THOUSAND OAKS — Few know better than Susan Duntley how cheap talk really is when it comes to putting a new face on Thousand Oaks Boulevard.
For more than a decade, the boulevard businesswoman has watched as the city paraded numerous plans for the blighted street and commissioned countless studies on how to make the area a lustrous community hub.
But now, as president of the West Boulevard Business Group, Duntley is hoping to put government in the back seat and add more than just another chapter to the redevelopment saga.
"After all the years spent looking at the boulevard, I think everyone's a little smarter and understands that if anything is going to change there, we're the ones who will have to do it," Duntley said. "I think it's a step in the right direction."
Formed last January in response to a stagnating customer base and fluctuating tenancy rate, the West Boulevard Business Group is an alliance of more than 50 business and property owners who have decided to make redevelopment a reality.
The group, which seeks to make modest improvements to the end of the boulevard between the Moorpark Freeway and Moorpark Road, has met with some success after an introductory meeting with City Manager Grant Brimhall. Also, the City Council recently decided to dedicate the city's Boulevard Enhancement Team to working with the group. The business group will return to the council to request financing for its final plans.
"This is basically as good as it's ever been for the future of the boulevard," Mayor Judy Lazar said. "I've always felt that businesses needed to get more involved and work together, so this is positive. We've got some consensus and the city wants to help."
Specifically, the group's goal is to kick-start the boulevard's lagging economy by making its 1 1/2-mile section more friendly to pedestrian shoppers.
That section of the boulevard is clustered with strip malls that house businesses selling everything from building materials and pet supplies to fabric and food.
At an estimated cost of $750,000, the group would like to install decorative street lighting, landscaping, benches, clocks and even a trolley. In addition, the group would like the city to lower the current 35 mph speed limit and complete its purchase of the old Gasco property, which the city intends to turn into a park.
"We think that if the area were more friendly to people, we'd see a lot more business," said Russ Goodenough, a member of the business group. "If this is a nicer environment for people, it's going to produce a lot for everybody in Thousand Oaks."
Though Duntley and Goodenough are optimistic that a business-generated revitalization effort will finally meet with some success, they aren't holding their breath.
In fact, few issues in this city have moved at a slower pace or met with more criticism than revitalization of Thousand Oaks Boulevard.
In the 1950s, there was talk of fashioning the area after the retirement mecca of Scottsdale, Ariz., complete with an Old West motif.
The 1960s ushered in the era of modern architecture, typified by the former boxy look of the nearby Janss Mall.
And with the 1970s, came an age of Mediterranean designs characterized by white stucco buildings and red tile roofs.
All this, and the proliferation of sterile strip malls, has led to today's incongruous look of Thousand Oaks Boulevard. And according to local architect Francisco Behr, who has studied the boulevard extensively, that has hurt not only area business and property owners, but every resident of Thousand Oaks.
"Something needed to be done 10 years ago," Behr said. "But now it's gotten to a point where it's looking neglected and the businesses there are starting to feel it."
According to a 1995 design symposium and study coordinated by Behr and attended by numerous other architects and city planners, the malaise of the city's oldest commercial district is caused by such factors as:
* Thousand Oaks Boulevard lacks adequate business markers and amenities such as decorative plantings.
* The four-mile commercial corridor is crowded with an unseemly mix of architecture and lacks adequate safety measures for pedestrians, such as crosswalks and lower speed limits.
* The city's historical preference to regard the boulevard as a vital traffic artery rather than commercial hub has affected the boulevard and businesses for the worst.
Though Behr acknowledges he has been disappointed with past efforts to polish up Thousand Oaks Boulevard, he regards the business group's coordination as a vital element that has been absent since the outset.
"Their participation is key to any success," Behr said. "Without the support of the boulevard's land and business owners, nothing will happen, so this is definitely a step in the right direction."
Although the city and community have lauded the West Boulevard Business Group as crucial to success, others question whether it is realistic to make the street a pedestrian paradise more like Santa Barbara's State Street.