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Some Cities Find Entry Signs to Be a Welcome Addition

January 19, 1998|LESLEY WRIGHT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

From young South County cities to established municipalities of the north, local governments are debating whether to spend thousands, even millions, of dollars on signs and landscaping that will help them stand out.

"There are 31 cities in Orange County and well over 80 in Los Angeles County," said Daniel E. Keen, La Palma city manager. "Lots of people don't realize when they are moving from one city to the next. Folks have joked that they didn't realize they were in La Palma because they were driving too fast. We think it's a special place, and we're trying to create a little more identity for the businesses and residents who live here."

The 2-mile-square city decided--with the overwhelming approval of its residents--to spend $45,000 this year on boundary monuments.

Many cities have made similar decisions, but proclaiming one's separateness in Southern California sometimes takes more than a marble stone or a carved sign saying "Welcome."

Some cities, such as Anaheim, are making sure freeway motorists know that, for a few minutes at least, they are driving through a city with its own mystique.

Anaheim city officials spent nearly $600,000 in federal grant money to beautify freeway ramps leading to and from major attractions by adding palm trees and elaborate landscaping.

The City Council last month earmarked $17 million more to overhaul major thoroughfares, though officials are stymied from building a gateway to the city because it has so many entrances.

The projects have been promoted with the philosophy that roadways and freeway ramps are the identifying markers of the city--as surely as the World Trade Center towers signal the existence of Manhattan for miles around New York City.

"One of the first things I did when I came on to the City Council three years ago was make [employees] go bring up to date the 'population of Anaheim' sign," Councilman Lou Lopez said. "Every single sign was repainted, everything that identifies that you are entering our city. . . . It's tied to economics. I feel if people come into a nice clean city, they'll stay longer and spend their money."

The search for an identity is hardly new. The pyramids of Egypt are just one example of the desire, said David Baab, a planner and architect who runs a Newport Beach consulting business. In the United States, the soaring arch over St. Louis both marks the entrance to the city and identifies it as the gateway to the West.

"I think they're very important," Baab said of markers and gateways. "In older cities you can see that entrances to neighborhoods and individual cities have been very effective in giving residents a sense of identity. They understand where they live in the urban region and take pride in their community."

The recent wave of clarifying boundaries could reflect an increased confidence on the part of Orange County cities, Baab said.

The push to make freeways more attractive also has its roots in the 1950s and 1960s, when transportation authorities considered landscaping to be an important element and planted hanging ivy and trees to relieve the mass of concrete, he added.

In 8-year-old Laguna Niguel, the issue is a real one for a community still exploring ways of proclaiming itself.

One of the first things officials did was erect marble-like monument signs on entry streets, City Manager Tim Casey said. Now, a steering committee of business and property owners wants to bring that same municipal spirit to an unplanned, 400-acre business zone that fronts the freeway.

A search for definition has many dimensions in the young city that has neither a permanent City Hall nor a well-defined downtown, Casey said. A Laguna Niguel sign visible from the freeway would boost community spirit as officials continue to work on other aspects of the problem.

"In this area in particular, as you drive north and south on the freeway, it just doesn't jump out at you," Casey said. "Every community wants that sense of identity--a sense of place."

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