Opinion/Commentary: Del Mar’s first revitalization efforts

By Jim Watkins

The following is an account of the Watkins family efforts and accomplishments in Del Mar’s first revitalization.

The late ‘60s saw significant changes to the village. For years the village was more known as “gasoline alley” with nine service stations. The 101 route from Los Angeles to San Diego was termed “blood alley” due to the frequent accidents. So when the now Highway I-5 opened in 1967, residents of the village cheered, peace at last! Not so, however, for the village businesses. With the traffic gone so were the customers and many of the businesses failed.

In January 1967, the Surfcomber printed two pages of photos showing the businesses that had gone out of business and noted the once-famous Del Mar Hotel was now only an eyesore in the village (later to be demolished in 1969).

While residents were pleased, the Chamber of Commerce, desperate to attract business, suggested building a White Front store (similar to Costco) on the old hotel site. Obviously the goals of the Chamber and the desires of the residents were diametrically opposed. As such, Del Mar was a community divided. The only place the two factions seemed to get together was at the city hall to fight.

In late 1967, tired of the hot summers in Phoenix and the Del Webb Development Company corporate lifestyle, I (Jim Watkins), a real estate analyst, moved to Del Mar with my wife Carol (who passed away in 2006) and four children, Kit, Kliff, Kris and KC.

Tom Pearson, mayor at the time, was familiar with my background in finance and real estate development. Pearson asked me if I would develop an economic analysis for the City of Del Mar — an analysis to include recommendations on how to revitalize the village center in order to provide more goods and services for residents and build a stronger economic base for the City.

Quite a challenge considering Del Mar was a virtual ghost town in 1967, after Highway I-5 passed the village and the Grand Old Del Mar Hotel, once the center of village activities was now closed and in shambles.

I agreed. The resulting economic analysis was an in-depth study and research into similar small communities over the years that had been negatively impacted by a highway bypass. Included in the study were unique communities with similarities to Del Mar such as Carmel, Laguna Beach, and Solvang.

Not too surprisingly, the report concluded that Del Mar’s greatest potential for revitalizing the village was simply to enhance and build on its unique character with the central district as the heart of the community. Individually-owned shops and businesses, not national brands or large out of scale structures. Some of what was needed, however, was more retail shops to create a critical mass, a hotel to attract and accommodate resident guests and visitors alike, extensive upgrades of existing structures, plus some form of architectural control to protect the aesthetic quality of the village and prevent out of character or out of scale developments.

Our family goal in moving to Del Mar was a wonderful place to raise our children. We had no intent to become so involved in the city’s affairs. However, it was evident the city needed help and so started our family involvement in the village and our efforts to revitalize the village core. I credit Mayor Tom Pearson for much of the success of those efforts over the next several years. It was four-term Mayor Pearson who authorized the study and actively supported its goals. It was also Mayor Pearson who spearheaded civic beautification that created a landscape ordinance, negotiated the Sea Grove Park and North Bluff acquisition and who championed the Design Review ordinance which I authored.

And thus started the village revitalization process of 1967-69.

Based on the economic analysis, I believed three basic approaches were needed to accomplish a co-ordinated village revitalization designed to accommodate the needs and desires of businesses and residents alike.

  1. Provide a viable study documented to convince shop owners and businesses of Del Mar’s exceptional future potential;
  2. Creation of an ordinance to assure architectural adherence to Del Mar’s unique village character (resulted in the Design Review Board) and
  3. Finally, simplify the efforts to make it all happen. Reports are easy; heaven knows Del Mar has dozens of reports and studies. The key is to make things happen and lead by example, then others will follow.

STEP #1:

To provide a viable study, sufficient to convince shop owner and businesses of Del Mar’s exceptional future potential.

To do so, I produced a report and flyer for the Chamber of Commerce labeled simply

“WHY DEL MAR.” The report started with WHY indeed should a city whose business community had deteriorated after being by-passed by 1-5 emerge as potentially one of the West Coast’s finest semi-rural resort communities?

The report then went on to list more than a dozen reasons, with back up statistical data, to say WHY! Including the nearby proposed development of the University of California, the Veterans Hospital, Scripps Hospital and Salk Institute, Gulf Atomic Research Facilities, the Torrey Pines Industrial Park expansion, plus other major nearby projects, noting Del Mar may expect significant economic benefit from these projects. Noting also, that the demand for coastal recreational facilities and accommodations were projected to increase by 400 percent over the next 20 years.

The report identified Del Mar’s natural assets and local attractions such as: the Del Mar Thoroughbred Races, the Del Mar Fair, the Andy Williams Open at Torrey Pines golf course and close proximity to attractions such as Sea World, the San Diego Zoo, Mexico, etc. And finally the report compared favorably Del Mar’s assets and potential compared to similar beach communities such as Laguna Beach and Carmel by the Sea.

The report concluded: Given the above factors plus Del Mars climatic excellence, location in the path of unprecedented growth, outstanding beaches and unique desirable village atmosphere, Del Mar offers exceptional opportunities for well-planned, quality facilities in character with Del Mar’s village charm.

I then circulated the report “WHY DEL MAR” to over 100 businesses in San Diego County in an attempt to bring them to Del Mar. The response was immediate. Del Mar’s revitalization had begun.

STEP 2:

Creation of an ordinance to assure architectural adherence to Del Mar’s unique village character.

To accomplish this, I traveled to numerous cities, including Santa Barbara and Solvang that had some form of architectural controls and presented a conceptual plan to Mayor Hiensman who then authorized a committee including myself, Ralph Peck, Chiquita Abbott, Ralph Staver, Richard Kellogg and others to finalize what is now Del Mar’s Design Review Ordinance. The committee agreed all white walls and red shingled roofs like in Santa Barbara or theme architecture such as Solvang was inappropriate for Del Mar. The goal was to retain and enhance Del Mar’s unique, collective village architecture and thus the term “harmonious diversity and a unique village character in a pedestrian scale” was adopted to characterize the design goals. However, the Design Review ordinance was written to cover the village core only and was never intended to infringe on individual home owners.

STEP 3:

With the business community energized by the WHY Del Mar revelations, a conceptual plan for revitalization and the Design Review Ordinance in place, the next step was to make the revitalization a reality and lead by example.

To lead by example, together with my wife Carol, we borrowed $10,000 from a friend, Hugh Nutter, to secure an option to purchase the Kerkhoff building (now Stratford Square) at the corner of 15th and Camino Del Mar. At the time the building was run down with a junk shop on the corner, a raunchy beer bar called the Parly Room and a place for girls of the night in upstairs apartments. All of the above were evicted and the structure significantly upgraded, remodeled and renamed Stratford Square. The upstairs apartments were converted to artist lofts. Stratford Square was a family affair. Carol opened the first new shop named the Vintage Press which sold art on consignment and 5¢ coffee. Carol and her friend Marge Throneson then opened the Sugar Plum Bakery featuring ice cream for the kids, cookies and great pies. All our kids worked at the bakery cleaning strawberries and baking pies. (Now the Americana Café.) Next came the Earthsong Book Store a gathering place for the community for 30 years with Jim Meadows and Virginia Igonda. The art lofts attracted Marshall Gellers Gift Horse, John Dempsey, cartoonist, Maggie Young’s La Mariposa, Cloisonné, the Yarn Loft and 11 other new tenants including the famous Golden Rollin Belly (now Jimmy O’s). The revitalization had begun. Most shops attracted by the brochure “WHY DEL MAR”.

Other businesses attracted by the WHY DEL MAR campaign and our persuasion included George Bullingston who purchased and remodelled the old Chef Thomas Café into Bully’s North and numerous other retail shops.

The March 12, 1970 San Dieguito Citizen newspaper published a full page report on Del Mar’s revitalization titled “Del Mar Starts ‘Clean Sweep.’” The article featured the Stratford Square revitalization, the expansion of Doc Wheelock’s Medical Building, a Stratford on the Avon architecture, a remodel of La Tienda, by Ron Harmon, a remodel of the Chamber of Commerce building, St. James Catholic Church, remodel for United States International University and my plans for the Del Mar Inn, the first new hotel and major structure in the village over the previous decade. The revitalization continued.

The July 1971 issue of North County Living Magazine published a four page article titled “It’s Really Happening in Del Mar!” The article stated “For those who have been a little saddened by the end of an era in 1969 when the old hotel was torn down... take heart, look around and you see Del Mar will finally reach her full potential.” The article featured the Watkins family and Mike O’Hara’s plans to rebuild a guest lodge with shops and restaurants on the old Del Mar hotel site to re-establish what was once the heart and pride of the village.

Also featured was Stratford Square and the Golden Rollin’ Belly, which had become one of North County’s most popular dining and entertainment venues.

At that point, our Del Mar Inn was under construction to be completed and opened in late 1971. On Camino Del Mar, Nancy Broom converted the ugliest building in town to open Stormbocks West an equestrian establishment. Next door, Nancy Suenaga opened Studio Suenaga for fine costume jewelry.

Not to be overlooked was the old St. James Catholic Church, soon to become the Albatross, one of North County’s most unique restaurants. Tom Norden and Delphine Valley Key opened the Stratford Court Player. Harvey Hertebery converted one of the service stations into retail shops; Herb Turner converted another service station on the corner of 14th and Camino del Mar into retail use and CRAA’s publication “Psychology Today” editor T. George Harris occupied several of the vacated buildings and I announced development of his Canterbury Corner retail center on 7th and Camino del Mar. As the North County Living magazine noted “YES, IT’S REALLY HAPPENING IN DEL MAR.”

Quite a change from the ghost town of 1967 after Interstate 5 bypassed the village and the grand old Del Mar Hotel was demolished in 1969. The Del Mar revitalization efforts accomplished more in just 3 short years than had been produced in any previous decade or any time since until the development of the Del Mar Plaza and L’Auberge Hotel in 1981.

In just three short years, the environmental and beautification accomplishments, spearheaded by Major Tom Pearson and the council, including: Janice Heinzmann, Ralph Staver, Robert Smith and others included: The Del Mar Landscape Ordinance, Seagrove Park, Del Mar Bluff Preserve, Tennis Courts, undergrounding of Camino Del Mar Telephone Poles and the installation and Landscaping of Camino Del Mar meridian.

During those three short years our family efforts to revitalize the village resulted in the Del Mar Economic Analysis, WHY DEL MAR marketing campaign, the Design Review Ordinance, development of the Del Mar Inn, Canterbury Corner, redevelopment of Stratford Square, addition of more than 30 new shops and businesses plus the upgrade of numerous existing structures in Del Mar and the elimination of service stations.

To celebrate the revitalization success and to showcase the new Del Mar, the Chamber of Commerce organized a promotion called “The Renaissance Fair.” The event lasted for three days and drew over 10,000 visitors to Del Mar. The Fair Grand Marshall was Desi Arnez. There was even Lady Godiva on a white horse leading a parade down Camino del Mar. The fair featured knights in armor, brandishing swords, beautiful damsels and live entertainment with street musicians, jugglers, puppet shows, food booths, fine arts and special events.

It was truly Del Mar’s first revitalization and renaissance.


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