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Yorba Linda's Old Town: New Visibility in Store

Cities: Unknown even to many residents, the zone would sprout new retail and historical features. Planning Commission approval is expected.

January 14, 2002|JERRY HICKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Richard Nixon was growing up in Yorba Linda in the early 1920s, his country home was just a short walk from Main Street. He attended school a block west of Main, and his father helped build the Friends Church a block to the east.

Today, while the Nixon presidential library at his home site is an international attraction, hardly any of its tourist traffic is aware that downtown, now called Old Town, still exists. Many who live in Yorba Linda barely know it.

The city is trying to change that. In a major renovation plan for Old Town, Yorba Linda hopes to couple an economic face lift with preservation.

"When you ask people where Yorba Linda's downtown is, it's hit or miss whether they'd know it," said Patricia Haley, the city's community development director. "We think our plans have a lot of promise."

The city has slowly been buying property in the Old Town area, which generally lies along Imperial Highway north of Yorba Linda Boulevard. It has hired a consultant, Downtown/Main Street Visions of El Segundo, to draft a proposal.

The consultant's ideas will be unveiled before the city Planning Commission on Wednesday night, with approval expected.

Through a series of town hall meetings, much of the vision is already known:

* An overhead pedestrian bridge across Imperial just north of Yorba Linda Boulevard would lead from the small Richard M. Nixon Park directly to a new 70,000-square-foot retail center and a major parking structure. It would provide easy walking access to Main Street.

* Housing would be built along School Street, one block east of Main--either condominiums or a complex for senior citizens.

* Alleys just behind Main would be converted to narrow streets for easier access to stores.

* Some historic homes would be moved but preserved. One, a two-story Craftsman built in 1911 and now empty, may wind up on the grounds of the city's library, on Olinda Street, and converted to a historical or children's museum.

* Eventually, the city would also help some properties along its one-block Main Street return to their historic ambience.

Planning Commission President Carl Boznanski calls the Imperial/Yorba Linda intersection "the gateway to our city. Right now, people drive along Imperial without a thought to what's there. We want to give them a reason to stop."

Boznanski and City Councilman Ken Ryan have been part of an ad hoc committee working with the consultant. Both say they are surprised how much unifying support the plans have received in a series of public meetings.

"A critical component," said Ryan, "will be to create new retail that will be compatible with the historic section. The pedestrian walkway, for example, must be something aesthetic, not just utilitarian."

Plans call for wood siding instead of stucco for the exterior of the retail center, in a style reminiscent of the old packinghouses. Jo Lyons, spokeswoman for the Yorba Linda Historical Society, praises the plans for fitting Old Town's atmosphere.

Also solidly behind the proposal are merchants in the Old Town area.

"We've been asking for something like this for years," said Nancy Ferguson, who owns a stained-glass business on Olinda.

Mike Ruocco, a Main Street barber, has been attending all the public meetings. The renovation can only benefit Main Street merchants, he said: "We would become a destination; the place would be a lot more public-friendly."

Louis Scull, a Main Street property owner for 30 years, is more guarded in his optimism.

"The city came up with some plans in 1992, and then again in 1995, but nothing ever came of it," he said. "So, you ask me if this is going to be good for downtown? I have to say, we'll see."

Boznanski is well aware of those two attempts but said this one is different. Now, the Planning Commission and City Council votes are there to back a dramatic change. Also, the city is already negotiating settlements with several businesses that will be forced out through eminent domain proceedings.

Those people are the chief critics of the plans. For example, the proposed retail center straddles what is now Arroyo Street, which has numerous small industrial shops. Alex Mikkelsen, who has owned an auto repair business there for 14 years, is angry about being closed down.

"I don't mind progress, but the way this has been handled is ridiculous," Mikkelsen said. "Nobody from the city has ever talked to me about a price for my place. All they've told me is, 'You better get a lawyer.' "

Brandt Waterbury, owner of Sheffield's Interiors on Arroyo, said he recently received a 90-day eviction notice from the city.

"We've been here 29 years. My father died building up this business," Waterbury said. "It's just not fair."

He and others had some forewarning. More than a year ago, the city bought the property that Waterbury leases, and it is a lousy landlord, he said, letting the roof leak and refusing to take care of other repairs.

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