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San Clemente Feels Winds of Change Blowing Downtown

TIMES STAFF WRITER

First came the ripples of anxiety when John Berges announced he was closing his men’s store after 38 years on Avenida Del Mar, San Clemente’s main drag.

Then, last week, the venerable Cornet “five and dime” quietly shut its doors after nearly 50 years on Avenida Del Mar, leaving another gaping vacancy directly across the street from the long-shuttered First Interstate Bank, the victim of a banking merger.

What’s next, wonder some San Clemente residents who cringe every time they lose one of their friendly and familiar old downtown establishments.

“It doesn’t look good, does it,” said Berges, 64, whose father built the store he has operated since moving here in 1958. “As soon as I clear the the things to the walls, I’m out of here.”

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San Clemente’s 70-year-old downtown is clearly in the midst of a painful struggle to reinvent itself, say many local business people and city officials. Slowly, the old surfers’ venue is going upscale, and the character of the downtown is changing.

Not only is Berges’ men’s store closing, but a new antique store has replaced the old Ace Hardware, and a new garden shop and several new gift stores have popped up along the two block stretch that runs from El Camino Real down a hill toward the city’s community center and the San Clemente pier.

Tracy Kenney, the owner of three downtown businesses and a lifelong San Clemente resident, said she is seeing a new breed of customer in her stores.

“I think what we are seeing is a trend in San Clemente. A lot of families are moving here,” Kenney, 28, said. “My customer base is women with kids. They want nice things and they want to spend their money in town. . . . Where else can you shop and be right next to the ocean?”

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While there are obvious vacancies at First Interstate and Cornet, business and investment along the rest of the street is experiencing a rebirth, said Kenney and other downtown business owners.

“I know the popular perception is that the downtown is going to hell in a handbasket, but it’s not true,” said David N. Lund, the city’s director of economic development. “What you are seeing is a lot of change on the street in terms of new investment. I really don’t think people should be alarmed.”

No one has been watching the recent developments along Avenida Del Mar much closer than Wayne Eggleston, a 12-year resident who is part of the fledgling Spanish Village by the Sea Visionaries, a group dedicated to the revitalization of the local retail trade.

Eggleston said the once sleepy downtown should welcome what he describes as long-needed changes.

“That street is very dear to my heart, and I’m not concerned about it at all,” Eggleston said. “There is a huge transformation going on between the old and the new, and it’s mostly for the better.”

Eggleston, who is also the newly elected president of the city’s historical society, said the demographics of San Clemente have been slowly changing, with the current household income averaging about $72,000 a year. The wealthier clientele in the city deserves a downtown retail environment that keeps the treasured small-town charm but upgrades the merchandise, he said.

“The merchants in San Clemente are realizing that they have to appeal to a certain level of income and taste. For so long, Del Mar was very dusty. You could shoot a cannon off on Sunday and not hit anybody,” Eggleston said. “But it’s really changing, and I think it’s terrific. I welcome it.”

Not everyone is so sure. Many of the longtime residents like Berges share a concern that the downtown may become too burdened with tourist merchandise, which could chase the locals out of town to shop for essentials.

“The face of the street is definitely changing. It’s becoming more tourist-oriented,” he said. “I’m the last of the men’s shops here, they’re all gone but me now. We have always had to drive out of town to shop, but I think that’s going to increase.”

Kenney, who is also president of the 120-member Downtown Business Assn., describes the changes as a natural evolution. She and her husband, Seth, are definitely bullish on the street’s commercial future. Five years ago she opened a stationary store named Cheers and has since opened two more shops: a gift store called Summer House next door to Cheers and Del Mar Bicycle Co. down the street, which Seth runs.

“I wouldn’t have done this if I didn’t think it would work. But I have the five years of experience of the other store that told me it would work,” she said.

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What Del Mar needs to help it succeed is a movie theater or another popular restaurant that would bring in people at night and “make us all stay open later,” Kenney said.

Even the “coffin corner,” where Cornet and the bank sit empty at the intersection of Avenida Del Mar and Ola Vista, will see some vital changes soon, said Bruce Kahl, a commercial real estate broker with Sperry Van Ness in Irvine. Kahl said the bank, vacant since February, is in escrow and the new owner will be making a “major investment” there.

“The new owner’s plan is to invest heavily in the building and upgrade it dramatically,” said Kahl, who would not divulge who is buying the building. “He really believes in that street.”

Berges, who is retiring to surf and relax but will remain in San Clemente, offers the newcomers a wish of good luck. He’ll be free to just watch and see.

“You don’t come here to make a lot of money, you come here to live here,” he said. “I don’t think I would want to be starting out today.”


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