By John Earl
Surf City Voice
Note: This is the first of a series of occasional articles about the history of development and redevelopment in Huntington Beach over the past 30 years.
During the March 7 HB City Council meeting, member Keith Bohr praised the success of downtown redevelopment.
There are “challenges with alcohol” there, he said, referring to the city’s infamously high DUI rate—1st place in its size range in the state and 7th out of all California cities, but those challenges show that we are “victims of our success.”
People who tell him that they prefer downtown the way it used to be must have a “selective memory,” he said, or are remembering the “Beaver days,” referring to the idyllic community that existed downtown in the 50s and 60s but perished in subsequent economic decline.
“I’ve been around since 87,” Bohr reminisced, going back to his days as a city planner. “There were a lot of boarded up ground-floor retail stores [downtown]. There was a former deputy sheriff arrested for running a teenage prostitution ring out of the upstairs of the 200 block of Main Street, where the parking structure is now. There were devil worshippers living there in the single-room occupancies. I think Huntington Beach has improved a lot every year.”
True, downtown Huntington Beach was badly in need of repair, both structurally and socially, 24 years ago—although Bohr’s story about devil worshippers is more urban legend than fact (more on that later).
The city’s population had grown from around 11,000 in 1960 to around 176,000 in 1983—when downtown redevelopment officially kicked off. In an interview with this reporter published in the Nov. 13, 1987 issue of the Huntington Beach News, the new City Administrator, Paul Cook, commented on the aftermath of the population explosion of the early 60s.
“Basically, the city grew and there just isn’t enough density to keep it [downtown] going on its own,” he explained.
Before that change, the city’s small population was centered on Main Street, so that’s where people shopped. “So they [downtown businesses] had a captive audience. As the city grew and the shopping center at Five Points went up, as well as other shopping centers, the competition grew too great for Main Street,” Cook explained.
Progress in other areas of the city brought economic failure and boarded up buildings to the downtown.
Transients frequented the area and lived in some of those buildings, including the old Surf Theater that closed its doors in 1986. There was a lot full of junk cars and drug deals were easy to come by downtown.
Fifty-one buildings that hadn’t been upgraded for earthquake safety—some were built in the 1920s and 30s—speckled the area.
The downtown’s bad reputation only made it harder for the remaining businesses to survive. Landowners, business owners, city residents and city planners all agreed that something had to be done, but agreeing on a plan was another thing.
Under the direction of City Administrator Charles Thompson and the city council (also acting as the redevelopment agency), the city’s first solution was to turn downtown into a tourist destination. A “first-rate, high-quality hotel” with 300 rooms, a 40,000 square-foot conference room and a 20,000 square-foot public plaza located on the south corner of PCH and Main(on 10 lots sold to the developer for $1.00 apiece) was part of the plan.
But that plan had its obstacles. A news story in the Register bragged that “Several hotel chains are now actively interested in the project.” In fact, not a single hotel company was interested. So city planners downsized the project into a 150-180 room hotel that also never appeared at that location.
Pierside Village, a beachside shopping center, was another key to the city’s downtown redevelopment plan. It was to be located on the beach south of the pier, with a 4 foot high wooden deck extending out onto the sand. A tri-level underground parking structure with a major restaurant on top was to be located on the State owned beach north of the pier.
City planners were so excited about Pierside Village that they neglected to tell the council about changes they had made to the plan—including giving the State Parks and Recreation Department the false impression that the council had approved the changes.
No matter, because when the council found out that they had been blindsided by planners they still instructed them to proceed apace, even though the proposed changes had not been passed by the Planning Commission as required by law.
When Bohr first started working for the planning department in 1987, the city was in the middle of a pitched battle with downtown property owners and organized residents who were opposed to redevelopment plans that they considered to be grandiose, poorly planned, unfair and detrimental to the quality of life.
Eager to get past stubborn downtown land owners, the city council also ignored a previous resolution requiring that two-thirds of the landowners in a project area agree voluntarily to sell their property to the Redevelopment Agency before the other third of the owners could be forced to do so through eminent domain.
Some downtown property owners felt that they were being railroaded by the city. They would form a PAC in April, 1988 to hold out for better prices on the forced sale of their land.
But the battles over redevelopment weren’t confined to the downtown.
In July, 1987—about the same time the Pierside Village plan came forth—a raucous crowd of over 300 residents and property owners came to city hall and opposed a proposal to declare 508 acres of land along five miles of Beach Boulevard between Edinger and Atlanta Avenues as blighted so it could be declared a redevelopment area.
The meeting before the city council/redevelopment agency became so intense that the stenographer hired to record the event broke down, crying out “Wait a minute, I can’t take it anymore,” and walked off the job.
After seven hours of hearings, at 2:55 a.m., the Beach Blvd. redevelopment project was defeated 5 – 2.
Back to Beaver
Cook took a much different approach to redevelopment than his predecessor, eschewing the big hotels concept for a “village” atmosphere that would redefine downtown from that time forward. Cook wanted to return to something like Bohr’s so-called Beaver days.
“I don’t see tourism down there as being viable, especially 12 months a year,” Cook told this reporter. “I remember when I came here in 62, Main Street was a pretty private little street with men’s clothing stores and barber shops and village stores and everything was fine.”
Cook got kudos from supporters and critics of redevelopment alike, but public concerns about Pierside, traffic, parking and the city’s heavy-handed use of eminent domain remained strong.
In a drastic attempt to change public opinion and push downtown redevelopment through, the city released a seven-minute video depicting the downtown as having the highest crime rate of any area in the city. It was a haven for drug use, Satanic and Nazi gangs, and “slumlords” who violated health, safety and seismic codes. Pictures of similar buildings that were destroyed in the recent Whittier earthquake were added to make the case for downtown redevelopment.
Cook said he was surprised by the unsanitary living conditions in the downtown buildings or “flop houses” that were depicted in the video. But not all of the code violations were a surprise to city officials.
As had been revealed previously by this reporter in the HB News, city officials, including the council, had deliberately held back on seismic enforcement on buildings whose owners cooperated with its redevelopment plans. Suddenly, however, the city was determined to convert from discriminatory enforcement to all-out enforcement.
To back the city’s claims that downtown was occupied by a Satanic cult, the video showed clips of Satanic literature found in a vacant and recently fire-damaged home, as well as wall graffiti depicting pentagrams, the pope, and the Grim Reaper.
It turned out that the “Satanic” house belonged to Frank Mola, who developed the Charter Center on Warner and Beach and who had been cited numerous times in the past for code violations.
City officials claimed that redevelopment would create a downtown environment that would discourage visitation by all types of gangs and diminish drug use and crime there.
But the city’s gang specialist offered no evidence that the “Satanic” findings were evidence of cult infestation rather than individual activity and admitted that actual gang related incidents in the downtown area had been few in the past five years.
Meanwhile, concern about development induced traffic problems had swept across much of Orange County. Huntington Beach voters gathered signatures and placed the Citizens Sensible Growth and Traffic Initiative (CSGT) on the Nov. 1988 ballot. Its purpose was to prohibit any future development that would increase traffic or adversely affect the quality of life in the development area.
The CSGT was a clone of a county ballot measure that was placed on the June ballot. Similar measures were placed on the ballot in Seal Beach, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano and Costa Mesa. Eventually each of these campaigns would fail at the polls, but before a business backed advertising campaign took hold they were favored by the vast majority of voters.
With public pressure and self-doubt mounting, the city hired a development consultant to reevaluate the downtown. The report concluded that the city’s original plans weren’t marketable, challenged the viability of its parking and traffic circulation plans and recommended a 180 degree turn away from attracting the tourist trade toward an emphasis on residential and complimentary commercial (mixed-use) development.
In a letter to the city council, Cook emphasized the report’s main conclusions:
- Long lasting commercial revitalization of Main Street was dependent upon creating a significant resident neighborhood, an approach that had proven successful in cities across the country.
- Return Main Street to a two-way artery.
- “A more sizeable and consistent household population base is required to turn the area into a legitimate residential neighborhood where people actually live and work rather than just a place to ‘hang out and party.’”
- Retail on Main Street should “enhance the marketability and competitiveness of the larger housing component,” and should be oriented toward local residents’ needs rather than seasonal visitors.
- An 8 – 10,000 square foot “ranch style” market should be located on Walnut and Main.
- There should be 25,000 square feet of retail on Walnut and 6th streets.
- A four screen movie theater for PCH and Main.
- Perq’s bar should have a second level restaurant that would also serve as a “quality nightclub or comedy club.”
- A 15-20 room bed and breakfast facility would be a good fit for the village concept, but Cook noted that “a hotel is not one their suggested uses nor is it one of mine.”
In April, 1988, the city council unanimously approved conceptual plans for creating a “village atmosphere” downtown instead of the hotel and tourist oriented destination it had previously planned for. Most conspicuous among the changes was the elimination of the 300-room hotel. The Pierside Village, which the city agreed would not help revitalized the portion of downtown on the inland side of PCH, remained in the city’s plans.