From the ashes of the $721,000 fire that destroyed or damaged six businesses Dec. 6 may come the revitalized downtown for which the city hungers.
Owners of the fire-ravaged buildings have hired architect Don Watts to draw up at least six rebuilding plans for the area stretching along Sierra Madre Boulevard from Baldwin Avenue to Renaissance Plaza.
One ambitious design would raze the 53-year-old Happy's Liquor Store, damaged in the fire, and create a two-story plaza with an open courtyard, underground parking for 25 cars, up to 12 retail stores downstairs and some offices upstairs.
"I think they'd be crazy not to design to the maximum (building) configuration," Watts said of the property owners. "If they can provide parking and the destination, people will come to town to shop."
Funding for the new plaza could be provided by the property owners and the city's Redevelopment Agency, he said.
Watts acknowledged that the four property owners appear reluctant to commit themselves to a joint rebuilding plan.
However, he said, they shouldn't shy away from a communal effort. "As I pointed out to them before, they didn't know it but they were 'condo owners,' " he said. "It was just one building that burned down, broken up with partitions. There were not even fire walls between them."
Tracy Miller, owner of Happy's, which sustained about $160,000 in damage to its structure and contents, said he is less enthusiastic about a joint rebuilding effort than are the other three property owners.
"Doing a fancy development will cost lots of money," he said. "I don't think this business will support it, but we're listening."
Fire inspectors attributed the cause of the blaze to a faulty extension cord in the Treasures of Sierra Madre gift shop that ignited paint thinner in the back of the store. Flames quickly spread upward through the businesses' shared attic.
While Watts is working on plans that might boost the city's sagging retail base, some business owners forced out by the fire are running up against obstacles that arise from that same unhealthy commercial picture.
Some have found space in temporary quarters, but permanent locations are lacking.
"We do not have any surplus of vacant buildings, either for relocation of the fire (victims) or new businesses," said Ron Hutson, coordinator of the city's Main Street revitalization program. "I know of only one site of any size that will be available after the first of the year."
The Spinning Wheel gift shop and Webb & Gordon Realtors were still looking for space last week, whereas the Soft Touch Nail Salon had found temporary quarters in the Your Color shop.
Michael Boling, who rented space for Tequila Sunrise, a Southwest-oriented gift shop destroyed in the blaze, is faced with the possibility of abandoning his business altogether if he can't find a permanent spot in town.
"Somebody has to die or go out of business," he said of the prospects of finding a permanent location in Sierra Madre.
Although the fire destroyed about $8,000 worth of his stock, none of it insured, Boling said he salvaged a few cartons of water-soaked and sooty Indian rugs, pottery and jewelry that he is sorting out at his home.
This month, he plans to share a small, vacant shop in nearby Renaissance Plaza with Larry Lampe, whose Treasures of Sierra Madre gift shop also was destroyed by the fire.
But unless a permanent location becomes available in January, Boling said he could be looking for a job and calling it quits in the gift shop business he operated for 15 years in Pasadena before moving to Sierra Madre two years ago.
Lampe, who sustained $15,000 worth of uninsured losses in the rented space that was destroyed by the fire, said his remaining in business depends on the public's response. He admits feeling "a little paranoid" because the fire started in his shop and insists that the extension cord did not cause the fire.
"I claim it started on the roof but I have no idea how," he said. "The insurance investigators were talking about power surges. We've had seven or eight in the last two years."
But Lampe said his spirits were bolstered by the support that has come from Sierra Madre residents who pitched in and spent hours polishing the fire-blackened silver jewelry he managed to pull from the fire.
"That's what so nice about Sierra Madre," Lampe said of the volunteers. More help is on the way.
A Merchants Relief Fund was established to help those most devastated by the fire. About $2,800 has been collected so far in donations, said Frank Van Dongen of Harlequin Art Gallery.
In addition, Van Dongen is selling two-hour videos of the fire for $40, as well as color snapshots and large black-and-white photos by photographer Richard Ivler, with profits designated for the fund.
Some merchants also are planning to organize a sidewalk sale to benefit the fire-stricken merchants.
"This is the biggest thing that ever happened to us," Van Dongen said. "San Francisco had the earthquake (Oct. 17). This is big for us."