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San Clemente Seeks to Be Chic -- but at What Cost to Soul?

Marblehead project will add to many new upscale attractions in the once quiet city.

January 03, 2006|Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writer

If Sam Tiberi could turn back time, he would take his beachside town of San Clemente to the mid-1960s, when his fellow residents numbered only a few thousand and Orange County's creeping sprawl was still miles and decades away.

"It was great the way it was," said Tiberi, 75, the owner of Sam's Shoes & Repairs, one of downtown San Clemente's oldest businesses. "But you can't stop progress."

Progress -- although not everyone in town calls it that -- has turned San Clemente from a quiet beachside outpost best known as home to President Richard M. Nixon's Western White House to a bustling southern Orange County dining and shopping destination.

Its downtown is teeming with new restaurants and antiques shops, and multimillion-dollar homes dot the hills of what was seen as Orange County's last relatively affordable beach town just a few years ago.

Now, development has begun on the city's last stretch of undeveloped coastal land. Marblehead Coastal, 250 acres marked by canyons and sandstone bluffs, will be the site of 313 high-end homes and the city's largest commercial development, including a luxury outlet mall, a multi-screen movie theater, a dozen restaurants, a hotel and conference center.

"We represent a regional draw," said David Lund, the city's director of public works and economic development. "And we are building a regional reputation."

The region is South County, and it is ready for an attraction or two. Even as growth has marched steadily south over four decades, filling up cities such as Mission Viejo and Laguna Niguel along the way, the area has lacked major shopping and entertainment centers more common in North County.

San Clemente is slowly filling the void. The once quiet little town on the San Diego County border had been mostly ignored by outsiders. But in the last five years, the city's downtown has been attracting more shoppers and diners from nearby cities, including Laguna Niguel, Aliso Viejo and Dana Point.

"It used to be ... as soon as the sun went down, it would get quiet," said Lynn Wood, chief executive of the city's chamber of commerce. "Now when you go downtown, there are actually people walking around at night. It really has come into its own."

And the city is about to amp it up with the development of Marblehead Coastal. The property's fate was argued for nearly three decades; other proposals for the site had included a Nixon presidential library, a golf resort and a 500-home and commercial project. Finally, in 2002, a scaled-down plan for Marblehead that included 125 acres of parks and preserved canyons won over environmental opponents.

Irvine-based SunCal Companies, which bought the property two years ago, is betting that its ocean views and San Clemente's proximity to the San Diego Freeway will make Marblehead popular with home buyers and shoppers.

"This is one of the last great opportunities in the coastal zone," said Mike McGovern, the company's project manager.

Marblehead's 600,000-square-foot commercial plaza is nowhere near the scale of South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa or even the Irvine Spectrum. But for San Clemente, the project will represent more than half of the city's sales tax growth over the next decade, officials estimate.

The town's growing prosperity is already evident in its downtown, where upscale clothing boutiques and hip restaurants have replaced nickel-and-dime shops and more modest eateries. In recent years, the city invested $4 million in street and landscape improvements.

"We have such a unique setup here," said Dave Donaldson, owner of BeachFire Grill, the first of the new breed of businesses on a rejuvenated Avenida del Mar. "Nobody can re-create what we have. We have a historic downtown...."

Added Mayor G. Wayne Eggleston: "It still has that small-town feeling, even though more development is there. We still have sense of place and sense of community."

Many agree, but some wonder how much the city can grow before that is lost.

"San Clemente used to be a nice little beach town," said Jim Nudo, 52, who recently sold his surf shop. "It is now an overgrown, cramped little beach town."

Nudo's former surf shop is in an area near a Metrolink stop that the city hopes to redevelop soon with hotels, stores and restaurants.

"I'm staying out of the way of the urban sprawl," said Nudo, who moved to Fallbrook in San Diego County five years ago and now plans to move to Oregon.

But for everyone who leaves, many more are arriving. San Clemente's population has grown by a fifth to nearly 60,000 in less than five years. Home prices have soared.

"I can't even touch a condo here," said Wood, the chamber of commerce official. "Affordable housing is definitely an issue."

And in the thriving downtown, some merchants worry that the rising rents will drive the remaining mom-and-pop stores out of the city.

Sam's Shoes & Repair is still doing well under the management of his two sons, said Tiberi, a Korean War veteran who opened the store 53 years ago.

San Clemente is still a nice place to live, Tiberi said. He recently bought a house in Talega, a 3,800-home upscale community nearing completion in the inland part of the city.

Still, all this change worries him.

"It used to be a place where everybody knew everybody," Tiberi said. "I just hope they don't ruin Americana."

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