Monday, March 31, 2008 | Even Kennedy Smith, a veteran downtown development consultant, was shaking her head at this place.
“I think I’ve seen it all,” she recently told the Del Mar City Council, presenting the latest report on how to revitalize the county’s smallest city. “I think I’ve seen just about anything that can happen in downtowns.”
Then Smith, a principal of the Arlington, Va.-based Community Land Use and Economics Group, paused.
“You have some unique things.”
Her report — a wide-ranging exploration of the economic, demographic and cultural factors bolstering and bothering the Del Mar’s downtown village — paints an eyebrow-raising portrait of the gorgeousness and weirdness of this town, all bazillionaire-mindsets and boo-prone politics included.
Her aim was to give the city’s politicians and boosters a blueprint for how to turn downtown Del Mar from the cute-but-capricious montage of banking boxes and pricey, Tudor-housed eateries it is now into something more consistently alluring.
While it’s obviously got pristine views and some funky architecture, street life in the village — aside from a handful of stores and well-sited restaurants — is widely seen as wanting. In terms of specialty shops and galleries that make tourist dollars and pretty postcards, most people agree that it ain’t no Laguna Beach.
The stakes for the revitalization project couldn’t be higher. With the city facing possibly more than $100 million in needed capital improvements over the next 20 years, and with no room for growth, leaders see sales-tax revenues as the only way to keep the nearly-impoverished city government alive.
But as Smith reported, those revenues are woefully small at the moment. She pointed out that the city of Del Mar currently gets more revenue from parking fines than it does from sales taxes. “That, I think, is a first,” Smith said. “So congratulations or condolences, I’m not sure which to offer there.”
And it turns out that retail sales, supposed to be the saving grace of Del Mar’s future, have actually been falling since the late 1990s. In 2002, Del Mar’s retail sales per business were the lowest in the entire region.
“One of the things I’ve heard through this process is that rents are high in Del Mar village,” Smith said, alluding to one of the many excuses offered for the village’s lackluster retail sector. “I actually don’t believe that — I think sales are low and that’s the problem.”
But the most fascinating parts of Smith’s report were her candid observations of life in this boisterous little burg. She spent nearly a year on the research, interviewing officials and business owners, talking to random people on the street and consulting two dozen reports that, like hers, have sought to lay out a path to prosperity and prettiness for the city’s future.
One conclusion: “There can be a high level of acrimony here — much more so than I’ve seen I would say in 90 or 95 percent of the communities that I’ve worked with over the years.”
No one on the council disagreed. Richard Earnest allowed that getting something done is “going to mean folks checking our guns at the door,” a good indication of the level of vehemence to which civic debates here can rise. Crystal Crawford, by Del Mar standards a newbie on the council, vented considerable frustration: “We spend so much time talking about stuff, but we don’t get stuff done,” she said.
Part of the acrimony may come from the wide demographic split between the people who live in Del Mar and the people who spend money there. As a group, Del Martians tend to be solidly middle-aged and quite wealthy. It’s the second-most expensive zip code in the county behind Rancho Santa Fe, and the number of full-time residents is not expected to grow much in the next 20 years. But most of their financial contribution, other than property taxes, comes through restaurant bills.
The people who bring the dollars to support the kind of village residents want — tourists — aren’t all that loved by many full-time inhabitants of the city. Though the influx of nearly a million visitors between May and September essentially supports the city budget, many residents are overjoyed to see them leave. And they loathe the idea of planning a downtown that caters mostly to the towel-toting out-of-towners who overrun the place for a third of the year.
But other residents and business owners ask — is it wise to bite the hand that feeds us?
“You cannot govern with the idea of keeping people out yet on the other hand wanting their money,” one Del Mar resident told CLUE researchers. And even Earnest acknowledged the perception that Del Mar is unfriendly to visitors. (Could it be the parking meters?)
So there’s the new Del Mar debate: For whom are we revitalizing this town, anyway?
Smith said that choice, like a number of the “big” problems facing Del Mar, is based on perception rather than fact.
The perception is that downtown could only be gussied up for residents OR visitors, when, in fact, there’s plenty of room for both. The perception is that there is a permanent parking shortage in the village, when, in fact, there’s relatively high number of spaces around, she said.
The perception among residents is that the village is a place of hum-drum buildings, sparse parking and lousy traffic — exactly the opposite of what most of the visitors Smith interviewed found.
“The good news here — and I don’t usually say this — is that everything is positive,” Smith said, explaining her interpretation of the man-on-the-street surveys. “So people gripe a lot but actually when it comes down to it they don’t think it’s that bad.”
Maybe one of Smith’s key observations — that the town’s superheated zeal to defend its precious village and environs has helped stunt significant progress toward actually improving it — will lead to some action.
But in any case, the wide scope and incisive analysis of this latest document should convince Del Martians that “action” no longer means asking someone to tell them what to do when it comes to revitalizing their city.
And if it doesn’t, we can safely add “endless blathering” to the list of those “unique things” Smith found.