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Suburban Renewal

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It is one of the city’s oldest and most popular neighborhoods, a centrally located mix of affordable bungalows, luxury hillside homes and mom-and-pop shops that have survived the rise of the chain store and supermarket.

But 70 years after it began rising out of the lima bean fields and walnut orchards that once blanketed the area, midtown Ventura finds itself at a crossroads.

Neighborhood streets need paving and trees need trimming. Business owners have done little over the past two decades to reinvest in the commercial strip that stretches between downtown and the Buenaventura Mall. Storefronts sit vacant for months. Business turnover is high. Until recently, property values were stagnant or sluggish.

This is not the big-city definition of blight. There are no rat-infested tenements, no open-air drug markets, no masses of homeless people huddled over street grates.

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It is, perhaps, more a case of suburban decay, an area in the heart of Ventura--known for its unique character and small-town pride--in need of a face lift.

Ventura’s first suburb, midtown was built for employees of the oil boom days of the 1920s and was expanded following World War II. City planners define its boundaries as stretching from Crimea Street near downtown, up along the hillsides and down to Buenaventura Mall.

Jerry and Donna Jean Nelson, midtown residents since 1960, wouldn’t live anywhere else.

“We wanted our children to know people of all [economic] levels and all races,” Donna Jean Nelson said. “That’s what we like about midtown, such variety. All kinds of people live here. On our street we have all races, single people, older couples, young families, renters, homeowners. . . . It’s more like an old-fashioned town used to be.”

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Not content to watch their historic neighborhood wane, a dedicated group of residents has formed one of the city’s most influential community councils, winning the attention of City Hall as they push to invigorate their area.

The community effort comes at a time when city planners--hamstrung by a law that contains growth on Ventura’s edges--are working to revitalize existing commercial cores.

After years of gobbling up neighboring farm fields to accommodate new economic growth, city officials must look within the city’s limits.

In midtown, they see a stagnant commercial district with a critical source of tax revenue that can no longer be ignored.

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“Our community doesn’t have a lot of areas to grow in,” said David Kleitsch, the city economic development manager. “We need to be able to make those commercial corridors viable again.”

So far this year, the city has spent $347,000 on midtown for one of the most ambitious community planning efforts the city has seen in years. Officials hope to renew residential streets while breathing economic life into a business district passed over long ago by malls and discount retailers.

“The neighborhood is getting attention from City Hall it has not enjoyed in years,” said Bill Barbee, president of the Midtown Community Council.

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Led by a professional “visioning” team that is also well-versed in the intricacies of California redevelopment law, residents and business people gather regularly to forge a vision for their community’s future.

Still, although the council’s mailing list is long--about 8,500 addresses--the meetings have been marked by mediocre attendance.

“I think we need to get a whole lot more input from the community,” said Synthia Medina, owner of a Main Street antique store and community council member.

Redevelopment Area

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Her concern is borne out of what’s at stake, she says: the prospect of midtown being established as the city’s next redevelopment area.

Consultants from the firm of Rosenow Spevacek Group Inc. are busy surveying midtown police calls and street, water, sewer and property conditions to determine whether the neighborhood is legally eligible to be designated as a redevelopment area. A final report is due in May.

Under state law, cities can designate areas as physically or economically “blighted” and establish redevelopment districts.

The district can then divert new property taxes to a special fund and invest it in the community. Cities often borrow against that fund to finance development and, more important, spur private investment.

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In the past, the city has used redevelopment to help build the state Court of Appeal Building at Santa Clara and Figueroa streets, the Vons shopping center at Main Street and Ventura Avenue and, most recently, a new parking garage and theater complex in downtown Ventura.

City officials already have designated a midtown redevelopment survey area, which runs from Ash Street down both Main Street and Thompson Boulevard to Mills Road. The survey area includes the Buenaventura Mall, where a multimillion-dollar expansion is underway, as well as portions of Loma Vista Road, home of the city’s two major hospitals.

Before the city ever votes on creating a midtown redevelopment district, a series of public meetings will be held with business and property owners.

Residents Worried

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Although many are keeping open minds, residents are already divided.

Some fear redevelopment threatens midtown’s string of quirky, locally owned specialty stores, which include comic book shops, dart stores, pool halls and beauty parlors.

Or that the intense real estate speculation driving up rents and squeezing out some longtime merchants downtown could someday inflict the same problems on midtown merchants.

A few gallons of paint, some trees, maybe tax incentives for property owners to spruce up their buildings and storefronts are all that is necessary, they say.

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“Get up in a plane and fly over midtown Ventura,” says 51-year city resident Pete Cignetti, owner of the Bench Warmer sports bar, a popular neighborhood watering hole. “This is God’s country. This is a beautiful area. Why do we need the government to come in and redevelop it? Something’s wrong.”

Champions of redevelopment, on the other hand, are ready to start from scratch, convinced that what the struggling business district needs is a major overhaul.

Redevelopment, they say, is the only tool available that can generate the kind of revenue needed to pay for angled parking, street repaving, new parking lots, landscaping and improved traffic flow.

Polishing the look and health of the business corridor, they say, will increase property values in nearby homes.

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Craig Burkhart, a community council member and seven-year midtown resident, generally likes the idea of redevelopment. He does not believe that government financing has to mean that midtown loses its unique mix of locally owned stores.

“I’m not totally sold on redevelopment yet, because I wouldn’t want to see anything happen to eliminate that eclectic mix of stores,” he said of midtown’s quirky business district. “There’s already too many Starbucks around.”

Despite spending more than $250,000 on redevelopment studies already, city officials say the decision is not a done deal.

But Medina, owner of Synthia’s Antiques, thinks otherwise.

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“I think, like it or not, it’s going to happen,” said Medina, standing outside the once drab shop she has painted purple and green and accented with flowering trees and potted plants.

In February, Medina found herself standing knee-deep in flood waters that blanketed huge sections of Main Street during a downpour.

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She begged drivers to slow down or turn before passing her flood-threatened shop. The waves created in the cars’ wakes were only making matters worse.

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“If redevelopment means they’ll deal with the parking and deal with the streets, great,” Medina says. “I mean, the streets are a disgrace.”

Yet, though she might benefit as much as anyone from the millions of dollars in road and drainage improvements redevelopment could bring, she remains ambivalent.

“My fear is I don’t want it to be a redevelopment where I can’t afford the rent anymore,” she said. “To me, redevelopment is you’re going in and tearing down stuff, and I don’t want someone to come in and tell me how my business should look. My business is doing fine.”

Not a Shopping Mecca

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On this much, many along East Main Street agree: The business corridor is dated, boring, poorly maintained, devoid of trees and landscaping, and totally unattractive to shoppers.

“It’s deteriorating before my very eyes,” said midtown artist Nicki Alexander, who recently approached 15 midtown merchants and offered to repaint their storefronts if they covered the cost of the paint. There were no takers.

“It’s so colorless,” Alexander said. “If it isn’t Navajo white, it’s beige or khaki. It’s so devoid of color or style. It’s just a bunch of rectangles plopped down there.”

Still, some say an improved economy, coupled with the city’s expressed interest in revitalizing the area, already is spurring interest among private investors.

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“What we’re seeing is the real estate market picking up,” said Alex D. Olsen of Capital Commercial Real Estate, which has a few listings in the midtown area that have been drawing increasing interest.

“It’s just a cycle, and we’re hopefully clicking on the upside,” Olsen said. “The investors are looking for a steal right now. Definitely I would say you’re going to see values downtown going up. Midtown should follow.”

What some say the city needs to do is give the shopper reason to stop in midtown as they travel between the downtown and mall.

That can be a dangerous pit stop.

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With four lanes of traffic in a 40 mph zone, left turns can be hazardous, as can street parking and opening the driver’s side door.

“Getting out of your car with cars whizzing by at 40 mph isn’t much fun,” Olsen says.

A recent crash put a car into the side of Jue’s Market, a family-owned midtown mainstay that has survived worse: namely the rise of the supermarket.

And it’s a good bet Dorothy Jue Lee knows midtown as well as anyone.

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Her mother and father, Mary and Walton Jue, opened Jue’s Market on Sept. 12, 1947. The store was built on a lima bean field at what was then the city’s southern boundary.

The market built its reputation on good meats, locally grown produce and knowing customers on a first-name basis. Some have shopped at Jue’s since the day it opened.

When her parents built Jue’s, Lee said, it carried only three kinds of crackers and two kinds of bread. The hands of her schoolmates were black from picking walnuts, she said.

And though many homes and businesses had already been built, Lee watched the end of the war spur a housing boom.

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But talk of redevelopment, growth and change doesn’t scare someone like Lee, who has watched the city grow clear out to Saticoy, which used to be a tiny town separated from Ventura by acres of farm fields and orchards.

“It’s good to see growth,” she says. “Business coming in makes our town more prosperous. “We’ve survived this long.”


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