Arcade history repeats itself
by Winnie Hirsch
What has the shopping center at the "Y" intersection
got to do with the redevelopment of downtown Ojai? - specifically,
that area north of the Arcade now being demolished so that underground
sewer, water and electrical systems will be made serviceable
again and the area restored to beauty.
In case you doubt it, it has plenty to do with it, for no sooner
was that shopping center completed in 1966 than the new grocery
store (now Vons) was advertised as the largest air-conditioned
building in the Ojai Valley with automatic doors ("which
really pleased the shoppers"). For those and other reasons,
the new shops drew business away from the old downtown. Stores
in the village began to close. The Arcade became seedier and
seedier and the back of the Arcade was a shambles - although
that was nothing new.
By the late 1960s, the Ojai City Council recognized that something
had to be done to revitalize the down-at-heels Arcade. It was
no longer attracting the locals, let alone tourists, and it was
only then that somebody brought up the idea of a redevelopment
agency to finance the needed improvements.
Most people, I think, have no idea how badly off this area was
before it was redeveloped the first time. They don't know that
the sidewalks outside the Arcade buildings were lighted by a
very few lanterns of extraordinarily small wattage and that all
were connected to a box attached at the rear of Rains Department
They don't know that there would have been no street lights at
all in the Arcade if the newest merchant in the block wasn't
assigned to go door-to-door collecting money each month from
its merchants to pay for public lighting.
They don't know that some of the merchants were doing so badly
they couldn't contribute their share. Some people probably don't
know that the merchants still pay for all the improved lighting
in the village and are assessed for it and other amenities now
available to the public.
Some people don't even know that by the 1970s the property taxes
derived from what would become the Ojai Redevelopment Project
Area were so low that the school board declared that the schools
would scarcely feel the loss of income if the funds were diverted
from the general fund into redevelopment to enable improvement
of the area.
Of course, redevelopment didn't get started without a battle.
Not in Ojai! No way!
We who were members of the first Ojai Redevelopment Commission
had to face an auditorium jam-packed with frightened, enraged
people. They had learned that a Redevelopment Agency had the
right of condemnation, and they were sure that bulldozers would
go through the city destroying their homes. No one seemed to
listen when we assured them that no property could be condemned
unless a government had the money up front and that penniless
Ojai couldn't afford to condemn one piece of property, let alone
300, even if it wanted to.
Ojai Mayor James Loebl spent countless evenings listening to
residents' worries about what would happen if redevelopment became
a reality. When it was brought to a vote of the people, redevelopment
won. I know because victory was celebrated in an empty store
we owned behind the Arcade.
After that, however, nothing seemed to happen downtown. Some
of us became discouraged by the lack of activity. We didn't know
that things were really happening and that those things were
awful, at least they were awful for those who had to cope with
The problem was that at the beginning of the last century, surveyors
simply rounded off their measurements, so when the Redevelopment
Project Area was re-surveyed, it was discovered that almost every
property owner in the Arcade held a few feet of somebody else's
property and that a few feet of his own property belonged to
It was then that Ojai Redevelopment Commissioner David Hirschberg
and the late City Council member Frank McDevitt began days of
talking. They talked and they talked their way from one end of
the Arcade to the other, convincing each owner (some of whom
were absent) to sign a release so that redevelopment could begin.
They were holding their breaths, fearing that the last property
owner might not sign up. But he did. A triumphant Hirschberg
later said, "Coordinating people was something I did well."
Hirschberg also admitted, when the project was finally finished
(1981), that he was not completely satisfied with the result.
He regretted that t he city (acting as the Redevelopment Agency)
hadn't acquired all the open space behind the Arcade, that the
passage which runs from Ojai Avenue to the plazas behind was
less inviting than planned, and that the contractor with the
lowest bid got the job. The result, he thought, wasn't top of
On the good side, those of us who had been less involved were
delighted with the results. Whatever its faults, the area looked
a thousand times better and the project was completed in the
nick of time. Due to the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, cities
were cut off from much of the property tax they had depended
on. With redevelopment completed, stores in Ojai began to thrive
and tourists began to leave more money in town - which meant
that the city of Ojai was hurt less than most cities by the cut
in property taxes.
Now, 20 years later, the process of improvement has begun again.
This time the city should achieve success faster because the
area is properly surveyed and the city knows where the old water
and sewage lines are - which is more than they knew back then.
The city has been satisfied with past performances of the new
contractor, and all of us hope that the refurbished plazas will
be better maintained in the future than in the past.
So, dear readers, be kind to the shopkeepers who are working
under considerable stress and inconveniences. Let us hope that
the project is finished by Thanksgiving and that the result will
be as lovely as the artist's rendition.
Note: No property in the Ojai Redevelopment Project Area
was ever condemned. In those days Ojai City Council members (mayor
included) received $25 a month; commissioners, as they do today,
© 2002 The Ojai Valley
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BACK OF THE ARCADE near Tottenham
Court and The Hub before the Plaza was constructed 20 years ago.