Clinging to Aura of Beach Town

How can a sleepy small town at the ocean's edge grow prosperously without assuming the trappings of tourism?

In Encinitas, city officials hope a program called California Main Street holds the keys. Started in 1977 under the auspices of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Main Street scheme for revitalizing downtowns in cities with fewer than 50,000 people has so far been used in more than 250 towns in 25 states.

As one might expect, historic preservation is emphasized. Although Encinitas doesn't immediately come to mind as a hotbed of architectural treasures, it has its own unique--and rich--heritage. Such buildings as the Self Realization Fellowship and the La Paloma Theater, and several historic houses make for an eclectic blend.

Encinitas was one of five California cities chosen in September from among a dozen new applicants for the Main Street program. Cities don't receive money. Instead, the state provides management assistance, promotional and marketing advice, suggestions on how to improve business and free design ideas from a state architect. The idea is for the business owners to take the initiative.

"As a downtown we're unique, a long, linear commercial strip along the Coast Highway," said Cynthia Collins, formerly a city planner for Encinitas, which incorporated in 1986, and now the project manager for the Downtown Encinitas Main Street Assn. The project's primary challenge will be to encourage downtown uses that meet the needs of both locals and the increasing number of tourists.

The revitalization focuses on the heart of what's called "Old Encinitas," stretching from the gold-and-blue lotus blossom towers of Self Realization Fellowship at the south end of town to Moonlight Beach at the north. 1st Street, commonly known as Coast Highway, runs through the center of the target area.

Encinitas remains relatively unravaged by time, but a few significant setbacks came before the new historical conscience arrived.

For example, a wonderful circa-1885 Victorian train station, which once anchored the heart of downtown, was removed to make way for the Lumberyard shopping center. The old building, which now houses a coffeehouse a couple of miles down the road, would have been great as a commuter rail/transit station. Instead, a new station will be built behind the La Paloma.

As has happened in similar '30s-era downtowns, some property owners have facelifted, painted, remodeled, re-signed and otherwise altered their once-tasteful period facades beyond recognition. It is hoped that some of the disguises will be stripped away.

Unfortunately, the Main Street movement began too late to influence the design of Moonlight Plaza, a colorful new mini-mall at Encinitas Boulevard and 1st. Since it emphasizes pedestrians over cars, the Main Street scheme employs "zero setbacks," meaning that storefronts butt right up against the sidewalk, with no parking lots out front to interrupt the pedestrian flow.

Moonlight Plaza, though, is a product of car culture, set back from the street with a generous parking lot out front. So, no matter what planners come up with, it will be tough to maintain a consistent pedestrian experience all the way to the north end of town, where the new plaza ends the project area.

Unlike other small downtowns, Encinitas isn't in terrible economic shape. The coming of the malls in the '60s and '70s, especially a couple of miles inland along El Camino Real, took a toll. Such old neighborhood businesses as Dietrich's Drugs, two shoe-repair shops and a men's clothing store folded or relocated.

But a solid core of local businesses remains. As of last week, there were only three vacancies among about 290 businesses, and the project involves working with existing businesses more than re-creating an entire downtown.

Already, merchants are getting suggestions on upgrading their storefronts. State architect Janice Pregliasco has made drawings for a few; her services are free as part of the program.

For one particular strip, her drawings show how new color schemes, awnings and small signs could make a substantial improvement.

While the program helps such small businesses, it also focuses on the big picture. Collins, a design committee and city planners are developing a plan for the future, including design guidelines, which will become a part of the city's general plan.

Ideas include a new City Hall at Vulcan and D streets, a block east of 1st; a pedestrian thoroughfare connecting the historic Derby House, at F and Vulcan streets east of the railroad tracks, with the historic Pacific View Schoolhouse, at the ocean end of F; a pedestrian-bicycle linear park along the railroad tracks and working with property owners such as Don Hansen, who plans to develop a large lot next to his sporting goods store at the south end of town.

Planners hope to retain the human-scale blend of small businesses and one- and two-story houses along 2nd Street, even as economics cause some of the homes to be converted to commercial uses. Collins recognizes the importance of having a downtown population. She agreed that mixed-use projects along 2nd--living units over shops--might be a way to add businesses without losing a residential base.

What forms might the future Encinitas take?

"Probably colorful, with a lot of new materials, lots of landscaped outdoor spaces and maybe sidewalk cafes," said Mark Tarnowski, an Encinitas architect who has been involved with the Main Street effort.

Only time will tell if the city can keep what Tarnowski calls its "funky beach town atmosphere" while growing into an efficient pedestrian machine. For the moment, it's admirable that local businesses are playing an important role in shaping the downtown, instead of having some grand new plan imposed from outside.

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