SCV NEWSMAKERS OF THE WEEK:
Laurene Weste
Marsha McLean
 
Members, Santa Clarita City Council

Interview by Leon Worden
Signal Multimedia Editor

Sunday, July 17, 2005
(Television interview conducted June 30, 2005)


Laurene Weste
Laurene Weste
    "Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
    This week's newsmakers are Santa Clarita Mayor Pro-tem Laurene Weste and City Councilwoman Marsha McLean — who comprise the City Council subcommittee on downtown Newhall redevelopment. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.

Signal: The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that local governments can use eminent domain to acquire private property for private gain if it raises tax revenues. One goal in downtown Newhall is to raise tax revenues. Can you assure downtown property owners that the city won't take their property?

McLean: We really have no intention of doing that. We don't want to do that. We want to work with the businesses down there. We want to make sure that everybody is happy. Unfortunately that came out now, and it sounds really ominous, but it's not going to happen in Old Town Newhall unless something really drastic happens. But we don't plan on it.

Weste: The important to thing to remember about downtown Newhall is that we're creating an opportunity where everybody benefits. If the city were to do no planning, and no Old Town project, and just let it go, then property values would continue to plummet. I think that is a very bad scenario for people who live there and people who have businesses.
    The thing that works is for the community to revitalize and enjoy its beautiful historic core, and for the people who are there to be able to financially benefit by having a lovely area that's turning in a positive direction. And as far as the Supreme Court decision, municipalities have always had the same laws — nothing has really changed. It's exactly where it has always been.

Signal: What's this about changing the name of San Fernando Road to Main Street?

Weste: Oh, the street name thing. I think the in historical part of any downtown, people always gravitate to a "Main Street" and to what historically was there. Certainly when you look at the old plat (maps), you see Spruce Street running through downtown (Newhall) and a number of different tree names — which is kind of cute. We really want to have it be identified as a historic core, not something that's connected to something else (city of San Fernando). A destination.

Signal: Driving north on Highway 14 from Los Angeles, the first off-ramp is San Fernando Road. Are you afraid outsiders might not know Newhall is there?

McLean: I've actually had people become confused over that. They think that they're getting off at San Fernando Road to go to San Fernando. And they don't really understand that (they are) coming out here to the Santa Clarita Valley — which is OK for the people who live out here, because they know better.


Marsha McLean
Marsha McLean
    But if we want to make (downtown Newhall) a destination, I think we need to identify where they're getting off, and as they get off the freeway, we're hoping to change that whole stretch of road to "Newhall Avenue," which will give them the indication that they're coming to Newhall.

Signal: From the Valencia Town Center to the Soledad Entertainment Center in Canyon Country, Santa Clarita residents have many shopping alternatives. Why is it important to save downtown Newhall?

Weste: Let me just say — having been in Newhall a really, really, really long time — that any community that really values its roots and its history and its connectivity doesn't want its history destroyed. The reason to save Newhall is to have an attraction and ambiance that's rooted and has a feeling of something that's not so fast-paced and not so modern, but has the architecture and laid-back ambiance of an Old Town.
    When you come there, you can kind of be in another time, at a slower pace, and enjoy theater and sidewalk cafes and restaurants and quaint, little shops. There will also be work-live scenarios, and the new "smart growth" is having people being able to live, work and shop right in their own area. Well, you can do that in Newhall. That would certainly not work at the Westfield Valencia Town Center. And this is more than just shopping. This is also a destination location, as Councilwoman McLean said, that has a great deal of weight with it of what it means to the character of our community.

Signal: Over the last decade, a lot of federal, state and local dollars have gone into the revitalization of Newhall. Why not just let the private sector take care of it? Why should there be a public investment?

McLean: First of all, for the economic health of our city, it's really important to have parity with all of our areas, such as Saugus, Newhall, Valencia and Canyon Country. You can't let an area go down.
    The reason that it just can't be left to private enterprise at this particular point is because the codes are wrong. A developer who wants to build something wonderful in Newhall, two stories (high), can't do it. Three stories, can't do it. To have a (ground floor) business below and residence above, they can't do it the way it is.
    That's why the city decided that it was well worth the money to spend $1 million to have a consultant come in and do a plan that is easy to follow, that is going to work. That's why we felt that it was time for the city to step in and to spend the money to do (the Downtown Newhall) Specific Plan.

Signal: The city hired Bay Area consultant Michael Freedman about 10 years ago to draft a revitalization strategy that the city has been implementing ever since. Why do you need a whole new plan now? What's it about?

McLean: It's a different plan than the Freedman Plan. The Freedman Plan — the consultants came in and they did a really nice plan of what the area could be. The problem with that — it did not have form-based codes; it did not have specific parameters for a developer coming in and wanting to do it. And there was no money to implement those items that were in Freedman Plan. So we went a step further.

Weste: A lot of the people who own property in the area — businesses —had wanted to things under the Freedman Plan. But because the codes weren't there, the parking didn't work. They couldn't actually implement anything to make it work. So this is a goal, and the plan is there for the private sector to work (with). But if you don't give the private sector the tools to work with, they can't invest, and they can't fight an uphill battle. So the plan here is to allow private money and the people who are there to actually be able to move ahead, and we're giving them the tools to do that.

Signal: What's your grand vision?

Weste: I'm really excited to see some of the architectural themes come back that were so prevalent — the Victorian, the craftsman, the types of buildings and the feeling that were here 100 years ago. You need that sense. You're going to see transit-occupied density around the Metrolink (station). We have some land there. We are very fortunate to have three Metrolink (stations) in Santa Clarita. Everything will be within five to eight blocks. So you'll have trails, you'll have transit, you'll be able to get a bus, you'll be able to get on a train, you'll be able to live there, you'll be able to shop there, you'll be able to go out to dinner, you'll be able to go to Canyon Theatre Guild and see live theater. You'll be able to go to a movie theater. It's all there.
    And that creates a vibrant community where people are proud of where they live, and there will be people who come and visit because it will be an exciting place. But it's also going to be an exciting place for the people who are there.

McLean: We're hoping to have a civic building at one end of Lyons Avenue — straighten out (the street) and have a wonderful library over there. We have a great Newhall Library, as you know. It could be expanded and made to be beautiful. There will be businesses around it. At the other end, we're hoping to have a children's museum. We have Hart Park. We're going to have a theater district down there.
    When I moved into Newhall in 1980, I used to walk to the stationery store, to the drug store, to the post office — and those types of things we need to have back down there, so when people need to go buy some little things, they can go there; they don't have to go to the mall. And they will have a wonderful area in which to do it.

Signal: The stationery store is gone; the drug store is gone; the post office isn't a post office anymore. How did this happen? Why did downtown Newhall go into decline?

Weste: That's fairly easy to understand, because it has happened all over America.
    We used to have Old Towns and Main Streets, and that's where people shopped and lived. That was the core. Then we went to strip malls and major malls in America, and there's kind of a resurgence in going backward. People kind of lost their connectivity. We went to everything you had to get in a car for. And that kind of planning has created real difficulty, especially in our state where everything is car-orientated. So that was the fad for the last 40 years.
    The deterioration of downtown Newhall really started in the late ¬60s. As shopping malls and tract houses were built and everything became car-dependent, we just didn't need that little Old Town anymore.
    It's turning around. We're going in a very different direction in the 21st Century — and it's back to things not being so based on the car, but people being able to be near all of the amenities that we spoke of, and being able to live there and being able to get to transit.
    A lot of young professional people would really like to have a life other than living on the freeway, which is where they are now. They'd actually like to spend time together and do things with (their) kids or families or friends — and all they're doing is living in cars. If they can live in an area where everything is in close proximity, and it's attractive and clean and exciting and they can go on a train and go to work, this gives them many more hours every day to actually live their life. And that's a resurgence that's happening all over the country.

Signal: And yet, they have no problem shopping at Wal-Mart. Is there a place for the mom-and-pop operator anymore, when Wal-Mart is undercutting everyone on price? What's going to make shoppers look elsewhere?

McLean: There are things that Wal-Mart doesn't have. They don't have antiques. You can't go there and walk around an antique shop and take a look at all the art. They don't have an art gallery. They don't a fantastic bakery where you can go in and get a wonderful pastry. They don't have the restaurant or little cafe where you can sit out on the sidewalk and sip coffee and just watch people go by. They don't have that kind of thing — and this is what we want to bring to downtown Newhall.
    We want people to come from all over Southern California, and all over the United States, to understand that we have a historic heritage here. There's Hart Park, and we can show them the history; we can show them all the wonderful arts we're going to have down there and make it a destination, and people are going to love to go there.

Signal: How will improving the streetscape, fixing up storefronts, erecting a public building and one end and a children's museum at the other help the business owners increase their sales?

Weste: I think the point that we're missing here is that this is basically a mixed-use project. It isn't just fixing up what's there. There are also parking structures being built. They will be lined. It sounds funny, but you basically won't see the parking structures. There will be historic fa°ades around them. There will be shop owners on the bottom, there will be homeowners above. There will be work-live spaces where people can actually operate a business and also live there.
    More importantly, there are 1,400 units coming into this area. Primarily you're going to see two types of people living there — young professionals who really haven't gotten into wanting a yard and the upkeep and all that, and school people, people who are studying. And people who don't want all the work anymore and want everything close. A lot of seniors, or getting-close-to seniors, who want the comfort and the safety of being able to get to everything and not be car-dependent and have some beautiful places.
    Now, what that does for the people who have businesses is, it is a built-in clientele. ... Everything is within five or eight blocks of a walk, and it's a park-once town. If you park once, everything is a few blocks away from that structure — that's a built-in business.
    I don't foresee Wal-Mart opening sidewalk cafes tomorrow and doing the types of shops that we're talking about. (The Santa Clarita Valley had the) first gold (discovery) and we (had the) first oil and we are major in the film industry and old films, and we have a genre, an amazing repertoire of unique things that we can market in our Old Town. I think that there are going to be a lot of people who are going to want to be there because of that built-in business.

McLean: We have some wonderful amenities right now. We have live theater in Newhall with wonderful talent that you can't get for the market value that is down there. We have a great bakery down there where you can go. We have wonderful restaurants. People should understand what is already there. We have a lot of businesses there that people can go to right now, if they only knew about them.

Signal: Today, downtown Newhall is where the adjacent community shops. It's about 41-percent Latino within a one-mile radius of San Fernando Road. There are Latino-oriented restaurants, record shops, a supermarket and other stores to cater to the local clientele. If you're changing things to make the area more appealing to college students and seniors, will there still be a place for the neighborhood to shop?

Weste: Absolutely. And Tresierras (Market) is so happy that they're building a new, great-big store just down the street. Tresierras is alive and well and doing great.
    Actually, the way the buildings will be designed, there's room for the shops and there is room for all of the different things. I think that there will be room for a lot more businesses and a lot more folks than we have now because we have a very, very poor use of space. Parking is disjointed, all over the place, and it's not well defined. The land is poorly used, in many cases. A lot of the buildings are disintegrating. So what we'll be doing is, we'll be reclaiming and allowing more resurgence, and there will be more room and not less.

Signal: The city has installed curbs, gutters and sidewalks in East and West Newhall, but much of the housing itself is substandard. How does the specific plan address the quality of the housing stock?

Weste: I think the first thing we should talk about ... is the transit-orientated housing.
    There will be new housing near the Metrolink. Some of it will be in the downtown above businesses. Some of it will be right at the Metrolink because there is some land there. There has been a lot of resurgence in people fixing up their homes, and I think the curbs, sidewalks and gutters really helped.
    I think there are some buildings that are probably so bad that with the Neighborhood Preservation Act, the landowners may choose to really renovate, or they may say that it is so costly once they get to that point, that it's that old theme about the money pit: You just keep putting money in, but you can't get the buildings up to a livable standard. So I'm sure some people will want to rebuild new, and some people will choose to renovate. I've seen cottage areas before, where homes were really in not good shape and things start turning around, and people (say): I'm going to put the money in, because I now see that there will be a reason to do it because there will be a market later, and I'll be able to get a return on my investment.

McLean: That's exactly right. Some of the more run-down areas there (have) absentee owners, and what we would like is for people who live there to have the pride of ownership. But when you have pride of ownership, you naturally want to fix it up, to fit in with the area. So people will have an opportunity to have better types of housing, more quality housing at not very much more money.
    We don't want anyone to be left out. We want to make sure that everyone has a place to live. What we really want is pride of ownership, and some of those run-down areas don't have it because they (have) absentee owners. So we need to get them to buy into the whole plan (because) their property is going to be worth a lot more if they would fix it up.

Signal: One neighborhood near downtown Newhall is Placerita Canyon. Some folks there object to a tentative proposal for a high-density housing in the flood plain, in and around the Cowboy Poetry Festival parking lot. How realistic is that project? Would it help redevelopment?

McLean: That hasn't come before us. It hasn't been presented to the city, so we don't know specifically — but what we want for the areas closest to Newhall is projects that are going to enhance what we're trying to do down there.
    I'm not sure that a whole bunch of really dense, not-so-nice apartments — and I'm not saying that's what is being proposed there, but that's not what we would be looking for. We want something that's going to fit into what we're trying to do in Old Town Newhall. That's a beautiful piece of property, and we're hoping that something can be done there that can enhance and not take away from what we need to do down there.

Weste: We've been told to be very careful (in) looking at the entry(ways) to Newhall in many directions, and making sure that we don't do anything in a bubble, but think about — it's a whole big patchwork quilt, and you want to do things that enhance.
    If you want Newhall to be a destination, you have to think about, What do people want to come there for? It's a whole marketing program, and it's one that has to be carefully looked at, because if you make a mistake, you can ruin your whole economic base. ... With a new planning director and with a city that's obviously attuned to its economics — with its Shop Local (program) and its tourism department — they're really looking to make sure that they don't make mistakes. Many cities have, and they're suffering for it. We've been very fortunate. So I'm sure the city is going to be very careful about looking at the right projects in the right areas.

Signal: You used to run a grocery store in downtown Newhall.

Weste: Absolutely. Loved every minute of it.
    Signal: You've heard a lot of talk of revitalization come and go over the years.

Weste: Many, many years.
    Signal: Why will this one work?

Weste: I think we all know that there was never before put into place the mechanism for it to function. ... We have a nice document here (the Downtown Newhall Specific Plan). Pretty color pictures. We've had pretty color pictures before. But to implement pretty color pictures and ideas, you also have to put effective tools within government to allow those things to be done, so that the clerk at the desk — when somebody comes into the city or whatever governmental agency, the clerk at the desk opens the book and there's a box to check. Because everything in government is pretty much: Is there a box to check? And if there's a box to check, then it moves, and if there's not a box to check, it's just: Nope, I can't do that. It's not in my repertoire of things.
    We're (providing) the boxes to check so that the changes we're talking about have a direct pathway for everybody to use — which is a tremendous gift to the property owners. Everybody gets to walk away with something at hand that's a tool they can use right away.
    Some people will use it, some people will sell, some people will just wait. The important thing to recognize is, this is a plan with tools to make it move. And that's an exciting thing. I have to compliment our city manager, Ken Pulskamp, who's really into economics, who said: I don't want something that's just going to sit on the shelf. And that's what we're not doing.

Signal: Once upon a time there was a Downtown Newhall Merchants Association, but when the business district dried up, it was dissolved. Now that things are happening, the merchants are organizing again. What's the story?

McLean: Well, there's the Old Town Newhall Association, and there's also the Downtown Mainstreet Association. Both groups are committed to making sure that businesses understand the specific plan, making sure that Newhall is marketed in such a way to make people want to come down there.
    And that's what it takes. It takes commitment. And I'm really happy to say that at this particular point, there are a lot of people totally committed to making sure that the revitalization of Newhall does happen.
    The specific plan was put together by a very well-known consultant (who is) very well-versed in economics, (in) what it takes down there — in traffic patterns, in building codes and such. So that is a working document, and that's why it's going to work this time.

Signal: Final thoughts?

Weste: What I want to see happen is the excitement and enthusiasm about the hard work that's been put in, and people to just enjoy the gift. I'm sure that this will be the legacy that we will leave in the future, for the next generation, and hopefully in 25 (or) 50 years the kids will say: Isn't this a great old town that they saved, from 1890?

McLean: If there are any business owners, property owners who have any concerns whatsoever ... our city is open and willing and wanting them to come forward and express their concerns.
    This has been so widely publicized that you can't imagine how anyone could not know what's happening, but there are those little pockets of people who say they are not informed. ... We want everyone to be informed. We want everyone to come to the city and talk to the city about their concerns and find out what's wonderful.

    See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.


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