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Restoring Downtowns and Some Civic Pride

Exciting things are happening in North County as some of the older downtown sections redefine themselves with an eye toward the future and an awareness of the past.

As detailed in a recent series of articles in the Times Orange County Edition, these changes promise creative responses to aging infrastructure as older parts of a relatively new county show their years.

Rehabilitating the county’s downtown facades also can create a pleasant balance in a land of seemingly endless malls and suburban tracts. Sprawling growth has raised concerns about an impersonal human environment. This comeback for downtowns promises to help restore civility and civic identity, if even in a small way.

In Old Towne Orange, antique marts take the place of closed grocery and clothing stores, and a microbrewery will fill the Santa Fe train depot. In Placentia, business owners are sprucing up the historic Placita Santa Fe district. Fullerton has new restaurants, coffee houses and specialty shops downtown. The California Hotel recently was renovated into a shopping arcade.

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La Habra has fought urban blight by combining redevelopment and volunteerism. The impetus for revival, which prompted the local historian Esther Cramer to observe, “The town was slipping away from us,” has led to responses to gang violence, vandalism and sluggish economy. A redevelopment plan for La Habra Boulevard and Imperial Highway has been the cornerstone of the effort, which relies on a variety of strategies.

The idea of rebuilding old-style downtowns has drawn inspiration from a need to deal with urban-style problems and the urgency of recapturing some of the civic feeling of the past. This interest confirms that the areas settlers had ideas worth preserving. They seem especially invigorating now that we have lived a while with some of the urban sprawl and its accompanying sense of anonymity.

Several communities, such as Brea and Anaheim, have gone for more radical redevelopment, raising questions at times about the cost of progress. These experiences offer a cautionary tale about dramatic strategies for redeveloping downtown areas.

The debate illustrates that merely transforming the landscape may not be enough. In truth, the mix of good planning and sheer luck that can combine to make some redevelopment programs work and others disappoint is a tricky business. But communities are learning, for example, that not every redevelopment project has to be a “destination entertainment center” like Santa Monica. It may be good simply to draw people to an area for multiple purposes just be creating a center of activity.

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Fullerton has been successful in emphasizing the idea of downtown as a center. The Transportation Center, for example, serves as a focal point for activity, and it also serves as an alternative to having everybody traveling separately in automobiles over a wide network of freeways.

Then there is the community safety and well-being factor. Police Chief Steven H. Staveley of La Habra reports a 27% decrease in crime over the past three years, and gives partial credit to the city’s Neighborhood Focus Policing program, which began three years ago. It targets specific problems in troubled neighborhoods. This is considered part of a larger package of revitalization, which includes having neighborhood crusaders volunteer with students to create an atmosphere of kinship and community.

The California urban landscape as a whole is young when compared to older urban areas in the rust and snow belts. Many of those areas around the nation have dealt successfully with revitalization.

North County is Orange County’s laboratory for dealing with many of the same issues of renewal that have been addressed elsewhere. That these efforts are taking place, and that they have stirred the passions of local citizens, is a good sign for the future of the county and its many cities.


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