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ORANGE COUNTY COMMENTARY

Our Streets Tell Us What Was and What Will Be

May 18, 2003|Steven B. Frates | Steven B. Frates is a fellow at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College.

Orange County is a fascinating place, and its current popularity owes much to its history, though that history is often dismissed. It can still be seen as you drive around the county, if you look carefully, and it can tell us quite a bit about the challenges and opportunities we face.

Driving north on Coast Highway past Hoag Memorial Hospital, off to the right you can still see open bluffs topped by sage scrub, and a few working oil wells. The view from the top of those bluffs is stunning, and the decisions about the future of that land will be interesting to watch play out. No matter what happens, it will affect the municipal finances of Newport Beach.

Cross the Santa Ana River and you are in Huntington Beach, at the corner of PCH and Main. Large resort hotels have cropped up on the inland side of the highway and the Golden Bear bar and nightclub is long gone.

The need for municipal revenue from transit occupancy taxes and tourist related sales taxes fueled much of this municipal metamorphosis. But turn right on Main and in a few blocks, some of the old Southern California beach town flavor returns.

Turn left on aptly named Palm Avenue, and after admiring the rows of magnificent palm trees lining the street (which are bent, paradoxically, toward the prevailing onshore wind), you can still see much of the once modestly priced housing that formed the core of the community. That housing probably wouldn't get built today.

Continue up Palm to Golden West, and as you admire the upmarket housing it is worth remembering that this area was once part of the Standard Oil lease, which had company housing and a wonderful statue of the Zeroline Bear (an old company trademark) in front of the field office.

Turn north on Golden West and as you proceed up the rise, the Sea Cliff Village shopping center is off to your right. New and modern, the center is part of the ongoing effort by cities to provide services, stimulate business and garner sales tax dollars.

Last Tuesday, you could see the top of a well-pulling rig off to the east over the roof line of the shopping center. In 21st century Orange County, municipal revenues are being pulled out of suburban retail stores, not out of the ground.

Farther north you cross the busy 405 (nee San Diego) Freeway and some seldom-used railroad tracks. Golden West turns into Knott Street about where the 22 Freeway marks the boundary between Westminster and Garden Grove.

A monument sign in the shadow of the freeway announces the presence of the Garden Grove Business Park. Current state laws don't encourage such job-producing development anymore. Because the state Legislature has stripped property tax revenue from cities and counties, local governments now shy away from such development.

A little farther north (and past one more seldom-used railroad track) and you are at the corner of Knott and Cerritos. Park your car and you can take one of the more remarkable inter-city trips in the world on foot. Walk west on the north side of Cerritos and in half a block you are in Anaheim. A couple of hundred yards more and you are in Buena Park.

Cross to the south side of Cerritos at Holder Street and you are in Cypress -- four cities in a few hundred yards. This wonderfully convoluted mosaic of municipal boundaries recalls a not so distant time in Orange County history when cities were aggressively expanding, annexing unincorporated farmland and quickly encouraging growth, especially housing -- which is why young families could afford to live and thrive in Orange County back in the 1950s and 1960s.

Before you get back in your car, walk back south on Knott a bit and look at the two small, old frame houses on the east side of the street. You are looking at Orange County history, which could very well change before you blink. Walking back to your car, glance down the railroad track as you cross. It goes from Los Alamitos (right by the horse-racing track) to downtown Anaheim, passing within a half mile or so of Disneyland before it eventually hooks into the main Amtrak line between Los Angeles and San Diego.

Behind the wheel again, continue north on Knott and turn left on Ball Road, which allows you to cross another railroad track twice in a few yards. The Cal Va Drive-in Milk store on your right recalls the day when dairies lined Coyote Creek. Turn north on Moody and just before hitting the railroad track again turn left on Grace Avenue.

Tucked away in here is a quaint neighborhood, with Chinese elms and no sidewalks. Like the better-known and equally charming "oil company houses" on Walnut Avenue in Brea, these small monuments to Orange County's past are under threat to be replaced by condos.

Turn left on Belmont (noticing the new condos down the block) and left again on Merton back to Moody. You are surrounded by the past, present, and future of Orange County.

Financing schools, land-use decisions and funding adequate transportation infrastructure have always been important issues for Orange County governments, and they still are.

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