Historic Town Is Quiet -- a Bit Too Quiet

Times Staff Writer

When it comes to night life in historic San Juan Capistrano, Steve Nordeck pretty much has the market cornered.

His Swallows Inn is the town’s premier drinking establishment and gathering spot. His Mission Promenade plaza tenants -- Diedrich’s Coffee and the Cedar Creek Inn -- teem with tourists and locals.

But while Nordeck’s businesses are thriving, many surrounding merchants -- some in the shadow of the town’s 227-year-old mission -- are struggling. Camino Capistrano, the main drag, is home to boutiques, century-old adobes, dilapidated taco stands, antiques stores, gift shops and chain restaurants. But on a recent weekday afternoon, the half-mile stretch resembled a ghost town.

The day was warm and the skies clear, but the economic prospect was bleak at tired-looking Capistrano Plaza, across from the mission -- the county’s third-largest tourist attraction -- and the train depot. Shop owners sat on chairs outside their empty stores on Camino Capistrano and chatted on cell phones.


Debra Campbell, president of the Old San Juan Merchants Assn. and owner of a gift shop for pets, said merchants are trying to stay positive.

“It took a long time for this place to go downhill; it’s not going to come back overnight,” said Campbell, whose business moved into downtown two years ago.

“Yes, we’re all struggling. But there’s still no place I’d rather be. The history, the small-town feel, the sole proprietors -- it really is a great place to live.”

Residents may not want a tony downtown like Pasadena or Carmel or San Luis Obispo.

“There’s a desire to keep San Juan a small, rural town with a historic feel,” said Wyatt T. Hart, who has been on the City Council for nine years. “The citizens want to go downtown and have a quiet dinner, not a lot of hustle-bustle. We don’t have a problem getting people to move here. So evidently there’s something here that’s appealing.”

A few blocks from the mission, Suzanne Zachary was looking for more customers in the women’s clothing store she manages, but not for a radical downtown face-lift.

“I would like more people to come downtown, but I don’t want us to lose our uniqueness,” said Zachary, a 24-year resident. “As long as it stays a ‘Hi, neighbor’ kind of town, I’ll be happy.”

But even the merchants and residents most protective of the city’s easygoing lifestyle and small-town charm admit that their downtown could use an energy boost, especially at night. And that’s where activists such as Nordeck come in.


Since San Juan Capistrano incorporated in 1961, there have been several attempts to revitalize the downtown district, which starts at the mission and runs south to Del Obispo Street, west from the Mission Inn Hotel that’s adjacent to Interstate 5, then to the railroad tracks. There have been workshops, ad-hoc committees, a historic town center master plan and most recently a blue-ribbon panel.

None have amounted to much. But this time, Nordeck, who served on the 18-member blue-ribbon group with other merchants, residents and city officials, sees a real opportunity for progress.

“I figured the [blue-ribbon] panel would be a waste of time, just like all the other ones,” he said. “But this was the most productive committee I’ve been on. Hopefully the council takes our input and sets it in motion. We can’t let the momentum drop again. It’d be a shame to see our report sit on the city manager’s desk and collect dust.”

Many of the committee’s recommendations have been heard before: a small, historic-themed hotel near the mission that would lure day-trippers into staying overnight; more upscale restaurants with outdoor dining to create a nighttime scene; high-end boutiques; and relaxed zoning restrictions to encourage mixed use.


But some of the suggestions are novel: Move City Hall out of its trailer park on a dead-end street and into downtown to create a meeting place, streamline the approval process for developers and offer them assistance in meeting local and state requirements to help reduce overhead costs.

“Historically, this town has not been very open to developers,” said Councilman Joe Soto, who is pushing the idea of moving City Hall downtown. “It’s time we change the mind-set. The residents are looking for direction from City Hall.”

But residents often can’t make up their minds, said Mechelle Lawrence, the city’s former economic development director and new executive director of the mission.

“Downtown is what the community will let it be,” she said. “You are in a no-growth, historically sensitive town. Everybody hates traffic right now, but a vibrant downtown could bring traffic impacts. So the community must define what is vibrant.”


The mission attracts more than half a million people a year, but Lawrence said many don’t stay very long.

“I’m finding a lot of our visitors are here on a stopover on their way to San Diego,” she said. “We’re trying to keep them in town longer. But our businesses aren’t open late, and we don’t have a hotel in downtown.”

Hart said the fact that downtown is without a hotel isn’t for lack of effort on the council’s part.

“We’ve talked to almost every hotel builder, and they keep saying it doesn’t pencil out,” he said. “Because hotels are so expensive to run, the developers have wanted shopping and an office. And that’s just too intense for this area.”


But even while city officials, merchants and residents battle over what the next step should be, new businesses are moving in. In the last six months, the Sundried Tomato Cafe, an upscale regional restaurant, opened its doors in a bankrupt plaza across from the mission, and Nordeck struck a deal with Chico’s, a trendy women’s clothing chain, to rent out space in his refurbished Mission Promenade.

“I think everybody sees a rough diamond here,” said Mayor John S. Gelff. “But balancing retail and history is a tough problem, and we can’t seem to get past it.”

Nordeck said the city had better get past it or the residents will continue spending their money elsewhere.

“There’s a lot of people who spend a lot of money living here,” he said. “They deserve to have a nice downtown.”