In downtown, it all comes down to housing

DOWNEY - The city of Downey took a significant step this week in its attempt to reinvent downtown into an urban core of culture, dining and entertainment, and a place where residents can both live and work.The plan adopted by the City Council on Tuesday places heavy emphasis on creating residential opportunities downtown, and sets new design guidelines for downtown businesses aimed at making the district distinct and pedestrian friendly. In approving the Downtown Specific Plan on Tuesday, the council rezoned downtown to allow the city greater flexibility in development projects, including the possibility of multi-story structures with retail space on the ground floor and residential units on top. The downtown boundaries were also extended to include the former Gallatin Medical Center on Paramount Boulevard, which is owned by Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital in Whittier and is currently vacant, and the Rives Mansion at Paramount Boulevard and 3rd Street. Under the new zoning code, the mansion can expand its range of uses, including as a cultural center, office facility or banquet hall, city officials said. This is Downey's second formal attempt to breathe life into downtown. The City Council previously adopted a downtown zoning plan on Oct. 24, 2000 but that worked with "limited success," officials concede. The city has taken an aggressive approach towards downtown in recent years, having used housing funds to purchase the Avenue Theatre on Downey Avenue and the former Verizon building on 2nd Street, with plans to redevelop both properties into affordable housing. The 50-unit Verizon project, which is expected to come before the Planning Commission on Oct. 20, will set a new standard for residential development in Downey, officials said. Downey also paid $750,000 in economic incentives to convince Porto's Bakery to open a new location downtown. The bakery is expected to draw at least 2,000 customers daily from the local region. The city also approved plans for a trendy retail center to replace Gourmet Café at Firestone Boulevard and Downey Avenue, authorized a farmers market on 2nd Street, and is in the process of handing over control of the Downey Theatre to an experienced outside company (the city's former theater manager retired two years ago and was not replaced). On June 9, 2009, the city agreed to pay a consultant $325,000 to develop a detailed plan for downtown. The consultant, Irvine-based Hogle-Ireland, recently completed its report and the conclusion, among other findings, was that a concentrated growth in downtown is needed to support the local shops and restaurants. Hogle-Ireland recommended a variety of housing types, including studios, lofts, condominiums, town homes, duplexes and small single-family homes to attract a diverse group of homeowners and renters, including young professionals, families and empty nesters. "A variety of housing choices is necessary for the vitality of Downtown over the long term," the report states. Hogle-Ireland also recommended making the downtown district pedestrian-friendly by widening sidewalks, improving landscaping and adding pocket parks for residents. Other recommendations by Hogle-Ireland include: •Create a grid of bicycle lanes and paths, and provide bike racks, lockers and showers for downtown employees; •Create a direct bus route between south Downey and the Metro Green Line station to serve out-of-city shoppers; •Relocate the transit depot on Nance Street to a central location, possibly near the Civic Center; •Keep the existing parking structure behind the Krikorian Theatres clean and safe; •Create a network for neighborhood electronic vehicles (NEVs), which are small electric cars capable of traveling no faster than 35 MPH; •Create design standards and guidelines for homes and businesses; •Install signage to create "a sense of arrival"; •Promote festivals, fairs and events downtown; •Undertake a market analysis to identify preferred businesses. The city will decide which recommendations to explore, but at Tuesday's meeting, city officials sounded receptive to most of the ideas, particularly a focus on housing, design and pedestrian enhancements. "Residential is not an end-all to a successful downtown, but every successful downtown has a residential component," said Councilman Mario Guerra. Councilman David Gafin said residents have been asking him for an increase in entertainment options for more than six years. "We're trying to be aggressive," Gafin said. "Will this plan work? Who knows, but we've got to give it an opportunity to succeed." Also Tuesday the city approved a related water supply assessment for downtown and an environmental impact report, which reported an excepted increase in noise and pollution. All votes were unanimous, 4-0, with Councilman Roger Brossmer absent.

********** Published: September 30, 2010 - Volume 9 - Issue 24