City Tries to Blend History, Change in Downtown Project

Spotlight on Covina
Quaint: Historic downtown Covina is a blend of small retail businesses.

By LAURENCE DARMIENTO
Staff Reporter

In the words of a former mayor, downtown Covina used to be the kind of place you could shoot a cannon off on a Friday night and not hit a soul. But Citrus Avenue and its surrounding streets have blossomed over the past decade, with the opening of several restaurants, art galleries and a farmers' market.

"Last Friday night I was in downtown Covina, and I couldn't find a parking spot," quipped former mayor Linda Sarver.

More is on the way. The low-rise, early 20th Century buildings may be in for their biggest transformation since the streets were laid out over a century ago. A redevelopment plan envisions the creation of hundreds of multi-family units, a new civic plaza and park, a new library, a transit center, and up to 150,000 square feet of new and revitalized retail space.

Preserving historic feel

The idea is to preserve the area's historic structures and small-town feel while creating a robust downtown core.

"It will add a whole new dimension," said redevelopment director Mike Marquez. "It would add a mass of people to support the existing business and make room for more."

The plan, which has been approved in concept by the City Council, comes none to soon.

Downtown, which is bisected by Citrus Avenue and spans just a few blocks, was a vibrant commercial corridor until businesses were drawn to suburban malls and shopping centers in West Covina and surrounding cities starting in the 1960s. By the 1970s the area was rundown, prompting the city to designate it a redevelopment zone in 1983.

A total of $4 million was invested for a facelift of streets and sidewalks, as well as for infrastructure improvements. City Hall also was renovated and expanded at a cost of $4.5 million, while some $500,000 has been spent rehabilitating the facades of the storefronts.

Even so, one of downtown's mainstays, a Chevrolet dealership, is headed to West Covina, and a long-time Ford dealership next door may be on its way out. City officials acknowledge the significant loss of sales tax dollars, but contend that the departures will give them a chance to add retail and housing uses more consistent with the downtown area.

The question is whether the city's conservative streak will limit development. Covina made national headlines in 1993 when residents, angered over a utility users tax passed to balance the budget, recalled nearly its entire council.

"There are people who are for change at any cost and people who can't stand change for any reason," said Galen Metz, owner of Azo Gallery and president of the downtown's business association. "All governments have a history of grandiose ideas and plans but very poor follow through."

The city, for example, recently received a $17 million estimate for a new public library, higher than expected and more than the city can afford. As a result, the project is temporarily on hold and may be downsized.

Other development will be taken a step at a time with a maximum leveraging of public dollars with private investment. Marquez said the city has held discussions with Trammell Crow Co. and other developers, but nothing has yet been worked out.

The plan includes an estimated $30 million in improvements, but Marquez believes the redevelopment agency can get by with as little as $2 million in net costs through an incremental approach.

No new taxes

One example is the likely first phase of the project, which Marquez is pushing to get off the ground within 12 months. It involves building new retail space and multi-family housing on the site of the city's one-block downtown park, which would move one block to an aging retail strip.

The move would spread retail farther north to the city's Metrolink station while the new park would connect to a civic plaza that fronts City Hall.

Marquez says the city can do this at relatively little cost and disruption by building first on the current park, which the city owns, and moving in any business owners who would be displaced. It could then sell off the site to help pay for additional development.

"People are fine with the (plan) to the extent it can be done, and it doesn't cost any more in taxes," said Councilman Kevin Stapleton. "It would serve to revitalize the area."

A go-slow approach to development may make it easier for folks like Metz, whose art gallery sits on the site of the proposed new park. But it might not be enough for everyday residents, who remain wary of change.

"I am probably against it," said 72-year-old Jack Martin, a Covina resident since 1942, who was relaxing with friends at the city's farmers' market. "Citrus has been the same way since 1929."

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