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Revitalizing Main Street pays dividends for San Diego communities

Sometimes the smartest growth plan for a community is to rehabilitate streets and districts that have stagnated and declined. Currently eight communities in San Diego County--Oceanside, Vista, Encinitas, Mission Hills, North Park, Ocean Beach, Coronado and El Cajon--are doing just that through the National and California Main Street programs. The Main Street programs were started in the 1980s to redo Main Streets all over the country.

Prior to World War II, Main Street was usually a community's commercial hub. Retail, offices, residential apartments along with the post office, library and banks thrived. The area was also the social hub of the town thronged with people. However, the growth of the suburbs transformed the way Americans live, work and spend their leisure time. New shopping areas opened, and roads now carried residents to outlying shopping strips and regional malls. Downtown Main Street shops closed, neglected buildings and boarded up storefronts reinforced the public's perception that downtown was dirty and dangerous. Downtown areas died all over the country.

Some Main Street's districts tried to compete with the malls and became pedestrian malls with aluminum store fronts and large signs. Usually these changes did not solve the underlying problems and did not rejuvenate the areas. By the 1980s though the situation began to shift as residents became concerned about "sprawl" and its potential for blight.

Since 1980, the National Main Street Center, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has worked with 1,600 communities across the nation to revitalize their historic or traditional commercial areas. In 1986, California joined this movement and set up its own Main Street program. Currently 40 California communities are certified Main Street communities. By any way it's measured, Main Street programs have been incredibly successful. A total of $16.1 billion has been invested over the last 22 years. The average reinvestment per community is $9,659,000. The net number of new businesses generated is 56,300; new jobs created is 226,900 and 88,700 buildings have been rehabbed. Communities have, on average, generated $39 for every dollar invested in their Main Street programs.

Thanks to the Main Street program, El Cajon's downtown area is well on its way to fiscal health. Anchored by the East County Performing Arts Center, there are now 13 restaurants and a rising number of specialty stores. Main Street is now a more user-friendly two lanes and angled parking added 100 new spaces. The downtown district is now patrolled 24/7 by Heritage Security and daily street maintenance and litter abatement keep the area clean. Graffiti removal programs keep walls free of taggers and businesses have access to power sidewalk and window washing services. Events such as Classic Cruise night and Concerts on the Green draw shoppers and strollers into the area.

Coronado's Main Street design committee planted nine gardens on the grass-covered median of Orange Avenue, added white lights along the roof lines of downtown buildings and implemented a new sign ordnance. Coronado received the 2000 Great American Main Street Award in 2000. Encinitas is currently one of 10 2003 finalists for the same award. The award recognizes exceptional accomplishments in revitalizing historic and traditional downtowns. Five awards of $2,500 each are given each year.

North Park Main Street's committee recently completed a tree-planting project as part of a design plan to encourage shoppers to linger and stroll through the mid-city commercial districts. Over 80 trees chosen so that their canopy heights, shapes and transparencies would not block signs or display windows were planted.

The Ocean Beach District has set up a Web camera in the center of town to show visitors live streaming video of waves crashing near the fishing pier, shoppers along Newport Avenue and nearby beach activities. Vista is in the process of turning its Main Street into a two-lane pedestrian friendly avenue with diagonal parking and new landscaping. Murals are being painted that recreate Vista's rich history on the city walls. Encinitas is adding new banners along Highway 101 featuring local artist's work. The banners will be made available for purchase through a silent auction program.

Following the tenets of the Main Street program, each area has planned events and activities that showcase their districts to residents and tourists. In order to enhance the physical appearance of the districts historic buildings are being rehabbed and new construction is sensitive to existing construction. Another key component of the program is economic restructuring. Each district is committed to creating jobs and nurturing businesses in order to increase tax revenues that can in turn improve city infrastructure. Volunteer participation in encouraged and consensus building is stressed so that all concerned groups have roles in the revitalization process.

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