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Redeveloped City Has Breezy Atmosphere : Huntington Beach: Redevelopment in the 1980s brought restaurants, cafes and theaters to downtown's new streets.

November 13, 1994|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Davis is a free - lance writer who lives in Old Orange

As a kid, Joe Bunney rode his bike from his home in Fountain Valley to downtown Huntington Beach, where he dreamed of living someday. Just recently Bunney's childhood wish became a reality when he and his wife bought a home just five blocks from the ocean.

Not only does Bunney like living so close to the ocean, he's also fond of downtown's casual atmosphere.

"It's a very comfortable, relaxing lifestyle, which is refreshing to come home to after a stressful day at work," said Bunney, 32, a dental X-ray equipment salesman.

For a home that close to the ocean, the Bunneys found downtown real estate affordable. He and his wife, Angela, paid $355,000 for their three-bedroom, 2 1/2-bath, 2,400-square-foot house.

Although Huntington Beach is much different than Angela Bunney's native North Carolina, she has been pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of her new neighbors.

"I thought people would be standoffish at the beach," the 27-year-old schoolteacher said. "But downtown is a really friendly neighborhood like I'm used to."

Downtown is an easygoing area, agreed Tom Van Tuyl, a realtor with Pier Realty Inc. "Residents go home, put on their beach clothes and relax," he said.

And the mix of residents in downtown is eclectic. "They're from all walks of life, income levels, ages and family situations," Van Tuyl said.

Downtown covers about 2 3/4 square miles and is bounded by Pacific Coast Highway on the south, Beach Boulevard on the east, Yorktown on the north and Golden West on the west.

There is a wide variety of housing styles and prices in downtown, Van Tuyl said. For about $200,000 you can find a two-bedroom, one-bath cottage of about 1,000 square feet that was built in the early 1900s. An average home is about 2,000 square feet and costs $300,000 for three bedrooms and 2 1/2 baths. On the high end of the scale are homes of 3,000 square feet with three to four bedrooms and 3 1/2 baths for about $575,000.

There are also many condominium projects in the downtown area, Van Tuyl said. An average condo of 900 square feet with an ocean view that has two bedrooms and two baths costs from $200,000 to $300,000.

The commercial section of downtown is hopping nowadays as residents and visitors stroll the newly renovated streets. In the 1970s, this once-bustling area withered as new housing and shopping being built in other areas of Huntington Beach pulled businesses away, leaving many buildings vacant. In the mid-1980s, the city began redevelopment to restore the area.

Now, restaurants, cafes, ice cream parlors, beach ware shops, theaters and a few commercial businesses make up the thriving retail area.

Seeing downtown restored to its former glory thrilled longtime resident Tony Tovatt, who came to town in 1925 with his family and opened a hardware store the next year. Tovatt has spent the last six decades running businesses in the city, mostly in downtown.

Today Tovatt and his wife, Marge, 75, live in a condominium they bought 21 years ago for $44,000. It has 1,400 square feet with three bedrooms and two baths.

"Huntington Beach is a great place to raise a family," said Tovatt, whose four children have remained in the area. "I went to elementary school here and graduated from Huntington Beach High school in 1937. My kids and grandchildren have graduated from there too."

Tovatt looks back fondly to when the downtown area was in its heyday from the 1940s to the 1960s.

"It was a wonderful town then," he said. "You didn't have customers, you had friends. A lot of important business deals went on over a milkshake at the soda fountain."

Although the downtown of today is different, Tovatt is pleased with the area's improvement. "Downtown has changed with the times, which is necessary," he said. "I think it looks great and will flourish."

The city of Huntington Beach had its beginnings in the downtown area at the turn of the century. Henry Huntington founded the city in the early 1900s, originally calling it Pacific City. Citizens eventually named the town after him, however.

A lot of the older homes in the area are original summer homes built by wealthy individuals who lived in Pasadena and the Los Angeles basin and vacationed in Huntington Beach.

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In 1920, oil was discovered in the city, quickly boosting the population. After World War II, the area again grew rapidly. In the 1950s and 1960s, Huntington Beach became known for its great surfing and was soon the home of popular surfing contests.

When Natalie Kotsch first moved to Huntington Beach in 1977, the realtor had no idea that one day she'd help found the city's surfing museum and serve on multiple redevelopment committees.

When Kotsch moved to downtown, she lived in a two-bedroom, two-bath condo she bought for $115,000. In 1979 she bought a four-bedroom, 2 1/2-bath home for $139,000. After living there five years, she moved to a 2,800-square-foot, four-bedroom, three-bath house for which she paid $289,000. Today she lives in her first house, which she had kept as a rental.

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