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Coming Full Circle : Oxnard Merchants Bid Farewell to Open-Air Mall, Reopen A Street to Cars

February 25, 1988|MEG SULLIVAN | Times Staff Writer

Most Southern Californians curse gridlock, but not Al Valdes of Oxnard. For the A Street merchant, the phenomenon is so new that he delights at traffic grinding to a halt outside his photography studio.

"Sometimes," he said with a touch of glee, "I can see traffic stopped from one block to the next."

Other merchants along a three-block strip of the street, which was once the heart of downtown Oxnard, also share his unusual enthusiasm. They remember how a misguided redevelopment plan blocked off the street, creating an open-air mall, but ended up choking off business for nearly two decades.

That any traffic would pass in front of their long-overlooked businesses is a blessing in their eyes, but that a gently winding street broken up by frequent stoplights would delay prospective customers in front of shop windows is proof that redevelopment in downtown Oxnard is finally working--thanks to the undoing of a previous generation's effort.

It's been a year since property owners between 3rd and 6th streets banded together to build a meandering road through the pedestrian mall that was installed nearly 19 years ago in an ill-fated attempt to stem the decay of the inner city.

In that year, 14 new businesses have opened on the street, six have expanded and four have undergone extensive renovations, according to the city's Redevelopment Agency, which coordinated the effort. Property owners who couldn't find tenants two years ago now have to turn them away, and property values are rising as long-stagnant property changes hands.

Although the street's two largest sites have yet to find tenants--a former J. C. Penney store and a vacant lot that the agency hopes will become a four-story office building--the reopening has, by most accounts, been a success.

"Things have worked out better than people expected," said Dennis Matthews, an administrator with the Redevelopment Agency.

The success is important to the agency. A Street is viewed as the cornerstone in a $24-million collection of redevelopment projects aimed at invigorating Oxnard's depressed downtown.

Already completed projects include a bus and train station and a block of upscale apartments. Future projects include Heritage Square, a cluster of century-old homes that will be used as offices, and International Marketplace, a block of ethnic restaurants and stores.

"A Street is where the retail reputation for downtown will rise or fall," predicted Steven Kinney, the Redevelopment Agency's director.

Still, city officials are cautious about pinning too much hope on the street of boxy, stucco-and-brick storefronts that were rebuilt during an $11.5-million project funded by the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in the early 1970s.

Even though the street is immediately west of busy U.S. 1 and next to Oxnard City Hall, it is not expected to attract out-of-town shoppers the way it once did. City officials, who once dreamed of a high-rise office building or a major department store locating on A Street, have lowered their sights. They hope to make it into a "neighborhood business center" with a promotional campaign financed by downtown merchants and $438,000 in low-interest rehabilitation loans.

In perhaps the most telling example of how Oxnard has lowered its sights, design guidelines call for a return to the turn-of-the-century or "early Oxnard" style of the street before redevelopment officials began tinkering with it.

"We've stopped trying to become something other than what we are," Matthews said. "Now, we're concentrating on what we've got . . . and trying not to get too big for our britches."

For many, Oxnard started getting too big for its britches when the mall was built in 1969 with federal redevelopment funds. It was billed as a solution to the many problems facing downtown merchants.

By that time, the businessmen had been grappling unsuccessfully with a two-decade-old parking problem in the rapidly growing city. Many of the street's retail buildings, which were built when the city was founded at the turn of the century, had fallen into decay. Some didn't meet earthquake safety requirements.

And then there was the Esplanade. Downtown merchants had heard that a new, enclosed mall was scheduled to be built at the north end of town. They were afraid it would woo customers away.

The idea was that redevelopment would enable the city to raze substandard storefronts to make way for more attractive ones. By damming up traffic at the foot of A Street, the mall would encourage shoppers to leave their vehicles in nearby lots and stroll through the neighborhood, stopping not just at the store that had attracted them, but also at others they passed along the way, merchants were told.

At the beginning, the mall seemed to be the same sort of winning proposition that had enthused merchants in down-at-the-heels downtown areas across the United States.

'Greatest Thing'

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