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Betting on Yesterday : Torrance Officials Believe That If They Build an Old-Fashioned Downtown, People Will Come

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When downtown Torrance shop owners break out the mistletoe and holly at the city’s tree lighting tonight, they will help inaugurate the city’s daring leap back to the future.

In an event complete with Christmas carolers, hot chocolate and ornate window decorations, the merchants hope to introduce visitors to a $44-million project aimed at restoring the traditional downtown atmosphere Torrance has lacked for decades.

The first phase of the project, 33 condominium units built in a Mediterranean style, opened two months ago. A new restaurant is expected to debut early next year. When completed, the redevelopment work--the most extensive yet in Torrance’s old downtown--will include 179 condominiums and townhomes and 28,000 square feet of retail space.

The goal, project developers say, has been to replace dilapidated apartments and dormant storefronts with an inviting mix of businesses, restaurants and housing to once again make downtown Torrance a pleasant place in which to shop, work and live.

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“We see ourselves as the beginning of the renaissance,” said Damon Gascon, project manager for Gascon Mar Ltd. of San Diego, partner in the project with ANA Real Estate USA Inc. “We want to give the feeling that it isn’t dangerous, that it is great to come here and walk around.”

But trying to recapture downtown’s yesteryear has been costly--and risky. While similar efforts in downtown Pasadena and San Diego have succeeded, the projects were built on much busier streets. And they got their start in far better economic times, before recession and cutbacks in the aerospace industry drained consumer spending power.

“It would have been better three years ago,” acknowledges Michael Bihn, Torrance’s senior principal planner. “But it took a long time to generate momentum.”

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The city launched its first effort to revitalize old downtown in 1979, the year the area was declared a redevelopment zone. Long eclipsed by shopping malls and other competing businesses, the area bordered roughly by Torrance Boulevard, Cabrillo Avenue and Cravens Avenue had fallen on hard times.

An adult theater took the place of a mainstream movie house, apartment complexes became flophouses and many retail spaces were boarded up. Some businesses, such as Levy’s department store, managed to survive thanks to a loyal clientele.

Other cities would “have bulldozed their downtown areas,” said Torrance Mayor Katy Geissert. “But we decided this was not a tear-down project.”

Their initial solution: matching grant programs to help business owners remodel their storefronts. The city spent about $10 million in the first 12 years, mainly on streets, sewers and parking.

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“It helped, but it was kind of a losing battle,” Geissert said.

It was not until the late 1980s that Gascon Mar and the Sam Levy Investment Partnership--then the downtown’s largest landowner--got together to plan the far bigger, 3.5-acre redevelopment project being celebrated today.

Residents and merchants opposed the plan. Citing the project’s new stucco condo buildings, they argued that the downtown would lose its small-town charm. In all, 11 buildings were torn down, including the El Roi Tan Apartments, a run-down, 50-unit apartment building.

Some downtown business owners now praise the new development, saying it removed blight. But others lament the loss of the old brick buildings, saying the stucco architecture is devoid of character.

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Everyone agrees that, compared to a few years ago, the face of downtown Torrance has changed dramatically.

“People come down here and go ‘Wow,’ it’s like a whole new city,” said Craig Knickerbocker, a real estate developer, who, in an unrelated project, renovated a masonry brick building at El Prado and Sartori avenues, opening it as a mixed-use apartment, retail and office complex in 1990.

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The change has come at a price. As its share of the $44-million downtown redevelopment effort, the city has spent almost $7.45 million, including $2.6 million for street maintenance and waiver of permit fees and $1.15 million for parking spaces, and $1.1 million to allow the sale of some of the condo units to low- and moderate-income residents.

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The 33 first-phase units, called Brisas del Sol, average about 620 square feet and are clustered around a central, bamboo-lined courtyard. All of those units are earmarked as low- and moderate-income housing, meaning they must be sold in the $109,900 to $128,900 range. So far, eight have been sold since the first model debuted in October.

“If you are single, 25 years old and work nearby, it makes some sense,” said Torrance City Councilman Don Lee, an insurance agent whose office is at El Prado and Sartori avenues. “It’s price-competitive and offers more amenities than living (in more suburban areas).”

Less certain, however, is how 71 units in the project’s second phase, Brisas del Prado, will sell. The 820-square-foot condos are pricier, in the $130,000 to $180,000 range. The success of that second phase, in fact, will determine when developers will build the 75 luxury condos--in the $180,000-plus range--called for in phase three. Construction is scheduled to start on the luxury condos project, called Brisas del Mar, in April or May on a parking lot at the corner of El Prado and Cravens avenues.

“We will continue to monitor that based on the level of sales,” Gascon said.

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Boosters of downtown are confident that enough people will want to return to the days when they could walk to the corner store or coffee shop.

“These days you live in places for 10 years and don’t know your neighbors,” said Ella Schwartz, who grew up in downtown in the 1920s, when her father, Sam Levy, operated the city’s first department store. “People are alienated from other people.”

Added Schwartz, who has operated a woman’s boutique in space that once occupied her family’s store: “There’s a desire to return to those values, to the delightfulness of a main street.”

Merchants are hoping that the biggest business boost will come from Plaza del Prado, the retail portion of the Gascon Mar project at the east end of El Prado Avenue. Service stores, such as dry cleaners and travel agents, would take up some of the spaces along with insurance agents, architects and other professionals, Damon Gascon said.

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Gascon Mar is also negotiating for a bar and grill to open in the area, and hopes to line up an ethnic restaurant in another dining space, he said. Retail analysts, however, doubt that there will be enough people living in the new condos and other downtown housing to support new restaurants. Instead, the restaurants will have to draw diners from other areas, they said.

“They’re on the right track if they bring (in) a specialty restaurant,” said Joe David, vice president and a retail broker at CB Commercial Real Estate Co. in Torrance. “That’s what it will take, because it is kind of out of the way. And the nearby neighborhoods are low income. (Residents) don’t have the purchasing power.”

There already is one sign of success, however. The Depot, an upscale restaurant that opened last year, has managed to draw a lunchtime crowd from nearby businesses as well as dinner customers from other parts of the South Bay.

But even the biggest boosters of the new downtown know that the area has its limits as a nighttime draw. Many doubt that its appeal will match that of Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade or San Diego’s Gaslamp District. Those areas have movie theaters, billiard halls and nightclubs along with major retail stores like The Gap and Urban Outfitters.

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Still, capturing some of Torrance’s traditional downtown luster will provide a major boost to the city’s once-crumbling core.

Or so hope city officials.

“Everyone has fond memories of this place,” said Bihn, the Torrance city planner. “They saw it kind of deteriorate, and they want that small-town ambience back.”

Downtown Torrance Redevelopment The first phase of a $44-million retail and residential project-the most ambitious downtown Torrance redevelopment project yet-opened in October. City officials and the project’s developers believe the mix of condominiums, restaurants and specialty shops will revive the area. 1. Brisas Del Sol: Condominiums 2. Plaza Del Prado: Retail complex 3. Brisas Del Prado: Condominiums (Opens in January) 4. El Prado Apartments: Residentia/ retail (Opens in March) 5. Brisas Del Mar: Condominiums (Construction begins in April or May)

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