SAN DIMAS — Visitors who ride into town from the 210 Freeway are usually in cars, but the vista may be more suitable to an era when most people traveled on horseback.
The first thing a visitor sees on Bonita Avenue, the city's main street, is a covered wagon at the symbolic entrance to San Dimas. Wooden sidewalks and hitching posts are outside the batten-board buildings that form Frontier Village, a downtown shopping area that includes hardware, gift, flower, toy and drug stores.
Nearby San Dimas Station, a shopping center featuring wood sidings on buildings that also have hitching posts in front, sits on Arrow Highway.
San Dimas is proud of this Western identity that sets it apart from other cities in the San Gabriel Valley.
But city officials are considering relaxing zoning requirements so that new businesses away from the downtown area would not have to conform to a strict interpretation of the Early California look.
They are worried about just how far they should carry the Old West theme. They wonder if it might be getting tiresome and a detriment to attracting major developers in the growing city.
'Willing to Look'
"I am willing to look at anything nice, even something more modern if it fits in," said Councilman Terry Dipple. "But I wouldn't support a high-rise glass building in the city because I want to maintain our feeling of community."
Councilwoman Maria Tortorelli agreed. "Frontier Village is an asset to the community," she said, "because the theme gives the city a personality, the idea of a small town where people are caring.
"But when that started as a theme, we didn't have big business and commercial interests that are showing interest now. If they are an asset to our community, we have to be flexible. It is not wise to take a hard stand."
Restaurant chains often have their own themes, said Councilman Curt Morris. And, he added, "if a shopping center developer builds a center that looks dated now, it will look very dated in 10 years. They try to find the future trend to avoid this."
"I don't think we have gotten to the point of going too far (with the Western theme)," Haefer said, "But it is time to take a look at it and see what the saturation point is."
Heinz Lumpp, director of community development, is concerned that if standards are relaxed too much, the city might run the risk of losing its identity.
But he admits that the Western look would not be appropriate for buildings in a proposed corporate park.
The council plans no immediate action but Dipple has suggested that the City Council, Planning Commission and Development Planning Review Board get together to "kick around some different ideas."
"We might hire an architect to do renderings so we have examples to review," he said.
Look at Other Cities
And Tortorelli said she would like to look at other theme cities to see how well their themes hold up.
San Dimas, a bedroom community of 28,500 people nestled below the foothills of the East San Gabriel Valley, was founded in 1826 when settlers ran herds of cattle on the land. It became an important citrus center at the turn of the century and remained so until the post-World War II population explosion in Southern California. It incorporated in 1960.
The architectural issue came to a head when a portion of the San Dimas Plaza, better known as the "pink shopping center," recently opened.
Because of the controversy over the color, Lumpp said he wanted more guidelines from the council on architectural styles.
"The staff does not have enough direction as to what the City Council wants," said Lumpp. "We need to know how to direct developers as to what architectural style we want to maintain. We need something specific on what direction the city is heading."
Technically, the shopping center, with its tiled roof, conforms with the city's requirement that buildings outside of Frontier Village adopt the Early California style. But some residents object to its bright pink color, which makes it visible from afar.
"The problem is that pink color," said Lumpp. "The color is 'Miami Vice' in 1990."
Council members admit that the pink bothers some people and that earth tones might have been more suitable.
"Heinz wants guidelines he feels secure with," said Mayor Don Haefer. "We all want that. But some people like pink."
Like all buildings in the city, the shopping center was approved by the review board, which was established after the city decided on the Western theme for Frontier Village. The board is composed of a council member, a planning commissioner, a representative of the Chamber of Commerce and members of the city staff.
"The theme originated in the late 1960s as an alternative to existing buildings in the downtown area, which were in need of repair," Dipple said.
"The Planning Department came up with the idea and called it Frontier Village." But the city allowed buildings outside Frontier Village more flexibility in architecture.