A code amendment coming before the Garden Grove Planning Commission next month would add additional commercial uses to neighborhoods bordering the city’s civic center, which officials want to transform from a busy corridor into a walkable downtown.

Garden Grove planners have long focused on large-scale hotel and mixed-use developments, but in recent years the city has turned an eye to its Civic Center, a patchwork of small businesses, big box stores and office space.

In 2013, the city launched a “Re:Imagine Garden Grove” campaign, asking residents to submit ideas for revitalizing downtown, with walking, biking and community gathering spaces as top priorities.

The zoning amendment, which will come to a vote at a May 7 meeting, would contribute to the city’s vision of a live-and-work downtown, where single-family homes could be converted into commercial uses like restaurants and office space.

For inspiration, city planners have looked to the suburban downtown look in Orange and Tustin, as well as strategies in neighboring Anaheim and Santa Ana.

Among nearly two-dozen new uses proposed in the amendment for an area east of the Civic Center are creative space, restaurants with entertainment, a food hall, and an indoor shopping center. It also limits hours of operation from 7 am to 10 pm.

For the zone to the west of the Civic Center, the amendment adds three new uses: a food hall, indoor shopping center and multi-tenant retail or short-term office studio space.

In order to achieve their vision, planners will have to overcome a development strategy that until recent years centered around big box stores and large developments.

The city’s historic Main Street, which features restaurants, small businesses and studio space, is sandwiched between Coastline Community College, Home Depot, Costco and a constant crush of cars along Euclid Street and Garden Grove Boulevard.

In many respects, this new strategy is an unintended consequence of Gov. Jerry Brown’s decision in 2011 to end redevelopment, according to Assistant City Manager Susan Emery. Before the state eliminated redevelopment agencies, the city purchased several downtown properties with the goal of consolidating them for large projects.

But when the redevelopment agency was dissolved, the properties were transferred to the Housing Authority, which now owns and operates 17 properties near the Civic Center, with some vacant and others occupied by affordable housing tenants.

While specific projects have yet to be proposed, several developers have approached the city regarding purchasing the 17 city-owned properties, said Emery, including the developers of the LAB in Costa Mesa.

Should a large developer purchase those properties, the city would be responsible for re-housing tenants, Emery said.

Paving the Way

A major zoning amendment passed in 2012 made it possible for homeowners within these two neighborhoods to convert their homes or property for commercial uses, although few have taken advantage of the amendment.

Senior Planner Lee Marino said the amendment adds some of the uses already allowed in other parts of the Civic Center, such as Main Street, and new ones based on what has been popular in other cities.

“[The zoning] is just trying to address some of the market forces. For example, food halls are hot right now,” said Marino, referencing the popular Anaheim Packing House and Fourth Street Market in Santa Ana.

The amendment also adds compatibility requirements, which would require any new construction or remodeling fit the look of the current neighborhood.

“If you look at areas where [the downtown] has transitioned over time, like Orange, there can be major issues in terms of living next to new commercial properties,” said Marino.

Several residents who attended a study session last week expressed concerns about increased traffic, parking issues and unruly bar patrons seen in other downtowns, like Santa Ana’s.

Marino said that the zoning amendment would add to the list of approved uses, but any new projects would still have to go through an additional public hearing and permitting process.

Parking and traffic are also two major barriers to connecting the downtown. Zooming cars already pose a hazard for pedestrians and cyclists crossing Garden Grove Boulevard and Euclid Street.

“We’re going to have this demand for people to start traveling east and west and we have this rather large and busy arterial in between,” said Emery.

And though there is currently enough downtown parking in surface lots, the city has yet to do a parking study based on its new vision.

Emery said she plans to bring funding for a parking study before the City Council.

But for now, the zoning changes are still just a vision. Without redevelopment money, the city will have to rely entirely on private investment, said Planning Commission Chair John O’Neill.

“This is to spark private interest in development. The city doesn’t have the money to level the place and revitalize it,” said O’Neill.

Although he was supportive of some of the changes, Commissioner Andrew Halberstadt expressed concern that there won’t be a demand for many of the proposed changes.

“My issue isn’t necessarily what you’re introducing, but I do wonder whether or not you’re putting the cart before the horse,” said Halberstadt.

View the full zoning amendment on the city website.

Contact Thy Vo at thyanhvo@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo. 

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