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Burg Recovering From Its Big Ideas

Rail project meant to revitalize Placentia's downtown led to massive debt instead. But dreams to redefine itself haven't died.

April 30, 2006|Roy Rivenburg | Times Staff Writer

Honking horns helped send the sleepy suburb of Placentia down a track to near ruin.

On April Fools' Day 2001, residents were jolted awake by a sound they hadn't heard in 25 years: the piercing blast of freight-train whistles.

The renewed racket, which was prompted by federal safety rules, helped cement support for plans to dig a giant ditch so trains could barrel through town unseen and unheard. The project, called OnTrac, was also supposed to fuel a renaissance of the city's aging downtown.

But in trying to tame the railways, Placentia, which once prospered because of the tracks, almost derailed itself. OnTrac created a swamp of red ink, led to the March indictment of two former local officials and forced the city to slash services, mortgage parkland and ponder shutting down the Police Department.

Today, OnTrac is dead, and the city is struggling to regain its equilibrium. Plans for a revamped downtown are still in the works, but it could take years for the northern Orange County city to recover from its railway boondoggle.

"We went on a joyride, and it cost us millions and we're still back at square one," said John Walcek, a photographer who formerly led the city's downtown merchants association.

Placentia has a long history of big ideas shaping its identity. It has been an oil boomtown, citrus powerhouse and host to national elephant races. In the late 1800s, it was known for a colony of psychic vegetarians who once tried to spook residents with mysterious floating lights that turned out to be flaming balls of kerosene-drenched cotton.

In recent years, the city has eyed several plans to shed its image as a bedroom community by reinventing its downtown.

One proposal called for repackaging the largely Latino district as an Orange County version of Olvera Street, with a Mexican-themed plaza and shops. Another suggested replacing historic buildings with new ones designed to look old.

A few years ago, Placentia decided to harness the past for its future. In the early 1900s, trains were the city's lifeblood, hauling Valencia oranges from downtown packinghouses. Later, after citrus groves gave way to tract homes, the rails became a nuisance. Dozens of daily freight trains created traffic jams at crossings.

Enter OnTrac. Instead of demolishing homes and businesses to build railroad overpasses, a 5-mile-long concrete trench would dive beneath streets, then surface near an envisioned Metrolink station and a transportation-oriented village of homes and offices.

The project was seen as a way to speed the revival of Placentia's historic downtown. After the citrus industry faded, the 45-acre area spiraled downward. By the late 1970s, it was mired in shootings, brawls, prostitution and public drunkenness.

"It was like Tombstone, Ariz.," said Joe Aguirre, a community activist.

The modern Wild West era ended after merchant renovations and a police crackdown on troublesome saloons, Aguirre said. Since then, new shops have settled into formerly empty storefronts, and mini-mansions have sprung up along revitalized residential streets.

Despite the upswing, downtown remains a shadow of its early self.

Formerly home to a movie theater, department stores, hotels and a Safeway, the neighborhood is now a hodgepodge of mom-and-pop shops, auto mechanics and an "Alcoholicos Anonimos" outpost.

Before OnTrac fever set in, the chief prescription for downtown was a new paint scheme, benches and street lamps, Aguirre said. A retired Sunkist packinghouse would be converted to shops and loft homes.

But in 2003 the vision turned grandiose. Computer-generated videos were created to depict downtown's utopian future. The packinghouse was knocked down to make way for 54 luxury condominiums.

Anticipating a shower of state and federal money to bankroll OnTrac's estimated $650-million price, officials spent millions on video producers, Web page experts, public-relations gurus, lobbyists and other advisors.

The man in charge of OnTrac, city Public Works Director Christopher Becker, was given a $450,000 salary, making him one of the highest-paid transportation officials in the nation.

But the gold rush didn't last. Placentia eventually racked up $36 million in debt trying to keep OnTrac afloat. The end arrived last summer, when Congress answered the city's request for $225 million with a paltry $31 million, not enough to build even one railway overpass. In March, Becker and former City Administrator Robert D'Amato were indicted on conflict-of-interest charges tied to OnTrac, allegations they deny. State officials are also investigating OnTrac and Placentia's finances.

In the wake of the project's demise, Placentia is establishing "quiet zones" to stop trains from honking. But it will be years before the city can afford enough railway overpasses to unclog its north-south roadways.

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