MOORPARK — In the 20 years that Sandy Taylor has worked at the Cactus Patch Restaurant, she has witnessed the city's downtown go from boom to bust.
The changes are most evident on High Street, a once-thriving agricultural hub and commercial strip: Gone is the bank. Gone is the post office. Gone is the hustle and bustle that once made High Street a vital part of Moorpark's economy.
"I love this town, and I love High Street," Taylor said. "But now I just stand here and wonder what happened."
What happened to downtown Moorpark is similar to what has happened to downtown America, where small communities have grown too big for Main Street merchants to satisfy all the new customers.
As grocery stores have become an integral part of planned developments and multiscreen movie theaters have popped up along major thoroughfares, downtown merchants have suffered--unless local government intervened.
Last week, Moorpark officials took the first step toward doing just that, holding the first in a series of public hearings on a $1.6-million revitalization plan that backers say could help downtown Moorpark rise again.
After a second hearing Aug. 25, a revised version of the proposal will be sent to the Moorpark City Council for a vote in late September or early October.
This is the third time in two decades that the city has considered such a proposal. But Moorpark City Councilman Bernardo Perez points out that the current plan is the first to include an estimate of how much public money would be necessary to turn downtown into the "Star of the Conejo Valley."
The downtown's proximity to schools, parks and civic buildings and its landmarks make the area suited for revitalization, which could attract more visitors looking for shopping and entertainment.
This city of 28,000 was incorporated in 1983, but most of its downtown lots were devised long before--when such things as zoning laws and development permits were not mandated.
The new plan lays out design standards for residential and commercial development and expansion. It emphasizes bungalows from the early 1900s and Spanish mission-style buildings.
To make the area more pedestrian-friendly, the plan recommends that parking lots be hidden from view behind buildings, and that sidewalks, benches and shade trees be added.
Public spaces play an important role in the new vision for downtown Moorpark. One suggestion is to close off Magnolia Street north of High Street and turn it into a courtyard with kiosk vendors.
No matter what the plan ultimately includes, "the goal is to revitalize the historic downtown," said John Newton, a Moorpark land use consultant and chairman of a residents committee appointed by the City Council.
A number of factors led to the decline of downtown, Newton said, chief among them was the widening and realignment of rural Los Angeles Avenue (California 118) away from downtown, straight through to the 23 Freeway.
The change eventually made Los Angeles Avenue a cash cow for the city. Not only have manufacturing plants set up shop there, but merchants offer just about anything shoppers could want, complete with plenty of parking.
Newton said one project that heralded downtown's decline was the opening of the Hughes Center in 1984. Since then, Los Angeles Avenue has attracted a multiplex movie theater, numerous fast-food restaurants, a second big-name grocery store--Albertsons--and even a Kmart.
Residents groups have been convened to study downtown's problems and bailout plans since 1979. This one, city officials hope, will be different.
Some proposed revenue sources to pay for the plan include a new gasoline tax, surcharges on vehicle registration and fees applied to developers based on how their projects affect, among other things, city streets.
In order for the latest plan to work, Newton said, the city must create incentives for private investment, such as streamlining the permit process and relaxing setbacks on downtown lots.
None of these incentives will work in the long-term, Nelson said, unless people feel safe downtown. Among the proposals to increase the perception of public safety is relocating the police resource center from Moorpark Avenue to High Street.
The residents group also recommends aggressive steps to clean up the area's eastern gateway, where day laborers gather outside the Tipsy Fox liquor store seeking temporary employment.
But some in the community say the city's goal should be to get people of all economic classes to accept one another, rather than shuffling day laborers from site to site.
"The problem that these chaps are having is the same problem others in the community are having--a lack of work," said Ruben Castro, senior case worker for Catholic Charities.
Those most concerned about the laborers and the image they project about downtown Moorpark are the people who have recently moved here, said Castro, 67, who has been a Moorpark resident since he was a few days old.
"When these people see a group of men in work clothes standing on a street corner, they become fearful of them because they don't know them," Castro said.
But the biggest hurdle for the city and private business, said Taylor, the waitress and a longtime resident of Moorpark, is convincing merchants and customers that downtown Moorpark is a nice place to do business.
"We need to let people know there's nothing wrong down here," she said.