Hoping to lure visitors and investors back to the once-thriving downtown Ventura, the city on Wednesday will launch a multimillion-dollar face lift.
Crews will work one block at a time, upgrading and widening sidewalks and planting new trees along Main and California streets as part of the city's effort to re-establish downtown Ventura as the cultural and business hub it once was.
"As a city, we're starting to get our self-esteem back," said Councilman Gregory L. Carson, who heads the Redevelopment Agency. "We are on the right track, and I think we have a potential gold mine here."
The $3.6-million revitalization plan includes widening Main Street sidewalks between Chestnut and Figueroa streets, as well as along the length of California Street, from 10 feet to 13 feet.
Planners said the extra space will allow merchants to take advantage of a new city law that encourages sidewalk dining and other services. Up to 20% of the street parking will be lost, although officials say there will still be adequate parking available in city-owned lots.
New signs directing motorists to nearby parking lots will be installed before the project is completed, city planner Patrick Richardson said.
The renovation also will mean twice as many street lamps, doubling the nighttime illumination and prompting more evening shopping and dining, planners said. New bus stops and the repaving of California and Main streets also are planned.
The downtown area generates more than $50 million in retail sales every year, according to city analysts.
Richardson said the contractor has agreed to schedule his crews in two shifts--from 10 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.--to lessen the impact of the renovation on downtown merchants.
"It's going to be disruptive, there's no way around that," Richardson said. "But the time of disruption should be very minimal."
The California-Main project is the second of three long-range improvements the city has planned. Workers already have finished upgrading Figueroa Street, where the state Court of Appeal is now located at Santa Clara Street.
Within the next two years, planners will begin drafting renovation plans for Ash Street, three blocks east of California Street.
That mostly residential avenue, analysts say, should be included in the improvements because the pedestrian crossing over the Ventura Freeway begins at the foot of Ash.
The ficus trees that now dot downtown will be replaced with a mix of honey locust and queen palm trees--a proposal that some merchants said was unnecessary.
"It's just a gross waste of money," said Paul Neilson, who owns the Waveline Surf Shop on nearby Thompson Boulevard. "These trees are perfectly fine.
"There are some things in revitalization that are really good, but the downside is the waste of money in replacing trees," he said.
Neilson said the gumdrop-shaped ficus trees react better to the constant ocean breezes. Strong winds could blow palm fronds all through downtown Ventura, he said.
But council members disagree, in part because roughly twice as many trees will be planted along California and Main streets over the next several months.
"The ficus trees we have down there take so much care," Councilman Jack Tingstrom said. "We're probably trimming those things five times a year, and the trunks are getting so big that from here on out they're just going to create more problems."
Tingstrom said area businesses have been requesting the improvements for years.
"The majority of merchants have asked for the beautification of downtown," Tingstrom said. "They've got the investment, and I'm here to help them make money.
"I remember downtown Ventura in the late '40s and early '50s," he said. "We had (Montgomery) Ward's and Sears and (J. C.) Penney's downtown. That's what I remember. This was the place to be."
The construction timetable proposed by Berry General Engineering of Oxnard calls for work to be finished by early July.
City officials already have scheduled a series of spring events in the area, including the St. Patrick's Day Parade next month, the California Beach Party in April and the ArtWalk and Java Jump on May 13.
But the work schedules have been set up to minimize any interruptions, Richardson said.
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Downtown Ventura Road Work Feb. 22-24: General preparation Feb. 27-March 10: Main Street north, Fir to Chestnut March 6-17: Main Street north, Chestnut to California March 13-24: California Street east, Main to Poli March 20-31: Main Street north, California to Oak March 27-April 7: Main Street south, Oak to California April 3-14: California Street west, Poli to Main April 10-21: California Street west, Main to Santa Clara April 17-28: Main Street south, California to Chestnut April 24-May 5: California Street east, Main to Santa Clara May 1-12: Main Street south, Chestnut to Fir May 8-19: Main Street north, Oak to Palm May 15-26: Main Street north, Palm to Figueroa May 22-June 2: Main Street south, Figueroa to Palm May 30-June 9: Main Street south, Palm to Oak June 5-16: California Street east, Santa Clara to Thompson June 12-23: California Street west, Thompson to Santa Clara June 19-30: California Street east, Thompson to the freeway June 26-July 7: California Street west, the freeway to Thompson Source: City of Ventura