A carefree, (car-free?) Surf City

Huntington Beach's big civic experiment, closing two-blocks of Main Street to automobiles once a week, seems popular, but not all the evidence is in.


Published April 9, 2007 by LA Times
By Ashley Powers 

Huntington Beach's big civic experiment, closing two-blocks of Main Street to automobiles once a week, seems popular, but not all the evidence is in.

Main Street in Huntington Beach has long stood as a mirror in which the city modeled various personas — booming when the town was flooded with oil wealth, dotted with blue-collar bars when times were tougher.

With the city in recent years on an ambitious marketing campaign to lure tourists, it seemed inevitable that officials would push for Main Street to pretty up, which it largely has. Think Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, only farther south on Pacific Coast Highway.

For the last few weeks, the city has carried out its most radical experiment yet: designating two blocks as a pedestrian mall one night a week.

Shutting down car traffic has so far led to crowds packing downtown each Tuesday, causing some city officials to more seriously consider whether to close at least part of Main Street permanently.

"Cars don't shop. They don't stop and eat at restaurants. That's why we need to focus on the pedestrian," said Mayor Pro Tem Debbie Cook, who envisions a walkable downtown to distinguish Huntington Beach from neighboring cities along PCH.

The city's decades-long path to this point illustrates its bumpy transition from surfer crash pad to tourist destination.

The debate — somewhat quaint for one of California's 20 largest cities — underscores how tough it is to revamp an oceanfront while keeping most residents happy. And Surf City's Main Street offers a particular challenge: a historic reputation for bawdiness that hardly squares with the families-first atmosphere that tourism boosters are pushing.

"People freak out when things change, period," said Andrew Kirby, whose Rock and Roll Emporium in the 200 block of Main Street sells Airline guitars and AC/DC-logo clothing for kids. "People around here freak out that all the 909ers will come downtown. Or they think if we turn into Santa Monica, we'll become everything Santa Monica is and everything Santa Monica doesn't want to be — all the riffraff and crowds."

For more than a century, Huntington Beach's golden sand has been seen as a moneymaker. The town was initially named Pacific City, with investors hoping it would blossom into California's own Atlantic City. The community did flourish — but from oil, not high rollers.

As Huntington Beach thrived, so did Main Street. The 1920s oil spurt more than doubled the city's population in a month, according to local historians. The town's main drag, whose grocers' and clothiers' shops were full of new customers, saw its rowdiest imbibers dragged to a nearby holding tank, now boarded up.

By the 1960s, the city was bulging after annexation helped add about 100,000 residents. Amid the sprawl, "people look to Main Street to figure out what the city's all about," said historian and author Chris Epting. There was a kick-back vibe, cheap apartments packed with surfers and numerous working-class watering holes.

No sign was needed: Huntington Beach and Surf City were one and the same.

But during the 1980s, Main Street deteriorated. City leaders embarked on an aggressive redevelopment effort to swap worn brick for stucco and upscale retailers and restaurants. The endeavor marked the city's return to its resort roots and came just before wealthier people began to move to the city, raising its median income.

The town sees its eight miles of uninterrupted sand as an economic savior, replacing trailer parks along PCH with luxury hotels near lots that once were given away with encyclopedia sets. Main Street is home to retail chains found in any upscale town: American Apparel, Starbucks, Color Me Mine.

"The whole Southern California mystique is Huntington Beach," said Councilman Don Hansen, "and we want downtown to reflect that."

There have been speed bumps. Surfers bristled over the numerous competitive surfing events that kept them out of the water. Other residents got miffed when the city began hosting a national paintball tournament near its signature pier, fearing it would draw inland hoi polloi.

The Strand and Pacific City, massive new retail and entertainment developments, are expected to lure folks from the nearby Hilton and Hyatt resorts. The projects, under construction, have also triggered some residents' traffic worries and fears about how the town has become tamer.

Amid all this, officials were regularly discussing making over Main Street. In the city's Conference and Visitors Bureau surveys, downtown repeatedly ranks with its beaches and pier at the top of visitor to-do lists. A strong centerpiece could tempt tourists to linger, officials believed, and perhaps kicking out cars would help.

The City Council considered the plan seriously in 2001. And again in 2004. And revived it in 2006 with a field trip to Santa Monica, during which members swooned over the packed promenade.

Main Street restaurateurs and bar owners recoiled. The plan could cost profits, they said. Parking would vanish; smaller streets would clog up; the homeless would congregate.

Since 1970, 240 U.S. cities have tried to close their main thoroughfares, and all but 30 have reopened, according to a report from Downtown Solutions, a consulting firm that Main Street merchants hired.

"We are not ogres who don't want to see change and growth in our downtown," Downtown Business Assn. President Stephen Daniel wrote in a recent letter. "If for one minute we thought closing Main Street on a permanent basis is what would bring people to our street, of course we would be the first in line to make sure it happened."

The chasm between the merchants and the council so widened that one business owner, Joe Shaw, unsuccessfully ran for City Council and launched a blog, Greetings From Downtown Huntington Beach, to protest the closure plan.

Last fall, the City Council and the merchants reached a detente: a trial run called Surf City Nights, in which two blocks, between Walnut and Orange avenues, close each Tuesday through May 22 and for several weekend events.

While some owners haven't fully embraced a permanent promenade — and the council has not decided on its next step — the once-skeptical Shaw says he's sold on Surf City Nights as a weekly event, and is still considering whether it should be expanded.

After the second Tuesday, he blogged that the event had turned "the slowest night of the week into a bonanza."

As the sun dipped into the Pacific on a recent evening, merchants lugged their T-shirts and dresses outside near farmers market booths overflowing with organic strawberries and eggplant.

City-approved street entertainers dotted the street. One young girl belted Whitney Houston ballads. Kids whooshed down a bouncy slide and twirled balloon monkeys, and the Rock and Roll Emporium promoted "stud muffin" tank tops for dogs. Teenagers passed by on inline skates while surfers crossed PCH, pausing to see how Main Street looked all gussied up with its festival atmosphere.