Circle of development – Orange County Register

After a long day restoring a turn-of-the-century storefront where he and his wife, Gabbi, planned to open an upscale Mexican restaurant, Ed Patrick would take a break at twilight.

His blond hair layered in dust, Patrick scouted the streetscape near the city’s historic traffic circle and got a tad nervous at what he saw.

“It was 6 p.m. and it was like a ghost town,” he said. “I figured we’d do a good lunch and would have to work hard to build our dinner crowd.”

As it turned out, the only thing Patrick had to do to attract evening diners was just show up. Since opening in July, Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen has been a hit – a success for which Patrick credits his wife’s Yucatan-inspired dishes, as well as a thirst for change in this slow-moving, Mayberry-like town.

For 20 years, Old Towne Orange has been known as a treasure trove for antique and salvage hunters. But that image is shifting as landlords have added more dining and retail options over the past few years. Though antique merchants still dominate the area, shoppers can also find stores selling high-end sneakers, chic children’s wear and European pastries.

The strategy, in the works since 1999, is paying off. Some lease rates have doubled, soaring beyond the county average. The 120 storefronts in downtown are 100 percent occupied, and sales tax revenue generated from the area is on the rise after years of flat returns.

“This (change) has put Orange on the map as a destination,” said Lisa Kim, senior project manager for the city’s economic development department.

But some aren’t so thrilled.

“The antique dealers want to stay,” said Bettie Woody, who opened her vintage furniture store Woody’s 17 years ago on North Glassell Street.

Woody’s, whose vast selection of mid-century modern furniture draws visitors from miles away, is among dozens of antique dealers who take pride in the district’s reputation as the antique capital of Southern California. Many wonder if the city is trying to wipe out this niche, which officials deny.

“It would not behoove us to shake that (image) off,” said city spokeswoman Tara Finnigan.

Local preservationists say they support new uses in downtown as long as property owners and merchants follow the city’s historic design standards when fixing up storefronts. Jeff Frankel of the Old Towne Preservation Association said some merchants have been stopped by the city for changing historic facades and using inappropriate materials.

“Some of these businesses do not want to play by the rules. This is a huge problem for us,” Frankel said.

Back to roots

In some ways, The Plaza, as it is affectionately called by locals, is going back to its roots.

At age 7, Dan Jensen recalls sorting soda bottles at his dad’s Satellite Market in the late 1960s. Back then, the corner grocery store, where customers paid 19 cents for a loaf of bread, was among dozens of retailers that filled the historic brick buildings built beyond the century-old traffic circle.

Shoppers bought shoes at Buster Brown, clothes at J.C. Penney and picked up medications at Watson’s Drug Store and Soda Fountain. Satisfying a sweet tooth or an urge for a good novel meant a trip to the local bakery and bookstore.

“There was definitely a very complete downtown there,” said Orange County archivist Phil Brigandi, who grew up in Orange.

But the development of malls chased out foot traffic, forcing retailers to flee. Antique shops eventually flooded the depressed area. By one estimate, the area had more than 700 antique dealers hawking everything including rusty pedestal sinks, Mission-style armoires and knickknacks.

Even Jensen caved, converting his father’s grocery store to a giant antique mall in 1985.

“This is what we’re known for,” said Woody. “The antique dealers came in and revived the area.”

But in the late 1990s, a new movement began. The one-square-mile downtown and its adjacent inventory of charming bungalows earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997. Home prices shot up, and a new crop of baby boomers and young families began moving in.

Many demanded fewer antiques and more dining and “new” shops.

“I don’t go for junk,” said Marta Cadorniga, while shopping at Old Towne Mercantile, a chic home décor store that opened in 2004.

Things move slow

But, change hasn’t occurred overnight. Just ask Al Ricci of Ricci Realty.

In the late 1990s, Ricci and architect Leason Pomeroy spent millions renovating an old irrigation plant in the 100 block of North Glassell for an expanded space for restaurants and offices. It was the first mixed-use project built in town in 30 years, said Ricci, whose “Old Towne Al” real estate signs pepper the historic neighborhood of Craftsman and Victorian homes.

But finding merchants wasn’t easy. Many turned the landlords down, seeing little incentive to open in a town with limited parking and foot traffic. Eventually, Ricci and Pomeroy convinced Zito’s Pizza, Jalapeno’s and Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory to come in 1999.

The project was a hit and laid the groundwork for other retailers and food establishments to give Old Towne a shot, including Jensen, who built the next big office-retail project at Almond Avenue and Glassell Street. That corner, considered a gateway to town, now houses Aldo’s Ristorante/Bar, Mustard Café and gourmet kitchen supply shop, Sideboard.

Old Towne Mercantile owner Dena Crone said the revival motivated her to open two more stores in the past year: Kaela’s Kasuals and Old Towne Kids, boutique clothing stores.

Worth the wait

Over a five-year period, sales tax revenue generated from Old Towne has jumped 17 percent to $400,000 annually, the city said. Monthly lease rates are also up, ranging from $3 to $3.50 a square foot for restaurant space. Retail rates are slightly lower, the city said.

By comparison, the average monthly retail lease rate in Orange County is $2.47 per square foot, according to the latest data by CB Richard Ellis.

Ricci said many older merchants, who still pay about $1 per square foot, will inevitably face rate increases as leases expire.

“The strongest antique dealers will survive,” said Ricci

Ricci is hoping to add an ice cream shop in the area, while Jensen is eyeing a brewery, a bookstore and possibly a small grocer for his buildings.

In the meantime, Ed Patrick is happy he got in when he did. Six days a week, crowds gather outside the Spanish Hacienda-themed eatery waiting for a table to dine on Gabbi’s pan seared shrimp mole, empanadas and albondiga soup.

He’s so swamped, Patrick hasn’t had time to install the restaurant’s marquee sign. He may never do it.

“I’m thinking if I put it up, I’ll be jinxed.”

Contact the writer: or 714-796-6756

#Circle #development #Orange #County #Register

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *