CORONA — When the Riverside Freeway opened almost 30 years ago, it was a boon to motorists but a blow to downtown Corona, supplanting what was once a bustling commercial district along 6th Street as the primary route to the coast.
Downtown interests fought back, partly rebuilding Corona's historic core in time to benefit from the boom of the 1980s, when the city almost doubled in size as newcomers found it a haven of relative affordability and convenience.
But civic leaders today, wary of early signs of decay and the recent flight of at least one longtime business, are now suggesting that it may be time again to redevelop.
While some hope that downtown will regain pre-eminence as the city's retail center, others want to solidify the gains that attracted banks, real estate agencies and insurance offices.
Crime has increased in the past five years downtown and there still is an acute lack of parking. Redevelopment could persuade white-collar businesses to remain and might also prevent the area from becoming a collection of abandoned mini-malls and cheap motels, civic leaders believe.
"It's at a point where it could go either way," said Kent Hansen, the immediate past president of the Corona Downtown Business Assn. ". . . It could be a row of junk shops or it could be something we are proud of."
Over the past decade, growth has been explosive, with many living in Corona and commuting to work in Orange and Los Angeles counties. But instead of buying downtown, many new residents have chosen to shop at regional centers in Orange County or at new retail strip malls near their own neighborhoods.
The result has been what some residents say is a disjointed city lacking a central retail business district.
"For many people, they need a sense of focus for their community," said Susanna Branch, a member of the Corona Historic Preservation Society. "Many people want our town to have a feeling that it's not just a place to sleep."
The Downtown Business Assn. has asked the City Council to study the entire area within Grand Boulevard, which forms a circle around downtown and the city's historic residential neighborhoods.
In addition to redevelopment, the association also has proposed creating a business- and parking-improvement district to better promote the downtown area, beautify decaying buildings and provide extra security to blighted areas. Under the plan, improvements would be funded through a 35% surcharge on business licenses issued each year. The City Council is expected to take up the matter in June.
If Corona chooses to redevelop, it would be the second time the city has attempted to revive its core.
Sixth and Main streets, in the middle of the proposed redevelopment area, were once the central shopping areas. The streets, crossing in Corona's center, were home to many small merchants and a major department store, J.C. Penney.
But the area declined with the coming of the Riverside Freeway, and by the late 1960s numerous businesses had moved out of decaying buildings--many of which dated to the turn of the century--and left the downtown area altogether. So Corona city leaders, vowing to restore downtown as the hub of the city's retail activity, launched a redevelopment project. The key was the construction of Corona Mall, an outdoor shopping center spread over two blocks near Main and 6th streets.
But the mall failed to attract a major department store and by 1980 had become dominated by the offices of lawyers, Realtors and insurers. Half a dozen restaurants and several dozen specialty shops have remained.
Jim Pauly, then vice chairman of the Redevelopment Commission, said the project failed to blossom because it lacked the full support of merchants and politicians. But he insists that the project still managed to prevent a total disaster.
"If we hadn't done what we had done, we would have lost the whole downtown area," said Pauly, who co-owns Emerson-Pauly Men's Wear, which is located in the Corona Mall. "It would have turned into a slum."
Now some feel there's again a threat to downtown. A First Interstate Bank branch, located just a block east of the Corona Mall, recently announced that it would move out.
"That became somewhat of a call to action for businesses," said George Guayante, the city's redevelopment director.
Arne Leavitt, manager of the branch, said the bank simply needs more parking space.
Other downtown businesses have complained of drug activity and prostitution on East 6th Street, Police Chief John Cleghorn said. There also have been more reports of vagrancy and panhandling, and the area now includes several transient hotels.
Cleghorn said that although such crime isn't rampant, trying to control it has been frustrating.
"It's a cyclic kind of thing," Cleghorn said. "You crack down and get rid of the problem and then they are back again.
"It's a typical downtown problem where people don't have a place to go."
Sixth Street boasts several new low-rise office buildings, but many structures date from the days when Corona was on the main road.
"We'd like consistent, attractive uses," Hansen said. "The core problem is a mixture of deteriorating business structures and new businesses."
Mayor William Miller said he hopes new redevelopment would focus on establishing Corona as a center for specialty retail businesses rather than attempt to capture major chain stores.
"Those are the types of businesses that are going to set us apart," said Miller, who owns a business in the Corona Mall that specializes in buying and selling historical documents. "We have got to have something other than mini-malls and gas stations.