lot of money. As far as I’m concerned, redevelopment’s been an empty promise for the downtown merchant.”

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Norton Hathaway, president of the Oceanside Merchants Assn., agreed: “The redevelopment staff’s favorite saying is, ‘We’ve got to bite the bullet.’ Well, the ‘we’ they’re referring to are the downtown merchants, and some of them are a little tired of biting.”

Merchants are particularly critical of the city’s failure to develop the two blocks west of Hill Street, where 26 businesses--mostly bars, tattoo parlors and pawnshops--were condemned and demolished in February, 1982. A lawsuit brought against Oceanside by owners of two stores closed down by the city is pending.

“The businesses on those blocks may not have been the greatest asset for the city, but they should never have torn them down until the ink was dry on development contracts,” said Weeks, whose brother’s trophy shop was among those that got the ax. “It’s been devastating for the remaining businesses. Who wants an empty lot sitting around?”

Recently, Oceanside officials spent $24,000 to plant grass and palm trees and construct walkways on the property, a move that some merchants describe as an effort by embarrassed officials to mask a major blunder.

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City leaders here are accustomed to such complaints, and they concede a thriving downtown is still a few years away: “We’re not there yet,” said Chamber of Commerce President Larry Hatter, “and we’ve got a ton of work to do before we get there.”

But most agree that redevelopment has begun producing tangible, visual results in Oceanside. And, the officials say, even people who once loathed redevelopment are pleased.

“A few years ago, Oceanside was on a downward spiral and people were all heated up about the negatives in the city,” Gulati said. “Slowly, things are beginning to get better, to look better, and people’s appetites have been whetted for good things. So they want more. It’s infectious.”

While in recent years Gulati would receive “purely negative” telephone calls from people declaring, “This city’s a toilet,” today’s commentators say, “Fix this, spruce up that, and why can’t you do more and do it faster,” she said.

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In brief, Gulati said, redevelopment in Oceanside has survived its painful adolescence and matured.

It’s about time. Although redevelopment is a controversial tool in every city that attempts to use it, Oceanside seems to have had more than its share of woes since the program was launched in 1973.

Some factors that have made progress particularly elusive in Oceanside were beyond officials’ control. While many downtown businesses owe their existence to servicemen from the sprawling military base on the city’s northeastern fringe, the Marines also created a stubborn image of Oceanside as a tough town with crime problems, an image that has made developers wary of investing here.

There were also some particularly large hurdles to clear. Moving the freight switching yards from downtown to a site on Camp Pendleton, for example, required years of painstaking negotiations with the military and the railroad, both of which waivered in their support of the project.

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Despite such obstacles, city leaders admit they have committed a few faux pas of their own.

“I think it’s fair to say we really shot ourselves in the foot a number of times,” Mayor Larry Bagley said.

Take for instance, Bagley said, the city’s initial decision to seek out a major developer to refashion downtown into a slick, well-landscaped row of retail stores and new office buildings. In 1979, city officials eagerly awarded Watt Industries, a large builder with impressive credentials, exclusive negotiating rights to 167 acres encompassing the blighted downtown and shoreline.

But when Watt officials said downtown was a lost cause until the eroding beach was stabilized, the switching yards were moved and housing was built to create a year-round supply of patrons for businesses, civic leaders looking for a quick fix balked. And Watt pulled out.

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“We really blew it on that one,” Bagley said, “because today we are doing or have done the very things Watt recommended. Watt was right: residential had to come before retail. But at the time, there was a misperception on the council about how best to proceed.”

After Watt departed, Oceanside quickly embraced a Canadian firm, Office Buildings Inc. (OBI), that proposed to build twin 11-story office towers in the center city. Enticed by the prospect of becoming North County’s office mecca, officials cleared the infamous two downtown blocks to make room for the structures.

But OBI could neither come up with financing nor attract tenants for the ambitious project, and the plans fell through. Critics of City Hall still complain bitterly that their leaders should have seen through OBI’s dreams from the start, and Gulati--who arrived on the scene as redevelopment director shortly thereafter--called the towers proposal “completely impossible and unrealistic, then and now.”

Next in line was a Beverly Hills attorney, A. Marco Turk. Turk had no prior development experience but enthusiastically insisted he could remake nine downtown blocks and build a hotel and convention center. Redevelopment officials gave him a year; then, seeing no partners and no progress, they kicked him out.

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Following these disappointments, a new direction emerged. City leaders decided Watt was right--residential development had to come first in Oceanside--and negotiated an agreement to build 293 condominiums on the beach north of the pier. They also agreed to select developers based on their credibility and experience in redevelopment--not based on their grandiose and seductive proposals.

“There were staff changes, council changes, philosophical changes, and I think we sort of regrouped and decided to cooperate,” Bagley said.

Since then, declared Chamber President Hatter, redevelopment has been “astronomically successful.” Cases in point include:

- The beachfront condominiums. Fifty low-income units, priced from $59,000 to $75,000, were completed last month, and 42 were sold and 22 occupied at last count. Soon, construction will begin on the first of 243 market rate units, which will start at $125,000 and are scheduled for completion in 1988. Officials said nearly 400 people have expressed interest in purchasing those condominiums.

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- Reconstruction of the municipal pier. The longest of its type on the West Coast when it was built in 1947, the pier has lost half its length to storms in recent years and has become increasingly rickety.

With help from federal and state funding sources, the city is coordinating a $3.5-million project to rebuild the classic structure to its original length and restore the concrete base that anchors the pier at the shore. An abandoned dining room beneath the pier will be converted into city recreation offices and a small police substation.

- Civic Center. With its financial house in good order for the first time in several years, the City Council voted recently to finance a new, campus-style civic center on a site bounded by 3rd, 4th, Nevada and Hill streets. The 170,000-square-foot building is expected to cost $20 million and will house city offices, a new library and a small fire station--a total of about 700 city employees.

Redevelopment officials are now soliciting entrants for an architectural design competition and hope to see work on the project begin early next year. The building will initially be financed with redevelopment funds to be repaid by the city.

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- Relocation of the railroad switching yards. The relocation of a set of unsightly tracks bisecting the downtown area to a site on Camp Pendleton is “the heart and soul” of the city’s redevelopment program, Gulati said.

Currently, access routes to the beach are blocked up to 99 times a day by switching maneuvers. Removal of the yards will reduce that number to 14 and enable officials to extend busy Mission Avenue--which now dead-ends at the yards--to the beach. In addition, the project will open up land for commercial and retail development.

- Park development. Two parks, one that meanders along the bluffs on South Pacific Street and a second that is level with the beach, are being enlarged and will enhance landscaping improvements along the shoreline. Also, decorative street crossings are being added in another effort to spruce up the beachfront.

- Transit center. Already completed, the $5.2-million project merged public and commercial bus service, taxis and Amtrak at a central terminal on Cleveland Street, one block south of Mission Avenue and was the first major project in the redevelopment zone.

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Gulati said those accomplishments have given other landowners in the redevelopment zone the courage to proceed with projects formerly on hold, either because developers could not secure financing or were simply leery of committing themselves to the area.

In addition, Gulati and others said the development community at large appears to have a new perception of Oceanside.

“Oceanside had this slogan about the city being California’s best kept secret,” Gulati said. “It’s kind of corny but it’s true. And now we’re being discovered.

“A few years ago if a credible developer walked into our office we’d be thrilled to death. Nowadays, I don’t have time to return their calls.”

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Rich Cicoletti, a partner in the Irvine firm that is building the waterfront condominium project, confirmed Gulati’s assessment.

“Three years ago, Oceanside was perceived by the building industry as a Marine town with a crime problem, beaches that were washing away and a divided and unstable City Council,” Cicoletti said. “Today I hear, ‘Hey, I understand they’re doing a lot of good things in Oceanside.’ ”

Still, critical to the success of any redevelopment effort is the creation of a vital commercial and office sector, and that has yet to happen downtown. Most businesses in the center city still cater primarily to Marines. The two-block site along Hill Street remains vacant and although Gulati hinted that a local group of investors is exploring development possibilities there, nothing formal is in the works.

Further, Oceanside’s office vacancy rate of 33.9% is one of the highest in the county, according to the San Diego Office Building Guide for 1984, prepared by the San Diego Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Research Bureau.

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And competition from Carlsbad, Vista and San Marcos--all of which are aggressively building and promoting their office facilities--is fierce.

Oceanside officials, who have waited a good number of years to enjoy the most modest of redevelopment achievements, say they are confident that in time, office buildings and retail outlets will sprout in the downtown. But it probably won’t happen, they concede, until the new civic center gets off the ground.

“We’re patient,” Bagley said. “And in five years, I predict we’ll have a very clean, very active, very alert downtown area with a lot of people living, shopping and working in the area.

“Just watch, it’ll be something worth waiting for.”

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