Vista Stumbles on Road to Development : Growth: Lawsuits, recession stymie plans to expand courthouse, build commercial centers and revive downtown.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Poor Vista.

* The city campaigned hard and successfully for a major expansion of the county court complex in town because it would spark commercial and professional development, a kind of upscale focus to town. But the countywide sales tax that would finance the expansion is being challenged in the state Supreme Court.

* The city plans to redevelop its stagnant downtown business and retail district, wanting to replace a few car repair and welding shops with a pedestrian village featuring boutiques and bistros. But a lawsuit filed four years ago by a former maverick City Council member has stalled those plans, too.

* The city wanted to develop a 100-acre, freeway-frontage auto park and commercial center on the east side of town--but it's been delayed in court because of a lawsuit filed by competing car dealers in Escondido.

* And the city hoped a developer would build a major freeway-frontage commercial center on the west side of town anchored by a Price Club-type store. But then the recession left the would-be developer reeling, setting those plans back, and leaving a concrete shell of a building as its legacy.

This place isn't exactly a poster child for progress.

"I guess the good thing about Vista is that we haven't given up yet," sighs Mayor Gloria McClellan. "We're going to do all these things. But, for us, everything just takes a tremendous push. Nothing happens easily in Vista."

Adds City Council member Bernie Rappaport:

"We're like a duck on a pond, just kind of gliding along without much activity. You don't see much happening. But, under the water, that duck is paddling like hell."

This duck is paddling for four goals: an expanded courthouse, a new commercial complex, an auto park and a new downtown.

Out of its control is the expansion of the North County Regional Center, a county government complex. It's now home for 24 Municipal and Superior courts, and the county wants to expand it to 84 courtrooms over the next 20 years or so. By comparison, the downtown San Diego courts complex currently has 59 Municipal and Superior courts--although it, too, will expand in the future.

Vista battled Escondido to be the host of the expanded courts complex, and ultimately got the county's approval because court officials didn't want to have two separate courthouses in North County.

But the money that would pay for the $200-million or so expansion project is being generated by the 1988 passage of Proposition A, a half-cent sales tax increase approved by a majority of county voters. And that tax has been challenged in court as unlawful because it didn't receive two-thirds approval, which critics argued it should have because of the constraints of Proposition 13. Proposition A is expected to generate $1.6 billion over a 10-year period for the expansion of county courts and jails.

An appellate court ruled that the simple majority was enough to approve Proposition A, but its challengers appealed again, this time to the California Supreme Court, which is expected to decide the issue around the end of the year. Until then, the county will continue to collect the sales tax revenue, but keep it unspent in an escrow account.

In the meantime, county officials are meeting with an architect to map out the expansion plans on the 43-acre courthouse site, a block south of California 78 at Melrose Drive.

Part of the site includes 4 acres that the city of Vista bought from a local property owner for about $1 million and agreed, in turn, to donate to the county to help facilitate the expansion.

Nick Marinovich, who oversees court space planning for the county, said that in a best-case scenario, the first phase of the expansion work could begin as early as 1993, and be completed in 1995.

Once the work begins, officials foresee new office buildings and upper-end commercial and retail businesses along Melrose, in the neighborhood surrounding the courthouse. Today, however, there are only four office buildings and no retail or commercial businesses to speak of.

Also mostly out of the city's control is the development, at California 78 and Emerald Drive, of the Gateway, a would-be commercial center to be anchored by a membership-only discount store known as Pace, owned by K mart.

The city owns the 14-acre site and, for four years, got the necessary approval of various federal agencies to realign the Buena Vista Creek so the site could be developed. By the time the permits were in hand, the developer ran out of money to pursue the project.

The city has since renegotiated the project with a new development partnership from Orange County. The city loaned money for on-site improvements and promised to essentially refund $5 million in sales-tax revenue to the developer over the next 20 years.

Construction on the site is expected to resume within weeks, and the anchor store may be open by Nov. 1, officials hope. It is expected to serve as the catalyst for the start-up of adjoining commercial and retail businesses, and become the closest thing that Vista has to a major retail shopping center.

If the Gateway project is expected to be Vista's western entrance, then the proposed North County Square, a 100-acre complex anchored by a 10-dealership auto park, would serve as its eastern commercial hub, at California 78 and Sycamore Drive.

The City Council gave its initial approval to the complex 15 months ago--and occupancy was originally projected for this summer. Instead, the project is stalled in courts because neighboring residents and the Escondido Auto Park challenged the adequacy of an environmental impact report.

A judge agreed, ordering the would-be Vista developer to expand the report to give additional consideration to air quality and whether other sites were better alternatives.

Vista officials hunger for the Vista auto park--and its accompanying restaurants, stores and movie theaters--because it is expected to generate nearly $30 million in sales tax revenue over the first 15 years.

Vista's most ambitious project of all is the redevelopment of its downtown, and its three primary thoroughfares: Broadway, South Santa Fe and East Vista Way.

City officials and downtown business leaders envision an inviting village atmosphere where pedestrians would stroll and linger from one store to another--and where auto through-traffic would be circumvented on two one-way streets that would skirt the downtown area.

But former City Council member Lloyd Von Haden, mounting a virtual one-man legal campaign, has successfully blocked most of those plans so far by contesting in court the legality of the city's redevelopment plans.

His argument is generic toward redevelopment in general: that property tax that is generated by new development in one redevelopment project area shouldn't be tapped to essentially underwrite development in other parts of town.

He argues the city has defined as "blighted" neighborhoods that aren't blighted at all, and that redevelopment laws are abused to further new development.

Von Haden's lawsuit has bounced from one court to another, and has effectively stalled redevelopment efforts for four years. It has frustrated both City Hall and downtown businessmen who are waiting for the court to give the go-ahead so hundreds of thousands of dollars can be released to improve their physical lot.

"We certainly can't compete with the North County Fair (regional shopping mall in Escondido) or the Carlsbad (Plaza Camino Real) mall," said Rappaport, the councilman. "But what we want to offer is the small-town ambience, the specialty shops."

Vicki Barringer, executive director of the Vista Town Center Assn., talks of how, if downtown is Vista's heart, it is in need of bypass surgery to clear local congested streets of motorists who don't stop and shop.

"Over the years, downtowns have lost their importance in Southern California because of suburbanization, of cheap land and sprawl. That's no longer the case. Downtowns are the front porch of any city, and they need to be preserved."

With just limited redevelopment funds--about $75,000--the city already has funded a so-called facade-improvement program in which local businessmen have put up new signs and awnings and freshened up their stucco and paint jobs.

Ultimately, however, the city wants to remove from the downtown streets those businesses that, they say, really have no place there--the repair shops and the ma-and-pa industrial buildings--and replace them with specialty retail operations.

"I'd like to go into a limited partnership with another businessman, to open up a coffee house or a flower shop, that would be compatible with my business," said Epi Tapia, whose beauty salon, Fanios, draws customers from all around North County. "I'd like my customers to be able to wait for their appointment next door, enjoying a cup of cappuccino, and after they leave my salon, buy a bouquet of flowers to take home."

City Hall, which currently works out of a converted junior high school campus, would relocate to the downtown area, and motorists traveling through downtown would be directed on one-way streets, according to the long-range plan. Eastbound traffic would move along Broadway, and westbound motorists would travel along Jefferson Street, one block north of East Vista Way.

The west end of that loop would end at what is now Broadway and West Vista Way--where a new $20-million interchange is planned at California 78 to ease much of the burden from the chronically congested Melrose junction at the highway.

The city also is sharing in the cost of widening the Emerald Drive overpass at California 78, from two lanes to six; the Melrose Drive underpass at 78, from four lanes to seven, and the Sycamore Drive underpass, from four lanes to eight.

Those projects are just now starting, and are expected to take up to two years to complete.

Meanwhile, Vista is managing as best it can, local boosters say. They brag of the climate, the rural ambience, the success of the Shadowridge residential development and the public purchase of the historic Rancho Adobe for use as a community center.

And, in quintessential Vista fashion, Barringer brags of the Thursday night Main Street Festival and Farmer's Market where, along East Vista Way, more than 20 food vendors, 80 artisans and 35 farmers show up to sell their fruits, produce, crafts, jewelry, flowers and carnival-like food.

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