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Old Town Newhall
January-February 2006 • Year 12, Number 1.
A New Plan For An Old Town.
Editor and Publisher.

    Old Town Newhall revitalization officially entered its second phase on November 22 when the Santa Clarita City Council unanimously approved the Downtown Newhall Specific Plan. It took effect thirty days later.
    The plan lays out the future development of the Old Town corridor and modifies the necessary building codes to accomplish it.
    More than a year in the making, the plan was crafted by the Pasadena urban planning firm of Moule & Polyzoides, whose representatives met numerous times with city staff members, local residents, property owners and merchants to coalesce their wishes for the downtown corridor into a blueprint for change.
    The Specific Plan supplants the initial document the city has been following for the past decade — the Downtown Newhall Improvement Program, known as the "Freedman Plan" for its creator, Bay Area urban planner Michael Freedman. The Freedman Plan was a road map to many of the improvements the city has made in the downtown corridor over the past ten years, such as the Newhall Metrolink Station, opening Railroad Avenue, the blend of Western, Victorian and Spanish building fašades and the establishment of a redevelopment zone.
    One big thing the Freedman Plan didn't address was the zoning changes that would be needed to develop two- and three-story buildings along the main thoroughfare, with ground-floor shops and upstairs dwelling units. The new plan makes those changes.
    The plan also calls for streetscape changes that will create a more pedestrian-friendly environment, as well as a number of new public and quasi-public projects that will draw more people to the downtown area, such as a children's museum, a civic building and a Latin-themed outdoor market or mercado.
    Responding to concerns of a building owner and tenants who feared the city would condemn their property to build the mercado, the city modified the plan prior to final adoption to un-designate their property for it. As it stands, the mercado could go anywhere.
    City planners also met many times with residential property owners to appease fears about the use of eminent domain. The plan gives the city (acting as the Redevelopment Agency) the power of eminent domain for residential property; it has had the power of eminent domain for commercial property in Old Town Newhall for the past decade but has never used it.
    The city will need to keep its eye on a ballot measure currently being proposed by state Sen. Tom McClintock (who is running for lieutenant governor). McClintock's measure would restrict the ability of government agencies to use eminent domain. His proposal is in reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Kelo v. New London (Connecticut), where the court held that New London could use eminent domain as long as it followed a plan that conformed to state law — much like the Downtown Newhall Specific Plan.
    Santa Clarita took the first steps to implement the Specific Plan in December when it issued a "request for qualifications," or RFQ, to identify developers who are qualified to build some of the transit-oriented housing, parking garages, mixed-use buildings and civic structures that are outlined in the plan. Developers have until January 20 to respond to the solicitation.
    The next step will be to put the projects to bid. Existing property owners ultimately don't have to use the city-approved builders if they prefer to hire their own.
    Ten years ago, Michael Freedman said that for Old Town Newhall to be successful, it would have to serve two distinct needs. It would need to continue to function as a neighborhood retail center, serving people who live within a one-mile radius; and it would need to add the types of businesses that attract "regional" customers from a three-mile radius.
    Once upon a time, it did serve both functions effectively. Old Town Newhall was the central business district for the Santa Clarita Valley.
    Over the past thirty years, however, many of the regional businesses fled for greener pastures in the valley that once were wheat and onion fields. Yes, some regional businesses stayed, such as Newhall Hardware and many auto repair shops — and some have moved in, such as the El Trocadero and Egg Plantation restaurants and a pair of live theaters. But for the most part, Newhall lost its power to attract shopping dollars from a wider area.
    Old Town Newhall functions effecively today as a neighborhood shopping center, but it must again attract a regional clientele if its business and property owners are to prosper. Thus the new Specific Plan focuses heavily on the type of development that will attract patrons from a wider area than the immediate neighborhood.
    Recognizing that the initial draft of the Specific Plan completely overlooked the importance of existing neighborhood businesses and the necessity of serving the adjacent residents, the City Council instructed that those needs are to be considered as the plan unfolds. The burden will be on the people who implement the plan — city staff members, the Newhall Redevelopment Committee, the Planning Commission and ultimately the City Council itself — to make sure it happens.
    Another specific plan could soon be in the works for Newhall — actually, for a ninety-five-acre swath of vacant land just north of the Old Town corridor.
    The property is bounded by Placeritos Boulevard on the south, Circle J homes on the north, San Fernando Road on the west and a Metropolitan Water District easement on the east. Many Santa Clarita residents know the southern portion of the property as the Cowboy Festival parking lot.
    Once developed, the property will form a sort of "northern gateway" to Old Town Newhall.
    The area is zoned for a business park. The landowner, Casden Properties, indicated it wants the city to change the zoning to accommodate eight hundred to fifteen hundred condominiums, block off 13th Street, and replace it with an easterly extension of 15th Street.
    Both ideas have their drawbacks. City officials no longer believe the entire property is suited for a business park; nor are some of the nearby residents in Placerita Canyon too keen on the idea of adding hundreds of condos and losing their 13th Street access.
    In December, city officials opened talks with Casden to discuss a specific plan for the land, with an eye toward development that will meet the needs of the city, the landowner and the community.
    The matter was tentatively scheduled to go before the City Council for discussion in January. Stay tuned.

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