El Segundo Strategy for the '90s: Preserve Classic '60s Downtown

Times Staff Writer

Main Street in El Segundo could be a museum exhibit of Main Street, U.S.A., circa 1960.

But the city's downtown area is surrounded by symbols of the approaching 1990s: sprawling Los Angeles International Airport and an aerospace industry corridor that transforms a town of 15,000 into a metropolis of 100,000 each weekday.

Residents take pride in their downtown and its old-fashioned diners and locally owned retail shops where customers are greeted by their first names. City leaders are struggling to preserve this atmosphere while adapting to outside pressures.

Now the state of California has decided to give them a hand.

Consulting Help

El Segundo has been selected as one of five cities to participate in the California Main Street Program, which provides consulting and technical help for downtown preservation and revitalization. Officials will launch the program at a luncheon Monday.

"El Segundo is unique," said Debbie Rykoff, a Department of Commerce planner involved in the program. "It has a traditional downtown character, which most downtowns don't have. Many Southern California downtowns have been lost because of urban sprawl and growth."

State officials chose El Segundo as a "demonstration city"--along with Benicia, Hollister, San Jacinto and Tracy--because of what they described as the energy and commitment of a group of downtown merchants who applied for the program with the help of city planners.

The city's low commercial vacancy rate, significant historical value and economic potential were also decisive factors for acceptance into the three-year program, Rykoff said.

'Defining Role'

"We are going to be defining what role downtown will play," city Planning Director Lynn Harris said. "We have to decide what we want to be, whom we want to serve. There used to be a good mix of retail, service and restaurants. Now there's increasing demands because of the influx of workers. . . . We have to identify any lack of services and stimulate development in the direction people want."

The state program is aimed at reviving jobs, business and interest in downtowns. It emphasizes training and technical aid rather than financial assistance, with a focus on helping reasonably healthy cities help themselves. Teams of consultants will provide advice in areas such as marketing, design, business development and traffic development.

El Segundo is the first city in Los Angeles County chosen for the program, which began last year. The five cities selected in 1986 have all made significant improvements, said Janet Pregliasco, a state architect involved in the program.

State and city officials will interview candidates for a project manager, who will be paid $25,000 a year by El Segundo. They said the job calls for a combination salesman, urban planner and leader skilled in fund raising and working with diverse interests.

The city has received more than 60 applications from candidates with a range of backgrounds, including public relations, marketing and landmark preservation.

Professional Needed

"The project manager will have to be someone who can work with a wide spectrum of people," said Ed Faubert, a leader of the downtown merchants' association, whose Eats restaurant caters largely to aerospace workers. "We need a professional with experience in fund raising, grant writing, public speaking, marketing."

Planning the downtown's future will require balancing the needs of residents with those of the daytime clientele from nearby industries, officials said. The impact of the latter group is evident downtown in the rise of restaurants and service-oriented businesses--and rents, some of which have doubled, longtime merchants and residents complain.

"There's too many restaurants in town, but at lunchtime you still have to stand in line to eat a sandwich," said Carl Peters, a 40-year resident.

Some residents have lamented that the city is losing its character and have taken their business to area malls, said Sandy Jacobs, owner of the Hallmark card shop across from City Hall.

"We have a well-defined, geographically contained area to work with," Jacobs said. "There's a perception that you have to go to the malls to find what you need. We have to let people know how much they can find without ever leaving El Segundo."

Renovate Image

The program is intended to renovate the shopping district's image as well as its physical appearance, said Chamber of Commerce Manager Wesley Bush. He lauded the work of the downtown merchants association that sought the program.

"The (association) has rekindled pride among the small-business owners, and we hope the presence of a full-time person will continue our enthusiasm," Bush said. "We're hoping for increased sales, landscaping, a little better image among local shoppers while we reach out to our (lunchtime) clients. We don't want to look too modern, but we don't want to look like anyone's going out of business either."

The team of city planners and business people will study ways to promote the historical significance of El Segundo, which residents said lies in a downtown that retains much of the ambiance it had 20 or 30 years ago.

A redevelopment of 1920s-era buildings on Richmond Street into a historical district could also draw businesses and shoppers, City Manager Arthur Jones said. The resulting sales tax revenue would alleviate city budget woes.

Urban Studies

"This is the new anthropology, the new archeology," said Faubert. "We used to study the natives in the jungle. Now we study the core cities. How do you revive them; how do you get them to be effective?"

Peters, who has lived in El Segundo since he finished his military service in World War II, is one of a group of old-timers who frequent Howards Coffee Shop, which exudes what state architect Pregliasco called El Segundo's "classic American feel."

The city is "a darn nice place to live," Peters said, though rising rents have led him to contemplate moving. He welcomed the selection of El Segundo for the program.

"A little bit more of a modernized look on Main Street would be all right," Peters said. "But I hope we still maintain our small-town attitude."

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