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Designs on a Comeback for City’s Beleaguered Business District

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An earthquake, an arsonist and an underdog business district may prove to be the catalysts that kick this city into the 21st century--designwise.

The beleaguered Tapo Street district is fighting hard to redesign its image and regain its clientele.

At the same time, government planners hope to use Simi Valley’s oldest business district as its newest showcase for urban design--and as an opportunity to consider tightening design standards citywide.

Before incorporating in 1970, Simi Valley grew up with little guidance for the design of its homes and businesses, as varied and unfettered as a field of wildflowers.

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As the city’s population boomed from 8,000 residents in 1960 to 60,000 in 1970, random development created an architectural hodgepodge where faceless strip malls and business parks sprang up weed-like among prettier residential tracts.

Then came the shudder that launched a potential revolution in Simi Valley’s design.

When the Northridge earthquake shattered the Tapo Street business corridor’s core in 1994, merchants there began complaining about the resulting urban blight.

The ruined Pic ‘N’ Save store stayed closed for months until its owners had it leveled. And the damaged building that once held the Sears Outlet remained standing, its roof caved in, its owner refusing to clear away the wreckage while he sought new tenants.

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The area was already suffering from another blow: The city opened Tapo Canyon Road through to Los Angeles Avenue in 1992. Motorists who once moved cross-town from the Tapo Canyon exit of the Simi Valley Freeway via Tapo Street now bypassed the business district altogether.

Businesses began to fold up and move out--little shops at first, then bigger tenants with older roots.

Then an arsonist’s fire last autumn gutted what remained of the former Sears Outlet, galvanizing the merchants and the city to act. The city took the owners to court, condemned the building and finally razed it.

And city officials and merchants began brainstorming.

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Now a city consultant is using merchants’ suggestions to draft proposals for a full-blown comeback for Tapo Street, complete with promenade-like shopping plazas, lush landscaping and designer street lights.

And city planners have begun working under new orders from the City Council and Planning Commission: Review and revise visual design standards for all new Simi Valley businesses, from foundation to facade.

“We’re getting older, and we need to begin thinking about how we’re going to look in the future,” said Councilwoman Barbara Williamson.

Environmental Services Director Al Boughey said his planning staff has just begun to revamp the design standards on landscaping, street lights and other “street-scape issues.”

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The new standards also might control the choice of building materials and the way architecture affects “the pedestrian character” of Simi Valley’s business districts, he said.

“We’ve got to do something,” said Williamson, who proposes that one of the first projects the city should study closely for its design is a new bridge to carry southern Tapo Street across the Arroyo Simi to the business parks south of the arroyo.

The city might consider putting in a trolley bus to carry workers from those parks to Tapo Street, and installing lampposts with some architectural flair.

But all this is future dreaming, and the merchants of Tapo Street say they want a change to help them today.

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They want to bring back the substantial car and pedestrian traffic they have lost. And they want to find a way to keep old businesses from leaving, said Dr. Caesar Julian, whose office has anchored a small strip mall there for 25 years.

With Nappy’s Restaurant, Popeye’s Chicken and the Tapo Pharmacy all moving away in recent months, the merchants must band together to keep the rest of Tapo Street intact, Julian said. Grandiose plans for a pedestrian mall anchored by big-name stores may help Tapo Street’s distant future, he said.

“But we need kind of a quick fix now,” he said. “It’s difficult to say, ‘You’ve got to keep that trust [that it will happen]’ if you are taking a loss on your business.”

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Pool hall manager Jamie Michaels is taking a stab at a quick fix. He has launched the Tapo Street Merchants Assn., a group of 45 shops and businesses that chipped in to print up a promotional ad book.

The book and a subsequent ad campaign will focus on the district’s past as the former hub of commerce in Simi Valley--when the Tapo Street area was known as Santa Susana--and on its traditions:

“You go into a store on the other side of town, and you’re talking to a 16-year-old clerk,” said Michaels, who runs the Oasis Billiards Club. “Here, you’re talking directly to the owner of the business, who’s been there for years.”

With plans to mail the ad book to 45,000 Simi Valley households by Dec. 6, and dreams of using volunteer labor and donated seed to transform the vacant Sears and Pic ‘N’ Save lot into a temporary park until permanent tenants are found, Michaels says he is pushing for practical solutions.

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Across Tapo Street, the landlords of Tapo Plaza--which houses a Von’s market and several smaller shops--have already upgraded their facades and are busy bringing new tenants into once-empty spaces: A huge Chief Auto Parts store will soon open where the Bank of America closed several years ago.

But the opening of a full-sized pedestrian mall on the Sears/Pic ‘N’ Save lot is years away, Michaels said.

“We’re all talking about it to make ourselves feel good, but it’s not going to happen tomorrow,” he said.

“I was hearing a little bit of the negative, going-nowhere whining from the businessmen” at the last meeting with city officials, Michaels said. “I said, ‘Let’s get something going now. We the business people can get something done instead of talking about what the landlord isn’t doing or the city isn’t doing.’ ”

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But the city has been working on the problem. It pressured landlord Lawrence Morse--although some say a little too lightly--to clean up the Sears Outlet site, then went ahead and bulldozed the place and billed him.

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And it hired a San Luis Obispo planning consultant to prepare a revitalization plan for Tapo Street.

RRM Design Group surveyed the buildings and businesses, and polled merchants on how they feel Tapo Street should look.

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Out of 144 photos of shopping centers from around Southern California, the merchants chose Santa Barbara’s upscale Paseo Nuevo mall as the look they liked best.

“We tried to explain that the successful components of Paseo Nuevo are the scale, the detail of the architecture, the pedestrian spaces and the kind of vibrancy of people watching people. It’s a people place,” said Jeff Ferber, RRM’s senior vice president.

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Obviously, a mall as plush as Paseo Nuevo would not work in Simi Valley, but the character of the place could translate well, he said. “We want this to be a realistic plan.”

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In the end, its merchants say, Tapo Street is coming back to life not on the strength of dreams but on the realities of today’s market: shoppers through the door, dollars in the till and competitors down the block.

Hardware store owner Marshall Shrago said that while city officials work to revive Tapo Street, they are also trying to develop a shopping center near City Hall, extend Cochran Street and commercial development to Madera Road, and lure a large mall to Simi Valley.

Shrago, who has run Holiday Hardware since 1969, said that with all the proposed stores, he wonders, “Is there enough population to support all the [commercial] square footage in Simi Valley?”

But Shrago said he is resolved to stay on Tapo Street. Now two years into a 10-year lease, he has turned down offers from other stores to take over the space.

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“I think things can change,” he said.

People from outside Tapo Street are gaining faith in the area too.

Thousand Oaks entrepreneur Anthony Fick stood outside Nappy’s recently, seeing not the weather-beaten husk of a building with homeless people lurking outside, but the future home of a family restaurant.

He envisioned a play area, a natural ice cream parlor and a home theater system inside.

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And Fick said he hopes to open the place--if all the technical issues can be worked out with the landlord--to help draw other businesses to Tapo Street.

“I’m going to bring them business,” Fick said confidently. “I’m going to bring foot traffic through here. . . . It’s a great layout. I think if they just rebuilt the shopping center, it would be a whole lot nicer.”

Tapo Street will not spring instantly into the full-blown, redesigned vision of economic health that everyone dreams of, but it will move in that direction in steady stages, said Ferber, the city’s consultant.

“We are trying to create something that Simi Valley doesn’t already have . . . and that’s an admirable goal,” said Ferber, who grew up in Simi Valley. “But we haven’t yet started the reverse of that, where we say, ‘There’s so much energy taken to do Tapo Street, let’s carry it throughout the town.’ ”

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He added, “What’s that saying? You can eat an elephant--one bite at a time.”


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