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Heritage and Historic Preservation for Downtown Revitalization

A longtime Arcadia resident with 25 years of experience in the field of community redevelopment offers thoughts on Arcadia's downtown revitalization.

In early April Arcadia Patch reported that . With the coming Metro Gold Line Station and the updated General Plan adopted at the end of 2011 that provides development incentives in downtown, this is the right timing for the council move. This write up, completed on May 1, the 2011 MayDay, an initiative sponsored by Heritage Preservation and other non-profits since 2006 to protect the nation's cultural heritage, is to offer my thoughts for making a successful downtown based on my 25 years of experience in the field of community redevelopment and close to 30 years of residency in Arcadia.

Downtown revitalization often takes many steps and needs to address many challenge & dynamic issues. In the early 90s when I served in the Planning Commission, the City hired a consultant and engaged a public participation process to develop a revitalization plan for downtown. Consequently vigorous building design and development standards were established, street reconfiguration and streetscape improvements were made, and financial assistance were also made to several downtown businesses for building rehabilitation. 

With many of the consultant's recommendations implemented, our downtown been beautified with new sidewalks, street trees, lights & furniture. The revitalization clearly has given downtown a better appearance than the old blighted one once we had. However, its overall image is still similar to the rest of Huntington Drive running through Arcadia, Monrovia and Duarte and to many other commercial districts in the southland, and it still appears non-descriptive compared to several revitalized downtowns and commercial districts in the region. When everybody wears a new dress, the new dress that we put on downtown could not give it enough power to take off, and could not draw enough interest and investment to make a significant change to the area.  I'm glad to see that downtown stakeholders including the City are now taking additional steps to re-revitalize the area.

How to make it work? Establishing a Business Improvement District (BID) and providing convenient parking are great and necessary approaches.  There are other necessary steps & directions as well.  One of them is to give the old body under the new dress a spirit, an identity that is unique and different. 

Arcadia has an interesting history of growth, and our downtown is the best representation of the history of the City, and this is an advantage that no other competitors such as enclosed malls, other commercial districts in town, and other downtowns in the region have. Arcadia Downtown is the place for Arcadians and others to learn about our past and present, explore our culture, and discover our identity.

In his new book titled “Beyond Preservation: Using Public History in Revitalize Inner Cities (2010, Temple Univ. Press)”, historian Andrew Hurley of the University of Missouri- St. Louis has revealed good ideas about how the history of a community and heritage/historic preservation can become useful tools in revitalization of old commercial districts.  Based on this book and information provided by historic preservation organizations such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP), the US Heritage Preservation Services (HPS) and California Office of Historic Preservation (OHP), history and heritage/historic preservation are important tools to create unique identity for a place and create a base for branding that in turn would facilitate the making of “place” and draw people’s attention and visit.

Considering the size and floor area inventory in our downtown, we could not make it a regional attraction as Pasadena Old Town does.  To make our own downtown work, its role shall be placed as a community-centered and branded as a community-serving district for Arcadians and our neighbors. Those who live in and around here is the consumer base that we shall go after. Therefore this identity, character or “history” making task is very important in a competitive marketplace when our neighboring communities are improving their downtowns and commercial districts and when shopping centers and malls around are remodeled with an open-street model. 

It is especially important for a community such as Arcadia in demographic transition which is also a part of our recent history since the 70s.  As reported by Arcadia Patch in March, . The newcomers may not know the history of the community where they now live, and they may not have the desire for visiting Arcadia downtown unless the downtown offers what they are looking for. A downtown like a supermarket can sustain only if it catches on the trends and needs of the customers, old and new.  With Asian representation in town, let us create an Asian food section in our store so their needs are met locally right here.  The new BID shall take advantage of this consumer base, making their 40-year of history a visible part of our 108-year history.   

On top of what the downtown stakeholders are currently doing, I propose to include history telling and heritage/historic preservation approaches in the revitalization efforts.

Heritage/historic preservation is not something new.  Served in the General Plan Advisory Committee, I’m glad that at policy level they are already embedded in the section of “Cultural Resources and Preservation” of the City’s updated General Plan.  It is now a matter of priority and implementation.  The downtown possesses several old and attractive architecture and several long established businesses and institutions, and they are the seeds for such approaches. 

In addition, NTHP, HPS and OHP have various programs providing financial and technical assistances to localities to take on history and preservation projects.  Through the support of NTHP programs like Save America’s Treasures, thousands of preservation projects in states, cities and towns from coast to coast have worked to preserve significant places in the history. 

Another example is the Main Street program offered by both NTHP and OHP.  NTHP over the past 30 years has spearheaded the Main Street movement and more than 2,000 communities across the nation are now part of the Main Street network.  The program has helped to transform many declined Main Streets and downtowns back into life and into the economic engine again of the community.

May is the National Preservation Month as established by NTHP.  Since NTHP celebrated Preservation Week in 1973 to promote preservation efforts in America, the event has grown into a popular annual event.  NTHP has extended the celebration to the entire month of May since 2005 that provides Americans a longer opportunity to celebrate the unique and diverse heritage of our communities. This success tells us the usefulness and value to include the suggested approaches in our revitalization efforts. 

With the establishment of the BID for our downtown I hope the new BID will soon start a process with the MayDay urgent spirit to identify and conserve any historic elements in downtown that makes our downtown a unique and story-telling place, and hope by next May we will participate along with other 2000+ communities in the celebration of the Preservation month with architectural, heritage and historic tours, award ceremonies, festival events, and other programs in our downtown.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Ross S. Heckmann May 19, 2011 at 03:29 AM
This makes sense to me--find what it is that makes Arcadia unique, and focus on telling that story. It's lots of work and I am glad that the Arcadia Historical Society is doing work in this area. What they are doing indeed ought to be integrated into any plans for the future of Arcadia.
Scott Hettrick May 21, 2011 at 02:54 AM
Great post Edward. You have such great experience and knowledge in these areas and appreciate you sharing them here and with us on the General Plan Action Committee. The Arcadia Chamber of Commerce is happy to have helped initiate the Arcadia Downtown Business Association last year and the group has just launched a great new web site and logo (http://downtownarcadia.org/), and has a big meeting this Tuesday, May 24, at 5:30 p.m. at Zapata Vive om First Avenue. Everyone is invited to attend to hear about the upcoming Arcadia's Best Patriotic Festival (http://arcadiasbestfoundation.org) on July 2 and to hear about and participate in several new surveys and plans about parking.
Ross S. Heckmann May 31, 2011 at 02:30 AM
Here's an interesting article about nearby Business Improvement Districts: http://www.ladowntownnews.com/articles/2007/03/26/news/news03.txt
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