MONTEREY PARK — It wouldn't matter if you were at the Glendale Galleria or the Montebello Towne Center or the Santa Anita Fashion Park, goes the first part of the joke floating around town these days.
If all the shoppers from Monterey Park were asked to clap their hands at once, it continues, the roar would rattle the windows inside all three malls.
"It's a known fact," City Councilman Chris Houseman said. "Everybody is forced to go outside this city to do the bulk of their shopping."
While the claim might be hyperbolic, city officials say it illustrates the plight of what they call a haphazardly developed Monterey Park. Congested mini-malls, traffic gridlock and soaring rents, they say, have driven important sales-tax revenue into the coffers of neighboring communities.
In an effort to reshape commercial growth, the City Council last summer hired several consulting firms to overhaul nearly every aspect of Monterey Park's economic development and urban design. Eight months and $250,000 later, the city's massive Community Design Program is scheduled to make its debut Thursday at a public hearing before the Planning Commission.
"The council members essentially told us that we had a clean slate," said Dick Morehouse, project manager for the city's principal consulting firm, Sedway Cooke Associates. "I applaud their boldness. It's unusual to see a city recognize that it's going in the wrong direction."
The result of the proposed changes, city officials hope, will be a more orderly and park-like community--perhaps a scaled-down version of Glendale--replete with fountains, tree-lined streets, specially paved sidewalks, a regional shopping center and a more pedestrian-oriented downtown.
'Everything Sounds Ambitious'
"It sounds ambitious," Councilman Barry Hatch said. "But when you have nothing, everything sounds ambitious."
A 15-member citizens advisory committee, which held more than 20 meetings over the last five months, generally supported that vision in its recommendations submitted to the council last week.
"I think our final recommendations reflect a common concern to improve Monterey Park for everyone who lives in it," said Thomas Ono, co-chairman of the diverse committee made up of people from various ethnic, economic and professional backgrounds. "I think there was a common interest in seeking to find long-term solutions that were fair."
Possibly the most noticeable of those solutions is a proposal to develop a citywide "water theme" based on the Cascades, a hillside fountain off Atlantic Boulevard that features water cascading down a 200-foot series of steps.
The consultants have proposed renovating the Cascades, extending the grounds into a three-block median park and translating the water theme into a series of fountains placed at the city's main entrances.
"The general idea is that when you enter the city you'll know you're in Monterey Park," Morehouse said.
The principal commercial features of the project include a major reshaping of the city's downtown area at the Garvey and Garfield Avenue intersection, about 1 million square feet of retail space in a regional shopping complex on North Atlantic Boulevard and a mixture of auto dealerships, neighborhood shopping centers and office space on South Atlantic Boulevard.
But while there seems to be unanimity about the need to steer Monterey Park in a new direction, some council members have charged that such a massive overhaul is not the most desirable or feasible means for effecting change.
"It's what is called a specious venture, specious meaning deceptively attractive," said Councilman G. Monty Manibog, adding that he agreed to support the project in the hope that it might solve some of the city's problems.
"If it's fully realized, you're talking about a great boon for the city," he said. "I'm just afraid that you're going to find this plan ending up on the shelves of City Hall just gathering dust."
Some critics also have contended that the design plan has racial overtones aimed at the city's large Asian population, many of whom own and use the condominiums and shopping plazas whose growth would be limited by the project.
Finally, a few longtime residents see those condominiums and shopping plazas as improvements over dying commercial strips that once lined the city.
"Many of the condominiums and shops look newer and more pleasing to the eye than some of the things they replaced," said Betty Chu, a Monterey Park resident since 1962 and chairman of the city's Trust Savings Bank. "I consider the construction an upgrade."
Supporters of the project, however, say that the question of race has nothing to do with their plans to put the brakes on development.
"The majority of them are Chinese developers . . . but it doesn't matter who's doing it," Hatch said. "If it's wrong, it's wrong. Bad building is bad building."