Monday, April 2, 2007

Redeveloping Our City Center

Until the 1950's, Agoura Hills was a small town, a waystop along El Camino Real, and it's main street (an amenity every American city had until mid-century) could be found along what is now called Agoura Rd. Today, however, this strip is lackluster and divided from most of the city by the 101 freeway, a hodge podge mix of homes, a school, a small theater, a restaurant, and offices. The zone is rarely if ever used or visited by Agoura residents, especially since Agoura Rd. was widened to acommodate high-speed cars and thus make pedestrian traffic along the road risky. Today, in place of what was once our town's quaint, pedestrian core, most Agoura Hills residents instead spend their time shopping in the run-down commercial centers sprawling out from the intersection of Kanan Rd. and Thousand Oaks Blvd, what I will call the City Center.

Where Our Money Should Be Going... (Kanan Rd & TO Blvd)

The area's core consists of a series of chopped-up, oversized strip malls containing a variety of chain stores (Ralph's, Blockbuster, Starbucks) as well many locally-owned venues (A sushi restaurant, a pet store, Italia Deli, The Fashion Channel, Char Fasl, etc). Despite this great variety of amenities (including many, many diverse restaurants), the area makes no effort to allow pedestrians to move between the malls, forcing them to brave alleys and traffic arteries or to drive the few feet between each stop. In addition to being poorly integrated, the shopping centers have a pretty rundown, nondescript appearance (though on the southern shopping center there is a slight Country Western theme), and are isolated from the streets (which are pretty well-frequented by pedestrians) by large surface parking lots. Despite this poor choice of architecture and design (a theme throughout the eastern Conejo Valley that i will touch upon later), this commercial center is the heart of Agoura Hills, and on any day of the week you can see people lounging outside eating sandwiches, falafels, burritos, whatever.

So why, if our existing commercial facilities are so rundown and poorly designed, are we even venturing to talk about building a whole new commercial district in Agoura South? The Ventura County Star article refers to this as a part of a larger plan to revitalize our down-on-it's heels- "Downtown" district, and I applaud the city for moving to build a forward-looking, mixed-use neighborhood that harkens back to the city's pre-suburban nature. However, the vast majority of Agoura Hills' population lies north of the 101 Freeway, so it makes sense for any pedestrian oriented development to start out in the northern part of the city, where it is accessible and within walking distance of local residents. Although I applaud early renderings of "Agoura Village", as it is slated to be called, the truth of the matter is that this is a barely-concealed attempt to boost sales-tax revenue while ignoring how the city's existing, heavily-used facilities are falling into disrepair. Right now, it is easy for Agoura Hills residents to ignore how we have abandoned our history behind a facade of new suburban office buildings- however, if the current decay continues on unalleviated, it will be hard for residents to ignore the massive trash heap polluting our city center.

Where Our Money Is Actually Going... (Whizin's Ctr Along Agoura Rd)

My suggestions to the city: Push back Agoura Village for the time being- it's a good idea, but there are more important things to focus on. At the very least, develop the Village in stages concurrently with City Center repairs.

My suggestions for physical repair: Rebuild large portions of the City Center's commercial buildings so that they are built up to the street in most parts, possibly with a plaza or two. Also, create connections between the various shopping center, such as a large, distinguished crosswalk on TO Blvd before Kanan, where many people currently run across. Parking should be placed behind the buildings. Thus, the City Center will begin to resemble the Janss Mall a bit more. Also, better, wider sidewalks with trees should be built to connect the areas near the freeway to the City Center. If the city is really serious about mixed-use, they should consider adding condos or apartments, as well as possibly moving to rebuild the apartments at the intersections northeastern corner. However, this would probably result in a need for underground parking, a great expense for the city and for retailers. However, if Agoura Hills wants to build a pleasant, walkable Downtown for residents and tourists alike, then the expenses involved with such upgrades would easily be recouped over time.

If the City of Agoura Hills is serious about building a a Downtown that will last as a part of this city's history, then it must be willing to take risks and invest time and money in projects that aim for this goal.

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