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Hope for Newhall's Rebirth Rides on New Train Station

September 18, 1998|DARRELL SATZMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA CLARITA — The much-awaited revitalization of downtown Newhall receives a boost today when work begins on a new Metrolink station in the heart of the historic commercial district, city leaders say.

Residents and neighborhood merchants hope the $4-million train station--with its public plaza, clock tower and Western motif--will help turn around a local economy that has been in decline for more than a decade.

Set to open in June, the Metrolink station is the latest component of a redevelopment process that has progressed slowly since it was initiated more than seven years ago.

Today's groundbreaking ceremony, which comes on the heels of the recent widening and refurbishing of Railroad Avenue, will offer the most tangible evidence yet that plans are indeed moving forward, said Glenn Adamick, city economic development associate.

"This is one of the key things to kick off our revitalization effort and I think it's going to have a huge impact on downtown Newhall," said Adamick. "It's not just a train station. It's going to be a gathering place and a focal point of downtown Newhall."

Designed with input from city residents and paid for with grants from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and other government agencies, the train station will be built at the intersection of Market Street and Railroad Avenue. The 90-year-old bell from Saugus School will be placed in the clock tower.

The Newhall Metrolink station will be Santa Clarita's third, more than any other city except Los Angeles, Metrolink officials said.

Tracing its roots back to the 1880s, when it was an oil boomtown, downtown Newhall, or "Old Newhall," was for many years the center of economic activity in the Santa Clarita Valley. During the 1940s and '50s, the area's main thoroughfare--then Spruce Street, now San Fernando Road--was a bustling shopping district.

In recent years though, the area has become a less attractive destination. Incomes in the immediate neighborhood are now the lowest in town and commercial developments elsewhere in Santa Clarita have siphoned customers away.

Rising crime, gang activity, overcrowding in nearby apartments and even a lack of sidewalks and gutters have contributed to the area's decline. Many of Newhall's single-story storefronts are worn and few people walk the streets on a typical weekday afternoon.

Tom Frew, a past president of the Santa Clarita Historical Society, said construction of the new rail station shows the area is on the verge of recovery. Recent announcements by the Santa Clarita Repertory Theater and the owners of Trocadero, an upscale Mexican restaurant, that they will relocate in downtown Newhall also bode well for the area, Frew said.

Another encouraging development will be the staging of the first Old Town Newhall Street Fair on Sept. 26. The event will include live entertainment, crafts, food and kids' activities, and will signal to the community that downtown Newhall is serious about its recovery, Frew said.

"I am very optimistic about this," Frew said. "Opening the station is going to mean a heck a lot of foot traffic. It's going to bring a lot of people into the area."

In 1994, the city announced its first redevelopment plan, a $1-billion proposal to spruce up the entire Newhall area.

Those plans were thwarted by Castaic Lake Water Agency, which sued the city, claiming the area to be redeveloped did not qualify under state law.

The water agency prevailed, and the city later struck a deal with the agency that shrank the redevelopment zone to 897 acres, which included much of downtown Newhall.

Mary Merritt, an architect and member of the Newhall Redevelopment Committee, said the advisory body has come up with several ideas that have improved the look of Old Newhall. New laws restricting signs have been passed, and facades on new buildings in the area are required to be designed in accordance with Western, Spanish or Victorian styles.

The committee is also planning to offer cash incentives to merchants and property owners to improve existing structures, Merritt said.

"The objectives we set have come directly from the community," she said. "We've had a long process we've gone through to get to this point and now that we're here it's exciting."

Still, not everyone is convinced.

Tony Maric, owner of Newhall Paint Store on San Fernando Road, two blocks from the new station, said he welcomes the city's revitalization efforts but questions whether enough resources are being dedicated to the program to make a difference.

"I think it's a piece of the pie, definitely," Maric said. But he worries whether train-takers will walk the extra distance to spend their money at businesses such as his.

"Certainly, this is important for creating the synergy to get redevelopment moving along," said Tony Inderbitzin, owner of Insurance Auto Collision Center on the corner of Railroad Avenue and San Fernando Road. "I don't think it's going to happen as quickly as people hope, though."

Adamick, the city's economic development aide, concedes that change won't come to Old Newhall overnight. However, he said the momentum is now building for the area to realize significant economic benefits by the early 21st century.

"Our intent is to recreate a main street atmosphere in downtown Newhall," Adamick said. "Our goal is that eventually people are going to hop on a train from the San Fernando Valley or Los Angeles on a Saturday and come to Newhall to shop downtown or visit [William S.] Hart Park. . . . I think we're on our way."

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