Rolling along the streets of San Fernando in an electric car that resembled a high-tech golf cart, Mayor Cindy Montanez pointed out abandoned buildings and vacant lots that she sees as valuable symbols of the city's history.
With some money, a developer with an eye for historic architecture and lots of hard work, she said, those overgrown plots and run-down structures could also be the city's future.
Montanez and other San Fernando officials are in the process of giving the city a makeover that they hope will change its image from a gritty, northeast San Fernando Valley 'hood into a model Latino community.
They started by opening the popular Library Plaza last year. In addition to the library, the plaza on the main downtown thoroughfare of Maclay Avenue features a coffee shop, yoga studio, Mexican restaurant and barbershop. They hope to continue their effort with other cultural and redevelopment projects along main streets.
"It's going to be the art, history and culture of this community that's going to allow businesses to come in and create a high quality of life in the city, in a community that has historically been underserved," Montanez said.
If all goes according to plan, the city could get a satellite of the Latino Museum of History, Art and Culture, a Cesar Chavez Memorial and a downtown "streetscape" featuring new lampposts, bus shelters and greenery.
"Sometimes, ideas emanate from the city of San Fernando" that would also be good strategies for the surrounding areas, said Los Angeles City Council President Alex Padilla, who represents the communities surrounding San Fernando in the northeast Valley.
Padilla said Pacoima also is working on improving its main street, Van Nuys Boulevard. Mission Hills is beginning to study the possibility of a cultural history center, and a children's museum is planned for Hansen Dam Recreation Area in Lake View Terrace.
San Fernando officials are negotiating to lease an old firehouse for the new Latino Museum branch, said Dan LaBrado, director of the city's Department of Recreation and Community Services. The firehouse is located among the professional offices and well-kept homes on Brand Boulevard, near the city's southwest entrance.
"We wanted to do outreach in areas where there was maybe a need to have more of a presence of art," said Stan Sosa, vice president of the museum's board of trustees. Sosa said the museum, which has a new downtown Los Angeles location, would also like to open branches in East and South-Central Los Angeles, in addition to the northeast Valley.
LaBrado said he expects the lease to be signed and the facility to open this month.
Within a year, the city says the Cesar Chavez Memorial Transit Plaza should be completed. The $240,000 project, funded by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and private donors, will include a rest area for Metrolink and bus riders, a bikeway and a memorial to the farm-worker hero, said Ron Ruiz, the city grant administrator.
Ruiz said many in San Fernando "have a sense of history with [Chavez], worked with him in the past and really identify with what he stood for."
The memorial site is 23,000 square feet of land at Truman and Wolfskill streets near the southeast entrance to the city from Pacoima. It will include a 6-foot-tall bronze statue of Chavez holding a dove, 10 metal sculptures of farm workers turned protesters, a 50-foot mural depicting Chavez's life, and an eagle-shaped fountain.
The plaza also will have more trees, safety signs around the railroad tracks and wheelchair ramps, according to the city's plans.
Councilman Richard Ramos is excited about the Chavez memorial, but he said city officials are sometimes too quick to back development plans without considering all the options. While Ramos supports the idea of showcasing local and Latino art, he said he voted against the Latino Museum project.
"I didn't feel we had enough information to make an informed decision," he said. "I've never got a report on it."
The reports are in for the downtown street improvement plan, which stretches from 1st to 8th streets on Maclay Avenue. The MTA awarded the city $1.5 million for the project, which is aimed at attracting more pedestrian traffic and dollars and is expected to take two years.
The avenue will get 9-foot-wide tree and shrub planters along streets. The city also wants the streetlights to have a historic look. Black or bronze scrolled lamp braces and bell-shaped lamp covers will replace the existing "cobra-head" streetlights. There will be new bus shelters with red Mission-style clay tile roofs, and black steel bus benches and trash cans.
On Maclay Avenue, San Fernando-based developer Pueblo Contracting Services Inc. wants to rebuild the old Spanish-style Rey Hotel, which was destroyed in a fire caused by the 1971 earthquake--although it wouldn't be used as a hotel.