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Residents see downside of downtown

Fullerton's effort to rebuild the city center with mixed-use projects is running into community resistance.

August 19, 2008|Paloma Esquivel | Times Staff Writer

On the worst days, Keith Kang's commute from his home in Corona to his graphic design business in Fullerton could almost equal a quarter of the workday.

So when he learned about SoCo Walk, a mixed-use project in downtown Fullerton that opened in late 2006, he thought he had found a perfect solution. Kang and his wife grabbed one of the town homes and now run their business on the first floor.

But the experiment in urban living isn't working out the way Kang had imagined. Business is suffering because the project wasn't well planned, he said. And he worries that his downtown neighbors might be a bit too gritty for his family's taste.

"There's gangsters. There's drug dealing," he said. "I can't even walk outside . . . because somebody is going to come up to you and ask for change."

In an era of soaring gas prices and lengthy commutes, downtown urbanization projects such as SoCo Walk -- which is next to the busy Santa Fe Depot that serves Amtrak and Metrolink trains -- are touted as ways to put housing, shopping and work close together.

Cities across the state -- from Salinas to Whittier -- have ambitious plans to transform their downtowns into urban centers. Tiny Cotati (population 7,200) in Northern California and Copperopolis (population 2,300) near Stockton -- are in on the urban trend.

But in Fullerton, an ambitious effort to rebuild downtown with live/work and mixed-use projects is proving a harder sell.

Discontent with SoCo Walk abounds. Neighbors of the project say its residents don't mix with the existing community. And though some SoCo Walk residents say their lives improved when they dropped the commute, many worry they're too close to downtown and all its attendant problems. The harshest critics say the project was badly executed.

Against this backdrop, Fullerton officials are contemplating approving Amerige Court, a five-story mixed-use complex with more than 100 residential units and 30,000 square feet of retail and office space in the heart of downtown. The Planning Commission voted last month against recommending the project to the City Council, which takes up the project today.

SoCo Walk was controversial from the start. To make room for the project, landowners razed several single-family homes -- eliminating a chunk of the Truslow neighborhood, a mostly poor, predominantly Latino community. Inside the SoCo Walk, a coffee shop is not open for business. A sign on the door says developers refused to provide access to adequate electricity for a food-service business. A yogurt shop also remains shuttered.

Across the street at La Jalisco Market, which has been in the same spot for 22 years, owner Antonio Gutierrez says the new residents don't mix with the older community.

Residents of the old neighborhood filled his store every day. "They don't spend money here," he said, pointing at the lofts and shaking his head.

SoCo Walk resident Jin Kang admits he's wary about the shop, where he believes gang members and other scofflaws hang out.

Kang and his family moved into a live/work loft last year. They didn't plan on working from home but liked the openness of the loft, the idea of walking to downtown shops and of living near transit. But the complex was poorly planned, Kang and his wife said, and they've faced several obstacles in getting construction problems fixed.

In addition, the couple say the neighborhood isn't as family friendly as they had imagined. "If we were younger, it would be great," said Kang, 33. "But there's not a lot of place for children to play. The few places that there are, they're not really safe."

On a neighborhood blog, residents frequently complain of graffiti, homeless squatters, heavy traffic and insufficient parking. The city hired four police officers to patrol near SoCo Walk at night, said Fullerton Police Lt. Tom Basham, adding that the development was built in "a prominent gang area that's been established for some years."

Residents "living in an urban environment, in any city, are going to have a variety of different issues," said Bill Holford, senior vice president of sales and marketing of the Olson Co., the developer of SoCo Walk. "It's not a gated community."

The company, which specializes in urban infill, has built similar projects across the state, including Depot Walk in Orange and Willow Walk in Compton. The projects are about "reinvigorating the areas and improving the quality of the local neighborhood," he said. "Cities will call upon us when they've got an old building or old housing and they want to freshen up. . . . We're coming in with a new community, new homes and residents that will stimulate the local landscape and the local economy."

City officials say the move toward a bustling downtown is a response to residents who want to leave their cars at home. Lori and David Thompson, who bought their home in SoCo Walk last year for about $560,000, are models for that argument.

Lori Thompson said she wanted to cut back on driving to help the environment. Living at SoCo Walk makes that possible, she said.

"Living in the city center and near all the services has allowed us to exceed the environmental goals that we had personally set," said Thompson, who now takes the bus from Fullerton to her job at Disneyland.

Still, she said, she doesn't know if the project is a good blueprint for the rest of downtown. "I love the diversity of our neighborhood, and I would hate to see the entire city go to a project like this," she said.

At a Planning Commission meeting in June, dozens of residents were critical of Amerige Court, saying it didn't fit with the existing community.

The meeting lasted nearly five hours as residents took turns expressing their opposition and developers defended the project. Tonight's meeting promises to be just as contentious.

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paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

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