Is “downtown” Main Street in Garden Grove ready for its moment? Hope so, because it’s here. Whether the property owners and business operators in the city’s central business district will step up to the plate, or fall into past habits remains to be seen.
The third annual Open Streets event in the city’s central area were again last weekend the focus of the “Re: Imagine Garden Grove” effort. Unlike in the recent past the city leadership and city council are very enthusiastic about revitalizing the one-block remnant of where the community was founded in 1874. Generally speaking, downtowns are hot these days. More and more people want a shopping dining experience that’s more walkable and personal than cookie-cutter malls.
The Big Strawberry’s original central business district was once much larger. It stretched from Verano/Euclid on the east to Nutwood Street on the west, and from Century Boulevard on the south to College Avenue on the north.
Of course, change is evitable. The opening of the Orange County Plaza (now The Promenade) at Brookhurst Street and Chapman Avenue in 1956 was the first big blow, drawing away businesses and customers. The re-aligning of Euclid one block east (no longer running through what is now Main Street) in 1964, followed quickly by the 1965 opening of the Garden Grove Freeway.
By the mid-Seventies, the area was taking on a markedly tired look, and not in a good way. But the city’s efforts to revitalize it were almost 100 percent wrong. The redevelopment agency gutted the area, tearing down historic structures and wooing big sales tax generators who would not come for decades. The result was more of a museum than a real business district.
Many cities – such as Anaheim – wanted a fresh start and took a wrong turn, embracing the brute force of the bulldozer rather than some wise thinking. When the big boxes – Costco, Home Depot, Office Depot, etc – did arrive, they brought in sales tax revenue but further isolated what remained of Main Street.
It would be wrong to place all the blame for this on the folks at City Hall. Agreement on almost anything among operators and owners on Main was next to impossible. Almost no one wanted to spend more for anything and complained bitterly when the city didn’t either. There were constant feuds. There was a small florist which refused to sell anything to members of the Downtown Business Association, because they were mad at the DBA. An effort to promote the area at a cost of $10 each per month – roughly 30 cents a day – failed because after agreeing to the deal, most of the merchants just couldn’t seem to find two Abe Lincolns in their cash register.
The city’s attitude toward Main Street at this point – mid-Nineties to about four or five year ago – was sour, but not entirely unjustified. Why should the city do what those folks over on Main won’t do for themselves?
That’s an emotional reaction, but not a smart one. The city’s historic district doesn’t exist just for rent-payers and absentee landlords. It’s a connection to our past, and potentially the seed of a new downtown.
So that’s where we are at now. The event Saturday attracted an estimated 15,000 people. Another large crowd was in the nearby Festival Amphitheater/Strawberry Bowl for a classic rock concert. The daytime event gave way to a street party on old Main with music, lights and with a lively but responsible vibe.
Several eateries which had been closed for years have now re-opened and a wedding boutique and bakery is under construction in the old Zlakets property. Things are starting to happen.
But they’ll only continue happening if all the stake-holders – customers, government, landowners and merchants – act as if they really care. The “Open Streets” party showed what’s possible; a revived downtown with a homey vibe. But it’s not going to happen just by wishing.
A hole on the other side of the boat is not just “their” problem. We need more oars in the water to make this journey happen. Who’s willing to act rather than just complain? I guess we’ll see on election day and on Facebook.
Jim Tortolano’s family moved to Garden Grove in 1960 and he spent a lot of time downtown in his youth.