Most Merchants Pleased by Ojai Arcade Project

Special to The Times

After eight months of noisy jackhammers, fenced-off parking lots and construction detours, quiet has returned to the Ojai Arcade Plaza, although peace remains elusive for one local business owner.

The city spent the better part of last year renovating the downtown plaza, which sits between Ojai Avenue and Matilija Street, at a cost of nearly $1.7 million.

Kathleen McCann, redevelopment analyst for the city of Ojai, said the idea was to make the area nicer, cleaner and more pedestrian-friendly. Although only a few stores open directly to the plaza, about 85 shops and businesses make up the section of downtown known as the Arcade.

"Our goal is to draw more people to this area; it's really the heart of downtown," McCann said. "It's not only for the tourists; locals are customers too, and this will become a wonderful place for people who live here."

The improvements include brick walkways lined with neutral-colored boulders and benches, new landscaping with sod and trees, colorfully tiled archways, public restrooms, bicycle racks and a brick stage that can be used for community events.

Additional accents to the park-like area include a water fountain with a bronze poppy rising in the middle. It was designed by artist Sandra Kay Johnson of Arroyo Grande, whose idea was selected through a competition last May.

There is also a pedestal that will serve as a rotating forum for works of art. For the next year, visitors can view a sculpture titled "Plume" by artist Bret Price of Irvine.

Trees were added to the plaza's parking lot, which was resurfaced.

"The whole project ... presents a nice, clean image," McCann said.

Although many of those who make their living in the downtown shops say their businesses were affected by the construction, most agree the result was worth it.

"I think it will help business as long as it looks inviting," said Andi Bloom, owner of Tottenham Court Tea Room, which has a front entrance on Ojai Avenue and a back entrance opening to outdoor dining on the Arcade Plaza. "It's a little sterile and needs a little softening, but I plan to bring in some colorful planters I took home while construction was going on."

A couple of doors down, the salespeople at Kindred Spirit are glad they can use both entrances to their clothing shop.

"We're really happy to have our back door open again," Becky Norton said. "Surprisingly, the time went by pretty fast." Fellow employee Mary Rynsoever agreed.

"I'm sure it impacted everyone's business, but they did a beautiful job," she said. "We've heard a lot of positive comments from our customers. They are very loyal and are coming back to the store."

Lisa Clark is hoping her customers will soon be doing the same. As owner of Busy Babes Beauty Supply and Salon, Clark claims she lost $30,000 in business during construction and is suing the city for that amount.

With the only entrance to her shop opening directly into the plaza, attorney David Jones said Clark lost business while the parking lot on Matilija Street that leads to the Arcade Plaza shops was fenced off.

"Most of her business is foot traffic, and when that lot is blocked, it impaired access so badly that it impacted her business," Jones said. "The customers just didn't come. She's a small-business owner, and it's her livelihood."

One of the lawyers representing the city, Erik Feingold, said he is still waiting to see proof of the monetary damages being claimed by Clark.

"We have yet to see there's loss with respect to what she's claiming," said Feingold, who added that he is contemplating filing a motion to dismiss before depositions begin later this month.

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