H G: Rethinking Los Alamitos’ “Downtown”

Much of the 3 year General Plan Revision has focused on plans for a new downtown on one city block of Los Alamitos Blvd.

(July 3, 2014, Los Alamitos) by Highlands’ Guy:   With draft versions of  three key elements of Los Alamitos General Plan Update currently under review, this week’s Highlands’ Guy’s column couldn’t come at a better time! 

Does Los Alamitos have a downtown? I don’t know. Do I care? I guess I should after reading all the attention the subject gets, especially in the City’s yet to be approved General Plan.

I’ve read it on-line and I attended a few of the “outreach” meetings down at city hall. While there I heard a bunch of comments from friends and neighbors on not only the need for a downtown,  but what it should encompass and what it should look like. And I believe that many of their comments have been incorporated into the Plan,  which will focus our resources into the middle of the 21st century.

So I guess now would be a good time for me to kind of organize my thoughts about this elusive “downtown.”  What is it, what should it look like, what should it do, where should it be? These are the first things that pop into my head. And now that I think about them, I find it’s not that easy trying to pin things down and coherently verbalize my thoughts. Maybe I’ll start with a stream of consciousness approach. Our first idea of what a downtown is, probably starts with a place that we went to when our parents said , “Get in the car, we’re going downtown.”

Downtown Petaluma, CA, circa 1940

Our next encounter was probably during a trip that could have been up the coast a little or maybe across the country. In these places we ate at a diner in Petaluma or perhaps in an ageless deli on Michigan Ave in Chicago. For a few lucky folks, an encounter with walking the city streets in Bogota, or Hamamatsu may have set the stage for what they thought of as downtown.

Thus, what each of us brings to the discussion will be all over the board. Now, overlay all of this with the constrictions of space, money, and  community initiative and one gets an idea of the challenges faced by our decision makers.

How downtowns develop:

None of the downtowns that I’ve appreciated over the years started out to be exactly what they are today. Looking back, I’d say they developed slowly in more of an organic process. A little hole-in-wall restaurant arrived that attracted a few people. Someone added a few benches down the street. A shop that only a teenager could love seemed to be busy a lot. The local government added a couple of trees, a few flowers and some lighting. This drew in a touristy place that locals didn’t care for, but pulled in a bunch of customers. Tax dollars spent on strategic left turn lanes, traffic studies, and outreach had nothing to do with successful transformations.

Rethinking Los Alamitos’ “Downtown” proposal:

Downtown Los Alamitos, circa 1920, looking north. Sugar factory at the end of the street.

With this in mind, I would offer that we need to rethink our direction on the downtown concept as laid out in the General Plan. Specific size and shape and what streets are included are not vital.

  • First on the list should be to create a business model, with a City support structure, and then go out and market the heck out of it.
  • The city also needs to promote the businesses already here. The goal is to get the word out that we are business friendly, by deed, not by tooting our own horn.
  • Concurrently, we need to get folks on to the street…out of their cars:
    • Simple, allow some of the local eateries to put a few tables on the sidewalk.
    • Plop a fountain or sculpture down near a corner.
    • Have exercise classes (public or private) take over an underused or unsightly parking lot a few hours a day or night.
    • Promote a simple “get out and walk” night from 5:00pm to 7:00 pm twice a week.
    • Instead of indoors or at a park, have some city sponsored events or gatherings within full view of one of our (two) main streets.

Folks from all over will see stuff happening as they pass by. The business community will see and/or hear about it. Locals will learn about what’s here as much as those from afar.

I firmly believe that these kinds of things are important contributing factors to a slow, deliberate, evolving downtown.

Exactly where it goes will be up to the marketplace. Maybe we find that small is better and more in tune with the city.  Maybe downtown is on two or three different, non-contiguous streets.  But what develops will be more in tune with the reality of business, sociological, and psychological factors, and will be stronger over time.

“It’s really kind of hard to be a suburb of nothing. If you don’t have a downtown, you really don’t have anything. It’s hard to build a community around parking lots and subdivisions”

 - Ed McMahon (1923-2009) Comedian, game show host, announcer, United States Marine Corps fighter pilot, Johnny Carson’s sidekick.

…And that’s just the way I see

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One Response to H G: Rethinking Los Alamitos’ “Downtown”

  1. JM Ivler says:

    I want to have everyone think for a minute about “downtowns”. Think about it really hard. Now, start to remove “downtowns” that are built around things like a pier, since clearly we won’t be creating one like that. I’ll provide examples of two vibrant “downtowns” in their own way.

    The first is in San Diego. There we have the Gaslamp Quarter. In the 50′s 60′s and 70′s, the Quarter was littered with pornographic theaters book, shops and other secondary uses. The area was in disrepair and became a low rent district up until 1974. In 1974 the city, merchants and property owners decided to do something about that. In 1982, the Gaslamp Quarter became a major redevelopment project area of the City of San Diego. What was once one of San Diego’s seedier sections today offers a vibrant atmosphere with an architectural mix from the turn of the century with today’s gaslamps, brick sidewalks, landscaping, galleries, theaters, hundreds of boutiques and shops, plus more than 150 restaurants, bars and nightclubs, and 92 completely restored buildings.

    And all it took was 40 years and a large investment by the City of San Diego as well as the Gaslamp Quarter Association, a truly invested long term effort to recover a community.

    Now let’s go north to a city a bit larger than Los Al in size, but smaller in population; Cambria CA, six miles south of San Simeon and Hearst Castle. Cambria is filled with B&B’s and it’s main income from from the tourist industry. The main street in Cambria’s downtown is anchored by a few restaurants and has many small art galleries and stores dedicated to local artists. While not developed the downtown grew as people traveling to Hearst Castle looked to someplace close by to stay that was quite and “quaint”. Cambria stepped in to fit the bill, and as more people started to stay in the community, the downtown built up since the mid 1980′s. In order to draw and keep “tourists” in the downtown area shops have a number of events including local musicians and stay open late.

    [for the record, I happen to love Cambria and have looked at purchasing a home there each time I visit, it's a true gem of a tiny city.]

    Downtowns are either the efforts of the City, along with an invested community, or downtowns grow naturally. What we have seen in Los Al has been an effort to create a downtown by forcing one into existence through the will of a limited number of people who have had political control, but without the community support at the business level to address the concerns of developing and creating a downtown that is vibrant and a center to the City.

    One of the key terms that is associated with a downtown is the idea of a downtown being a destination. There has to be a reason for the downtown to exist. A place to go, on which other places then develop in association. Without Brambles or something like it, Cambria’s downtown would be less of a destination. People staying at B&B’s have dinner at Brambles and then use that as an excuse to walk the street, which other businesses have worked to keep alive from dinner time to late with activities large and small. A downtown that developed to meet the needs of the populace that would frequent it. Not a space with strip malls. San Diego’s Gaslamp was developed with over 40 years of effort, restoration of buildings, and a focus on making it a destination for an active nightlife.

    Los Al doesn’t have the will to develop a Gaslamp, and we haven’t seen businesses developed that are designed to keep the dining community in place and make it also a shopping community like a Cambria. So, with an anchor that is a medical center and another that is a hardware store, it’s not realistic to continue to feed a fantasy of developing a destination with something in between when we hardly have the finances to afford upgrading the City Hall phone system.

    When a business community starts to develop a plan, I would fully support the City working to help. But it has to come from a business community that sees the benefits of developing a destination.

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