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West Covina revives lofty goals for downtown

Talk of transforming the area into an urban village has resurfaced, but not everyone thinks it's a good idea.

December 26, 2007|Paloma Esquivel | Times Staff Writer

In West Covina, where "downtown" could best be described as a pair of mid-sized avenues anchored by a movie theater, there's talk of transforming the city's core into a bustling urban village. But there's been talk before.

For at least 10 years, the city has fostered visions of a busy downtown where high-end loft-dwellers stroll around the corner to restaurants and locals pass the time chatting at coffee bars. Plans were made and community meetings held. There were even whispers that the city was ready to use eminent domain. But nothing happened.

Earlier this month, talk started up again when the City Council proposed creating a subcommittee to revisit downtown revitalization. What the committee will actually do isn't clear.

There's widespread agreement that downtown businesses are in trouble, but little consensus on how to fix their problems, officials said. Even those who agreed to create the committee disagree about its goals. And the question of whether high-end development addresses the community's affordable housing needs is hardly on the radar.

Business leaders, city officials and community members are split on whether mixed-use development, which blends high-end lofts and condos with office space and entertainment venues, is a good idea, said Gary Lawson, who heads the West Covina Chamber of Commerce. But he said that most agree: "Something needs to be done."

Since 1994, nearly $2 million has been spent on downtown infrastructure improvements and almost $500,000 has been allocated for area planning studies, according to city reports. But downtown still isn't attracting enough customers, Lawson said.

Locals often head to Orange County, Pasadena and downtown Los Angeles for entertainment and restaurants.

Some local businesses are struggling to stay open, said developer Ted Slaught.

"I think downtown is a more idle place today than it was five years ago. We have fewer retailers," said Slaught, who helped develop the city's Lakes center, which includes an Edwards movie theater, a Barnes and Noble, a Macaroni Grill and other restaurants and stores.

Red Brick pizza, Juice It Up and Vieta Coffee have all failed at the center and others are looking to leave.

Slaught blames the city for not moving forward with revitalization plans.

"The Lakes Entertainment Plaza was always envisioned to be the centerpiece of a downtown pedestrian village," he said. Now, "there's a centerpiece but nothing surrounding it."

Councilman Steve Herfert said downtown isn't as troubled as some paint it. There's no need for dramatic change, he said.

"We're a city that's pretty well built out," he said. "Most of the businesses that are downtown are doing OK." But he acknowledged that most restaurants in the area "do well on the weekend, but they don't do well during the week."

The existing downtown area isn't on a major thoroughfare and doesn't attract pedestrians, said Doug McIsaac, city planning director. Without a natural center, the city has to "create the attraction," he said.

He looks to Old Town Pasadena as one possible model.

"Maybe you don't know what you're going to do when you get there," McIsaac said of Pasadena's popular center, "but there are multiple entertainment venues and restaurants and you can park in one place and walk to where you want to go."

Still, plenty of skepticism over revitalization remains. Three years ago, the city spent nearly $230,000 to develop an ambitious plan known as Scenario C. It called for realigning Glendora Avenue and Lakes Drive to create lofts and office space and would have cost nearly $20 million for the improvements necessary to get started -- $14 million was planned for parking upgrades, McIsaac said.

Initially, council members agreed to move forward, but plans were scrapped after elections changed the makeup of the board, officials said.

Councilman Roger Hernandez expects the new subcommittee to revive Scenario C, pushing West Covina into a future where dense housing meshes with entertainment and restaurants, he said.

"The goal is to spruce up the area and create a higher-end village downtown," Hernandez said.

But Mayor Sherri Lane said turning downtown into a bustling urban center isn't a reality.

"That's a major overhaul of that whole area," Lane said. "I'm not in favor of doing something that drastic . . . I have concerns regarding density, traffic and congestion and the strain on city resources."

Councilman Herfert said there may be unrealistic expectations surrounding the committee's overall goals.

"I just don't want to mislead people," he said. "We've gone through this thing so many times. I don't anticipate a whole lot coming out of it."

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paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

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