By Jim Tortolano
In the history of Westminster, there have been a handful of turning points. From the establishment of a Presbyterian colony in 1870 to the great postwar boom of the Fifties and Sixties to the rise of Little Saigon in the Seventies and Eighties, the community has seen its future undergo some dramatic shifts. Another one may soon be on its way.
The new Westminster Community Plan Update, approved by the city council on Sept. 28, has the potential to transform the city dramatically by starting to move large sections of it from the suburban model of the last 60 years or so into a somewhat more urban landscape, and breathe new life into its biggest sales tax generator, Westminster Mall.
Imagine, if you will, a new downtown area rising along Westminster Boulevard from Beach Boulevard west toward Springdale Street. Visualize a dramatically different mall with parks, condominiums and wide areas open to the Southern California sun. Take a mental stroll through a civic center area that retains the Old English Tudor-style motif but which embraces a variety of uses beyond city and court buildings.
This all emerged from a fairly routine civic enterprise known as the regular freshening of the community’s vision of its future.
“The idea of a downtown originated when we were doing our general plan, “ recalled Soroosh Rahbari, community development director and building official for Westminster. “It’s been a few years in the making. We asked what would be the areas of the city that could benefit from new zoning and bring more different uses into an area.”
According to Brian Fisk, the city’s interim planning manager, the general plan – available for viewing on the city’s website at http://westminstergp.org – has identified six areas which could get a makeover, although the downtown concept and renovation of the mall have attracted much of the attention.
“One of the things we’ve seen in meeting with the community in this process is that there’s a desire to create more of a downtown and there’s an opportunity to create it with zoning of a higher density,” said Fisk. “The concept here is to allow some higher density residential and mixed use commercial which could create some more economic development in the community and spur new growth. It would also address our needs for affordable housing and revitalization of the older neighborhoods.”
The specific plans for a downtown are still in the drawing stages, but Fisk believes that higher density wouldn’t mean high-rises a la Santa Monica or even Huntington Beach. Two- and three-story buildings with retail or commercial uses on the ground floor, with residential above would probably be the standard. A five-story building, perhaps with “tuck-under parking,” is the likely upper limit, he said.
Downtowns in general were the germ of most cities and flourished until the Sixties, when the rise of freeways and suburban sprawl gave way to the supremacy of the automobile. In Orange County, some communities such as Anaheim and Garden Grove tore down much of their original central business districts, but now are scrambling to re-create the concept.
“We’re looking at park space, having commercial uses mixed in with residential and other uses, having less dependence on the automobile,” said Fisk, “making it more of a walking district, where people can walk about and not having to get into a car to drive to get to the grocery store or get other services.”
The six areas that are the focus of economic development are
- The Civic Center: Between 13th Street, Westminster Boulevard, Beach Boulevard and Newland Street, along with adjacent areas. Possible changes: creating a walkable town center with a supermarket, pharmacy and street-fronting retail.
- Downtown: Westminster Boulevard: The area around Sigler Park and Westminster Center (now anchored by a Home Depot and movie theater). Possible changes: Creation of a walkable mixed use downtown with improvements in parking, landscaping and signage. Could require the creation of a special district, possibly a business improvement district.
- Beach Boulevard: The area between the Garden Grove (22) Freeway and San Diego (405) Freeway. Possible changes: a mixed-use corridor with “high-quality landscaping,” setbacks and other improvements.
- Little Saigon: Bolsa Avenue between Magnolia and Brookhurst streets. Possible changes: Emphasis on tourism and “walkability.” The city already has received interest from a developer wanting to build a hotel there. Could require the creation of a special district, possibly a business improvement district.
- Westminster Mall: Bolsa Avenue and Goldenwest Street at the 405 Freeway, this enclosed mall suffers from a high vacancy rate and competition from other regional centers such as Bella Terra in Huntington Beach. Possible changes: Converting the mall into a open air “village” approach with some residential uses on the perimeter, including a park, as well as emphasis on activities including a movie theater complex.
- Northwest District: An area currently used as a mobile home site neat where the Garden Grove and San Diego Freeways intersect (near Springdale Street). Currently considered a “long-term” development area if the current property owner decides to change to a different land use.
None of these changes can be expected to occur quickly, as specific plans will first need to be created. But those first to be the focus are expected to be the downtown area, Westminster Mall and Little Saigon.
A visible transformation may take years, but if Westminster is indeed entering a new era, the change has already begun.