Leon Worden

Stick Around Awhile and Get Lost

By Leon Worden

March 1, 1995

Second of two parts.


owntown is all about lingering."
    Mike Freedman's words, not mine. Though I wish they'd been.
    Freedman is point man for Freedman, Tung and Bottomley, the urban design firm our city hired to create a plan to revive downtown Newhall.
    Three hundred shopkeepers, property owners, community activists packed the town hall last month to hear how Freedman would resurrect Old Newhall out of the hodgepodge of nothingness that San Fernando Road has become. (The scene likely repeated itself Monday evening — after my deadline for this piece).
    That in itself was quite an accomplishment. Getting 300 people to agree about anything is tough; they having come predisposed to agree is nothing short of wondrous.
    Freedman triggered the imagination with his talk on the "forgotten art of making great downtowns."
    "You build differently in the downtown than you do anywhere else," he said. You make it obvious to the passerby "where the downtown is, and where it isn't."
    "Central city revitalization is a science," he said. "Successful downtowns focus on what makes ground-floor businesses successful."
    He explained. Shops open directly onto the main street, not onto parking lots. Main Street is an 18-mile per hour, two-lane affair with angle parking, not an arterial to whisk people through.
    Stores are narrow and deep, with doorways few paces apart. Each building is a different color, each doorway unique; each picture window displays an enticing sample of the goodies to be found inside.
    And though different, each building exhibits three common elements that establish the area's identity. Or, in Ray Bradbury's words last week, its metaphor. Santa Barbara is the city of white stucco and red tile roofs and palm trees. Boston is the city of red brick walls and slate roofs and shuttered windows. What is Newhall anymore?
    Examine the Valencia Town Center closely. Each storefront is trimmed differently. The long, narrow shops sport huge picture windows and doorways that open onto the promenade.
    An interesting name, that. Town Center. It is, in truth, our town's center, where people congregate and interact. We meet and talk and eat there. Remember what Bradbury said about the importance of eating. The mall designers weren't dumb. Restaurants ring the entrance, and the Food Court is the first thing you encounter when you cross the threshold.
    We — the 300, and more — want that for Newhall. If the Town Center is our center, then Old Newhall — whether it existed like we think it did or not — is our heart.
    The venerable Cynthia Neal-Harris or Carol Rock of the historical society would tell you it was a Wild West town of wooden facades and hitching posts. Richard Rioux — whose Old Town Newhall, USA concepts are brilliant — would tell you the Victoria plaza buildings around the corner on Lyons are the best-looking in the area. Effie Bird would tell you the shopkeepers agree. The park commission's Laurene Weste would tell you we can have it all, from Wild West to Victorian.
    Which makes sense. We can have it all. Each building, each doorway, Mike Freedman said, must contain something new and tantalizing to rivet the pedestrian's attention — each nook and cranny shielding secrets and mysteries, tempting the passerby to unlock them.
    "One of the reasons we travel is to get lost," Ray Bradbury told me when we spoke. "It's a wonderful, delicious feeling being in the middle of Paris or London or Rome and not knowing where in the hell you are."
    Let's do it. Let's give people a reason to want to linger and eat and shop and gossip and explore and get lost in the conundrum of our once and future Newhall.
    There lingers, of course, that sticky little business of public funding for revitalization.
    Mike Freedman said something that jumped out at me — and, I know, at others in the audience:
    The downtown district of Mountain View, California was the most expensive revitalization project his firm ever undertook.
    It cost $11 million — 100 times less than the $1.139 billion price tag of our redevelopment agency (which, by the way, quietly celebrated its first birthday last week).
    An $11 million redevelopment agency, or even a $30 or $50 million redevelopment agency that exists primarily to finance revitalization along San Fernando and Soledad Canyon roads, is something that most redevelopment critics agree we can afford.
    A $1.139 billion redevelopment agency with no specific purpose is not.

    Leon Worden is a Santa Clarita resident.

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