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A TALE OF TWO CITIES : Plan Aims for Big-Town Feel, Small-Town Charm


CULVER CITY — Peering through the dust-covered windows of her downtown cantina, Penny Burton can see the future: an upscale enclave of coffee bars, live music and boutiques.

Her vision, shared by those who have launched a redevelopment project, see the future Culver City as sophisticated yet homey, contemporary yet small-town. But some wonder if it is an impossible dream, an overambitious attempt to have its redevelopment cake and eat it too.

Desperate to turn around its shabby core, the city recently broke ground on an $11-million renovation, stirring excitement--and uncertainty--in the heart of "The Heart of Screenland."

The mechanics of the project are straightforward enough: widen sidewalks, add parking, plant jacaranda trees and reconfigure the maddening intersection of Washington and Culver boulevards, the purported epicenter of downtown.

The face lift includes $750,000 in fee reductions and other incentives aimed at luring trendy shops and eateries to downtown and the East Washington Boulevard strip. The money also will go to help existing businesses spiff-up their storefronts.

And there's more.

The city has turned the Ivy Substation, a former railroad switching facility, into a stunning events hall and is searching for a developer to revamp the Culver Theater, a 1000-seat local landmark. It also provided a $600,000 construction loan to renovate the 69-year Culver Hotel, whose distinctive wedge shape is now the official logo of the downtown renovation.

Topping it all off is the new City Hall, a three-story architectural showpiece using the facade of the original City Hall. The project, slated for completion by summer of 1995 at a cost of $30 million, is being funded separately from the redevelopment.

It is no surprise to anyone familiar with downtown's tired-looking mishmash of businesses and restaurants that community support for the overhaul runs high. Aside from economic expectations, many see it as a civic rebirth in a place that sometimes seems stuck in the '50s. To do nothing, says Jackie McCain, a neighborhood activist, would have meant "just complete deterioration."

Yet despite the calls for change, the precise nature of that change remains unclear.

Is Culver City simply reviving its downtown or transforming it? Will the zone cater mainly to locals, as it did in its heyday? Or will it evolve into a regional shopping and entertainment mecca, drawing hordes of outsiders, a la Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade?

Culver City officials, fond of depicting their community as an oasis of Middle America surrounded by big-city chaos, say their plan is nothing close to a Third Street Promenade. Envisioned is something far less frenetic, where residents and visitors alike can shop for basic goods and services, dine al fresco, then see a show, perhaps finishing off the evening with a hot cappuccino and some cool jazz.

"It's an up-to-date version of everyone's hometown--that's what Culver City's trying to be," said Planning Commissioner Sandra Levin.

Yet city planners and others acknowledge the difficulty of creating an upscale, economically viable zone without sacrificing downtown's endearing, if elusive, "traditional American Main Street" appeal.

Community Development Director Mark Winogrond said Culver City residents expect "a wonderful downtown to stroll and shop in, and they (also) want to be protected from the fear and hazards of a lot of the rest of Los Angeles."

Winogrond predicted that the project will successfully reconcile those goals, but he cautioned that mega-discount stores and malls have rendered obsolete the concept of a downtown geared largely to locals.

"It's difficult to achieve that in the modern world," he said.

Few question the potential for economic success. The Brotman Medical Center and Sony Pictures Studios already pull thousands of employees into the city daily, helping to swell the population from 40,000 to 320,000 during business hours. The hope is that many of those workers will flock to a rehabilitated downtown during their lunch hours and before heading home each evening.

Another potential audience is motorists who drive through downtown on their way to or from the Santa Monica and San Diego freeways.

"The community is concerned that people are driving through and not paying attention to what they're driving through," project director Debbie Rich said. "This is an opportunity to grab some of these people and keep them in the city for a while."

But at what price?

Culver City historian Hal Horne, an enthusiastic backer of the redevelopment, acknowledged the potential for problems. "We cannot overlook the fact that bringing in more people will bring in the kind of people who prey on other people," he said.

He and others said Culver City may be on the verge of forsaking some of its vestigial fortress mentality, perhaps for the better.

"We can keep our community feeling, but we won't feel as insular as we have and I think that's a positive," Horne said.

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