Whiting: Hit hard by recession, Placentia works to attract businesses

This is part of an occasional series on every Orange County city.

There’s something about the rumble, diesel smell and gargantuan size of a freight train that stirs the soul – unless you’re stuck in traffic waiting for the annoying steel snake to pass.

Welcome to Placentia.

While most of us worry about clogged freeways, the roaring beasts of burden are a major factor in getting around in several North County cities, Placentia in particular. But with a $400 million series of long-awaited undertrack passings in various stages of construction, soon-to-be hassle-free freight trains are about to transform one of Orange County’s oldest cities.

Two underpassings were recently finished. Two more are on schedule to be completed in coming months. The final underpass is slated to open next year.

But train crossings are only part of the changes underway to help reinvigorate a city forced to sell property and lay off one-quarter of its workforce during the recession.

Faced with a $6.1 million deficit, the city is launching an ambitious effort to attract new business and new residents, too.

Placentia’s interim city administrator, Damien Arrula, envisions a central core with the attractiveness of Disneyland’s Main Street. “The bones are here,” he says.

As an example, Arrula points to a little parking lot in the city’s well-worn downtown. “Something as simple as a parking lot can have the cleanliness and charm of Disneyland. I want to bring that to the downtown.”

Standing between two lots with a few dozen parking spaces each, Arrula points out how one has a wall with fake ivy to dispel graffiti, accessible handicap parking, flared green trash cans and lighting with 21st-century LEDs and a 19th-century style.

The other lot, built earlier, has none of that.

Without a major economic engine such as a mall or the post-recession boom in commercial and residential development that most area cities have seen, Placentia is trying a new approach. The city is in the midst of a marketing campaign at shopping center conventions — yes, there are such things — that focuses on public-private partnerships and provides details on every vacant storefront.

The Placentia campaign breaks down the city’s demographics into prospective customer profiles with snazzy titles.

The “Money and Brains” group for example, makes up 6.5 percent of the city and reportedly shops at places like Crate and Barrel and reads magazines like Yoga Journal.

Another category is “Low Rise Living.” That group makes up 4.1 percent of Placentia, has some high school or college education, shops at Walgreens and reads Star magazine.

Placentia goes so far as to offer potential store owners a plastic business card with a flip-out flash drive filled with more details to entice.

“We say, ‘We’re going to seek you out, recruit you and make you feel welcome,’” Arrula says.

Already, some seeds of change sprout. A pedestrian bridge over the tracks in the downtown area was finished a few years ago, and an adjacent train station is expected to start construction in about 18 months.

A five-story garage with electric vehicle charging will accompany the train station. Plans also are underway for a nearby 193-unit multifamily apartment building.

Arrula says the idea is to target millennials with easy access to public transportation, nearby apartments and eventually a transformed downtown.

Still, the challenge in this self-proclaimed “bedroom community” is just that. Placentia lacks the sizzle of Irvine’s Spectrum, Costa Mesa’s South Coast Plaza, Mission Viejo’s lake, Yorba Linda’s views, Seal Beach’s pier.

But Placentia does offer a central Southern California location.

Nestled just north of the 91 freeway and straddling the 57, commuters can get to Los Angeles or central Orange County relatively quickly. Yes, there’s also the train.

Accordingly, one of the the city’s biggest assets, Arrula says, is time savings. “When you’re driving, time is a quality of life issue. It can be more valuable than money.”

The city administrator also points to another asset: the community’s public schools, part of the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District.

Most of the district’s schools are rated 9 or 10; however, the small cluster of 4s to 7s are mostly in Placentia.

The city’s end game is to encourage residents to buy locally. Not only will that save drive time, it will increase sales revenue.

We check out several excellent, longtime Mexican restaurants. Tlaquepaque earns nearly five stars on Yelp. El Cantarito nudges even higher.

Arrula looks up and down the street and recalls the city’s Tamale Festival and Las Posadas in December. Santa Fe Avenue was closed and the street was filled with people, music and the smells of cooking.

As a train rumbles by, Arrula says that is that kind of atmosphere that he envisions year-round.

Contact the writer: dwhiting@ocregister.com

Leave a Reply