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Anaheim Merchants Persist as Downtown Projects Jell : Development: More homes, an ice rink, a community center and efforts to get movie complex are geared to draw people to city’s core.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sitting inside his empty downtown jewelry store last week, John Machiaverna looked up at the muddy, vacant lot across West Harbor Place and wondered aloud when something would be built there.

“We’re pioneers right now,” Machiaverna said of the downtown merchants struggling to stay afloat. “The problem is, no one knows we’re here.”

That could change soon.

By fall, the Mighty Ducks will be practicing in the new Community Ice Center being built by the Walt Disney Co. in the heart of downtown Anaheim, which for more than 15 years has been mostly a series of vacant lots.

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But an ice rink could be only the beginning of Disney’s involvement in downtown redevelopment, which has struggled to get off the ground since the early 1970s.

The Disney Development Co. has been meeting with the Koll Co.--which has development rights to the land next to the rink--and is finalizing conceptual plans for a retail complex next to the facility, city sources said.

City Manager James D. Ruth confirmed Disney’s interest in opening some retail outlets in the area and said such a scenario “will probably happen.”

Disney Development Co. officials would not comment on specifics, but spokesman Michael Johnson said, “We are very interested in that area. We are looking around at what can be done to complement our presence at the rink.”

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The ice rink, which will also be open to the public, will be home to Disney GOALS, a nonprofit youth program designed to offer organized athletics, education and community service to underprivileged youths.

Mayor Tom Daly said the rink will “be the kind of magnet the downtown area needs to draw residents and other visitors to the area.”

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That is welcome news to downtown merchants who don’t want have to close their doors before the area is transformed into a bustling hub where people live, work and play.

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“I’m hoping that all of the moms will come by and have a cup of coffee after they drop their kids off at the ice rink,” said Catherine Noyes, who owns a coffeehouse and gift shop across from the rink. “I’d like to see everybody do better. Right now, we’re all scraping by.”

There are days when no one walks inside of the Nutrition Nook, a vitamin, herb and health food store, said owner Yvonne Koury, who moved her store from Euclid and Ball Road to West Harbor Place in June, 1993.

“It’s hard to keep going,” Koury said. “There are a lot of big plans, but meanwhile we have to survive.”

Next door, Diana Doyle, a nail technician at Color’s Hair Production, said, “We have top notch, professional people in this shop and they are dying on the vine. It’s been very tough. The city promised us this place would be booming.”

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City officials said they realize the tough times some of the businesses are having and that efforts are being made to bring people downtown, said Richard Brookner, the city’s redevelopment manager.

“We are working night and day to bring additional uses down there that will support retail,” Brookner said. “We’ve got a lot of momentum.”

Ruth said there is also a major effort underway to attract a movie theater complex downtown, which would help bring in crowds after dark.

“After 6 p.m., this place rolls up its sidewalks,” said Machiaverna, who also owns the Silver Screen coffeehouse next door to his jewelry shop.

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In the past year, three restaurants came and left the downtown redevelopment area. A big blow to nighttime restaurant business came with the closure--due to bankruptcy--in early 1994 of the Celebrity Theatre, which had been bringing crowds downtown with concerts featuring entertainers such as Bill Cosby, Gladys Knight and Kenny Rogers.

The theater “sitting empty certainly doesn’t help the economics of downtown,” Brookner said. “The city would like to see a new operator in there. When the theater was open, the restaurants had a lot more business.”

The theater, which is really called the Freedman Forum, is being used for nonprofit events, but may have a new commercial operator soon, said an official with the Leo Freedman Foundation, which owns the building.

“We’ve been in negotiations with several prospective tenants and hope to successfully reach agreement with one group next week,” Sharon Lesk, a foundation trustee, said Friday. “We are hopeful, because obviously the theater is a cornerstone of the redevelopment effort downtown.”

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Despite the struggles, for the past three years there has been steady progress in redeveloping downtown--after many stops and starts dating back to the early 1970s.

“Anaheim has struggled to come up with a successful formula for the downtown and in recent years, we’ve started to put the pieces together,” Daly said.

The turning point came in 1990 when the city sold 16 acres of vacant downtown land to the Koll Co. for $2 million. The property had sat empty for 17 years.

“Downtown had become a ghost town,” said former Anaheim City Councilwoman Miriam Kaywood, who saw many redevelopment attempts fail over the years.

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“When people say they remember the good old days of downtown, they aren’t remembering reality,” Kaywood added. “It was really bad news.”

In 1992, the Koll Co. built the 11-story City Hall West and an eight-story Pacific Bell office along with a parking structure and rows of retail and restaurant space.

City Hall West serves as, among other things, the headquarters for Anaheim’s public utilities administration and several city departments, including fire administration, the treasurer’s office and redevelopment offices.

The area has been made pedestrian-friendly with dozens of palm trees lining both sides of West Harbor Place, which has minimal traffic due to its narrow design.

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A new community center in the heart of downtown was approved by the council last fall and is currently being designed. But funding and a completion date have not yet been decided.

There also are tentative plans for a building that would be home to a UC Irvine extension center and would have 10 classrooms. The university already holds some classes in an office building downtown.

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In addition to retail and office space, there has been construction of hundreds of new apartments, houses and townhomes designed to attract residents to downtown. In some cases, the city is offering low-interest loans to first-time buyers.

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In 1993, Kaufman and Broad of Southern California built 111 new homes in the city’s downtown that were designed to match the style of older areas of Anaheim. The company has begun construction on 152 more homes downtown that are expected to be completed within two years.

Historic homes have been relocated to the area, including five on Vintage Lane--a serene pocket of town. More than a dozen other turn-of-the-century homes sit on blocks--waiting to be restored-- along Atchison Street, across from the new Citrus Park.

Struggling merchants hope that people moving into the area will begin to stroll over to their establishments for lunch or a haircut, instead of getting into their cars and driving elsewhere.

Former councilwoman Kaywood said increased involvement by Disney can only help the downtown area finally live up to its potential.

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“When (Disney’s) name is mentioned, it’s amazing how many businesses will request to come in,” Kaywood said. “Disney is a magic name.”


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