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Reclaiming North County

January 20, 2002

Orange County is certainly "new" by the standard of many other American communities, where housing, business and parks have histories going back generations. But even as the county contemplates new communities in Rancho Mission Viejo and parts of northern Irvine, it is reclaiming older neighborhoods and commercial districts in North County. The revitalization of older neighborhoods and the recycling of parcels that have fallen out of use is a difficult but worthy challenge. To put a fresh face on our older communities, it ought to be encouraged and facilitated by local government.

When Richard Nixon opened his presidential library in his native Yorba Linda, he recalled a place that was rural and forsaken, in contrast with the world capitals he frequented in adult life. Yorba Linda today is no longer remote agricultural country but has become one in a string of suburbs along Imperial Highway and just off the Riverside Freeway. Its Old Town, the downtown area, has often been unfamiliar even to residents, who bypass it to go elsewhere to shop and dine.

The city has been buying property and will work with a developer to build housing, including some for seniors, along School Street. There are plans to convert back alleys to narrow streets to facilitate access to stores. In general, planners want to restore the area's historic ambience, giving people, as one commissioner put it, "a reason to stop."

The aesthetic appeal of downtowns has become a priority in this age of cookie-cutter strip malls and subdivisions. The public response has been favorable, and the sentiment is worth nourishing. To reclaim some of the feeling of the city's history, there are such touches planned as putting wood siding instead of stucco on the exterior of the retail center, in a way that brings to mind old packinghouses.

Not all are thrilled with the plan, especially those small businesses that would be relocated. The city needs to go the extra mile to help affected business owners find new quarters in town.

Revitalization is spreading to unincorporated areas, which don't have the focus of a single city's action. Here creative thinking by residents can go a long way in working with county government and drawing attention to spots for potential new housing.

For example, the West Anaheim Neighborhood Development Council identified a rundown strip mall near Anaheim and proposed transforming it into a site for homes that young families could afford.

County officials, pressured by the state to do more for low-income rental and owner-occupied housing, has been looking for such places. The time is ripe for citizens and government to work together.

The efforts by both cities and the county to target older neighborhoods for improvement is important for the future of the northern part of the county, where much of the commercial and housing stock is older. With good planning, new housing and revitalized shopping areas in older neighborhoods can complement each other and be attractive to low-income workers.

In Orange, an old industrial property off the Costa Mesa Freeway has been identified for a public park. A 15-acre plot that used to be owned by a railroad and that was used as a landfill, asphalt factory and surface mine now has the unlikely future as a park.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has designated it and two other parcels in the county for a demonstration project on recycling industrial property.

In a city such as Orange, which has a low percentage of parkland, this is a great opportunity, provided that the land can be cleaned up as intended.

All these efforts signal a willingness to consider new uses for old sites. In so doing, a partnership of government at every level with local residents can brighten aging parts of the county.

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