Leon Worden

On the road to reclaiming Newhall

Leon Worden · January 29, 1997

Boarded-up windows. Dilapidated buildings. Vacancies and vagrancy. Barely a hint of the thriving downtown business district it used to be. Instead, a feeling of a crime-ridden place, left behind to rot as new commercial and residential construction started popping up in other parts of town.

At the brink of economic extinction, the struggling downtown merchants, property owners and nearby residents finally banded together and, with the help of city consultants, created a comprehensive plan to breathe new life into the historic heart of the city and restore it to economic vitality.

Old Newhall? No. Old Pasadena.

"Old Pasadena was vacant, abandoned, dirty and full of broken windows," says Marsha Rood, Pasadena's development administrator. Rood remembers the way things were before Pasadenans decided to solve their downtown problems in the 1980s. "There was a perception that it was an area of high crime, and the buildings were slated for demolition because of the neglect."

Demolition never came. Merchants, property owners, community groups and the city launched a grass-roots movement at the 11th hour to save the area. Together they developed the "Plan for Old Pasadena," a framework for revitalization.

Redevelopment was adopted in July, 1983, and two months later the area was added to the National Register of Historic Places, which unlocked additional funding sources. The city erected two major parking structures and has been making streetscape and alley improvements with parking meter revenues.

Today, Old Pasadena is a shining example of what a downtown can be. Today, Old Pasadena is filled with trendy retail stores, two cineplexes, art galleries, night spots, no fewer than 80 restaurants and a growing residential population. Downtown sales jumped from $35 million in 1987 to over $140 million last year.

If the first part of the story sounds familiar, it should. It will be a long haul, but the City of Santa Clarita is following a tried-and-true road to revitalization for Old Town Newhall. The patterns have repeated themselves many times in the last two decades as residents of communities all over this country have reclaimed the hearts of their cities.

Typically, the old, historic center of town undergoes a period of neglect as new construction pushes a city's borders outward. New shopping opportunities draw customers away from the inner city, causing downtown sales to drop, while loitering and other types of crimes associated with a depressed socioeconomic status take root.

We've seen it happen in Newhall, and as is so often the case in this city, the people of Santa Clarita are doing something about it.

By Old Pasadena's timeline, we're somewhere between the point where the people of Pasadena created their "Plan" and where their city implemented redevelopment. The plan for Newhall is complete, and redevelopment is slated for approval in May.

Already our City Council has taken several related actions to improve downtown Newhall's business climate.

The recent decision to fight illegal immigration by bringing in the INS -- not just to Newhall but throughout the city -- is a big first step. Hand-in-hand with that is a new anti-solicitation ordinance, which would reduce the level of intimidation some shoppers feel when they encounter day laborers. The ordinance will hopefully be adopted next month.

Improvements to Railroad Avenue this summer will help traffic circulation and facilitate an "Old Town" atmosphere on San Fernando Road, and talks are underway to erect a Metrolink station in the area.

Finally, crime. Some people ask, "How will fixing up the buildings bring in customers if we still have crime?"

Oddly, the answer lies in the question. As town planner Michael Freedman noted in his very first Newhall revitalization workshop, there are two basic aspects to making an area safe.

The obvious one is police presence. While I haven't seen the numbers, some downtown businessmen say crime on San Fernando Road has dropped as much as 40 percent since the Sheriffs moved into the Community Center there.

The other aspect is less obvious but no less important.

"The perception of safety relates to surveillance," Freedman says. "Having (shops that create) a whole lot of coming and going and lit windows at night and activity on the street creates the sense that people are always watching."

Pasadena's development administrator concurs. "Studies show a clear relationship between a well-kept area and crime," Marsha Rood says. "To claim it, maintain it!"

Rood has watched revitalization cut crime in her own downtown. "There are a lot more people on the street in Old Pasadena today, and they are there for a purpose. Having a lot of eyes and ears on the street and eliminating the vacant pockets make the area feel safe."

Fighting illegal immigration is good. Banning solicitation is good. Street improvements and a new train station will be good. Now, bring in the types of boutiques, restaurants and theaters that put hordes of shoppers on the street, and downtown Newhall won't be a hangout for gang bangers anymore.

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Watch for a new issue of the Old Town Newhall Gazette inside your subscriber or newsstand copy of The Signal this Saturday!

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Leon Worden is a Santa Clarita resident. His commentary appears on Wednesdays.


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