Rated on a scale of ghost town to downtown, Yorba Linda's Main Street tilts toward dead.
But city officials say that's about to change. After years of brainstorming, they're poised in the coming months to give final approval to a developer's $300-million plan to "reincarnate the soul" of their century-old downtown.
To revive the neighborhood, the city wants to build 190,000 square feet of retail space, convert a former strawberry patch to pricey townhomes, install old-fashioned streetlamps and relocate the area's collection of historic houses.
Reaction has been stormy in this city of 64,000, which calls itself the "Land of Gracious Living." Critics say the project will snarl traffic and clash with Yorba Linda's semirural ambience.
The downtown hub near Imperial Highway and Yorba Linda Boulevard is a quaint hodgepodge of vintage storefronts, old homes and a steepled Baptist church. But the 20-acre neighborhood has languished for decades, bypassed by Imperial Highway and easily missed by visitors to the nearby Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace.
On a recent afternoon, Main Street's antique radio shop and tailor were closed, the only person in the barbershop was the barber, and pedestrians could be counted on one hand.
"It's dead," said Ed Quigley, owner of Main Street Coins & Collectibles. "Economically, the area needs to be revived. The only question is how."
It's an issue that numerous Orange County cities have wrestled with in recent years.
Brea bulldozed its aging downtown and built a new one. Fullerton, Tustin and Orange relied on preservation to revitalize their historic districts. Garden Grove mulled plans to install a fake London Bridge and river along Harbor Boulevard.
In Yorba Linda, several schemes have been hatched for Main Street over the last 15 years, none of which panned out.
"I've been waiting so long," said barber Mike Ruocco, displaying a newspaper article headlined "Reinventing Downtown" -- dated January 1997. "I just want them to do something."
Up the street, inside a former jewelry shop, developer Michael Dieden hopes to grant Ruocco's wish.
"Yorba Linda deserves a great little downtown," said Dieden, standing amid a roomful of historical photos, maps and artist renderings.
Over the next six years, his company wants to spruce up storefronts, reconfigure streets and add restaurants and shops. His project also calls for massive underground parking lots, a park and 200 homes -- a mix of lofts, courtyard townhomes and million-dollar houses. About 10% of the cost would come from city redevelopment funds, he said.
All of the buildings will be designed to resemble "what Yorba Linda looked like in the 1920s and '30s," Dieden said.
Some of the structures that really are that old -- 15 historic houses scattered on nearby streets -- will be demolished or moved to a "historic court" several blocks away.
Critics of the project have dubbed the court a "historic petting zoo."
"Taking buildings out of context and calling it preservation is a big stretch," said David Zenger, an Orange County planning commissioner and Fullerton preservationist who is skeptical of redevelopment programs, which he contends give away too much tax money to developers and drag on endlessly.
"Downtown Fullerton is 120 years old and has had redevelopment for 31 years, but 'much remains to be done.' What does that tell you?" he said.
But other observers say redevelopment can be a useful tool for cities.
The trick is "balancing economic expansion with the preservation of local history and charm," said Scott Bollens, a professor of planning, policy and design at UC Irvine.
Some Yorba Linda residents aren't sure Dieden's vision achieves such a balance. They argue that the project will create traffic jams and is too dense and urban to blend with the city's semirural image.
"Just cut it in half," said Ed Rakochy, a leading critic of the plan, which would be the first phase of a longer-term city effort to link downtown with the Nixon Library and historic Park Place neighborhood.
Hoping to thwart Dieden's proposal, a group called Yorba Linda Residents for Responsible Redevelopment collected signatures for a ballot measure that would require voter approval for major construction projects.
But the City Council placed the measure on the June 2006 ballot, so even if it passes, it would be too late to derail the downtown plan, which is expected to win final council approval by early next year.
Opponents say they're gearing up to collect signatures for a referendum to overturn the council's likely decision.
"We'll get the signatures," Rakochy said.
Ruocco, who supports Dieden's project, said city officials should sit down and negotiate with opponents instead of "playing cat-and-mouse games" over ballot measures.
Dieden believes opponents have misrepresented his project. When critics circulated their petitions, he said, "they didn't go around town with our drawings and say, 'Help us stop \o7this\f7.' "
He said residents who gave his proposal a fair hearing and looked at a similar retail-and-housing project he built in South Pasadena would endorse his blueprint for Yorba Linda.
If the plan is rejected, Dieden said, "different developers will get hold of the land and put in strip malls and apartments. It'll be an abomination."