In the mid-1990s, the city of Avalon on beautiful Catalina Island off the southern California coastline had a serious dilemma: “How to upgrade the deteriorating downtown waterfront without losing its historic charm?”
Catalina Island, some 76 square miles and approximately 26 miles from the mainland, was purchased in 1919 by Chicago chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr. At that time, Avalon was a sleepy fishing village.
Wrigley was a visionary, and soon created a plan to provide water and other utilities to the town so permanent commercial buildings, hotels, and residences could be constructed. He began this infrastructure work immediately, and the beautiful Mediterranean-inspired village of Avalon was created.
The crown jewel–the world-famous Casino Ballroom–was completed in 1929. Wrigley died in 1932, and the design and construction of the waterfront promenade was completed in 1934 by his son, Philip, and graphic designer Otis Shepard. T
he grand vision of the father had been achieved, and was embraced not only by residents of southern California but also by movie stars from Hollywood and dignitaries worldwide.
Building A Reputation
During the Big Band era of the 1930s, the Casino Ballroom and the Great White Steamer that traveled from the ports of Los Angeles to this magical isle gained an international reputation for Avalon as a destination resort.
Following World War II, things began to change. With the advent of commercial air travel in the 1950s, Hollywood’s elite began to vacation in more distant places. And the postwar years began the trend of southern Californians purchasing automobiles, which expanded opportunities for family vacations elsewhere.
Decade by decade, for the second half of the 20th century, Avalon’s popularity as a tourist destination declined.
In the 1980s, the city commissioned design studies from prominent architectural/planning firms to upgrade Avalon’s image. However, there was a strong movement to “keep things intact” and not compromise the town’s unique Wrigley-era charm by bold changes. As a result, these plans failed to gain support and were not implemented.
Then in 1996, the city acquired park bond funds from the county of Los Angeles for waterfront improvements, and solicited proposals for the refurbishment of the waterfront and downtown village streetscapes.
The master plan included functional changes, such as new pedestrian-only streets and improved access for tour buses, as well as new landscape/hardscape improvements and historical renovations. The team of Robert Borthwick Associates (now BGB, Inc.), in collaboration with Cash Associates Engineers, was awarded the design contract.
Reaching A Consensus
A series of public workshops began to describe the goals of the project, and to solicit feedback from business owners and residents. At first, the workshops were received with some skepticism. Island residents tend to be protective of the quaint and unique qualities of their town, and may resist the commercialization they see “overtown” (on the mainland).
Consultants from the mainland are sometimes viewed as outsiders who don’t understand and appreciate the island.
Gradually, the workshop attendees lost their skepticism and began to offer constructive thoughts and ideas. Enthusiasm from the community was building as potential design solutions were developed. At the end of the series of workshops, the preservationist-oriented attendees were still at odds with some on the city council who favored more sweeping design changes.
The city’s Project Manager, Angelo Kedis, asked the city manager if a “town vote” could be held to determine the design direction and details of the project. The city agreed to this concept, and a docent from the Avalon Museum volunteered to construct models representing the alternative plans. The voting turnout was huge, and the preservation-oriented concepts won by a large margin.
When the voting tally was read at the council meeting, Mayor Bud Smith stated: “I wouldn’t have anticipated that the designs for this project would go this direction, but the ‘people have spoken,’ and I move that all design details be implemented per the majority votes.”
This unanimous council vote was a turning point, and the project achieved consensus thereafter.
The actual construction of the project was the next hurdle. Because Avalon is a tourist-based economy, the work of street excavation and other construction had to be started and completed in the winter months. Unfortunately, that particular winter was a record-setting El Nino rainfall season.
Then, there was the issue of “Island Blood.” On a Sunday morning midway through the months of construction, I received a call at home from the director of the Catalina Museum. Noticing that the contractors had been installing some decorative beach pebbles into the concrete paving, she asked whether these pebbles were native Catalina beach pebbles, or were from somewhere else.
I indicated the commercially available pebbles were from Mexico, since local pebbles would either be on private property or on a public beach, and therefore off-limits. She explained that using indigenous materials was very important to her and others on the Island. We agreed to meet the following day.
As a result, local pebbles, donated by the Santa Catalina Island Company, were mixed with the other pebbles, and in a small ceremony, the Catalina pebbles were installed in the fresh concrete. Everyone was happy and the project now had a proper transfusion of Island Blood.
All in all, the success of the project was due to the cooperation and support of various members of the community. Both the preservationists and those desiring more efficient vehicular circulation and upgrading had valid concerns.
Once the city allowed the design consultants to interact with the stakeholders and develop a master plan that solved the functional problems without compromising the unique and historic qualities of the site, the enthusiasm for the project became infectious.
New tilework, seatwalls, benches, and landscaping were installed, and these improvements were so seamless with original features that within a short time after project completion, most people could not tell the difference between old and new.
The newly created extensions of the pedestrian promenade (former vehicular streets) were designed for future “sidewalk café” uses. At first, business owners resisted this idea because it was new to Avalon. Over time, several restaurants have added sidewalk dining with much success, and an enlivened streetscape has resulted.
Businesses in the downtown waterfront project area have reported substantial increases since the improvements have been completed, and the project has received an Urban Design Award from the Greater Los Angeles Business Council.
In addition, the city received the Centennial Medallion from the American Society of Landscape Architects for “America’s places of the heart that have inspired community and given unique character to our land.”
The Avalon Waterfront revitalization is the opposite of a “one-size-fits-all” approach to urban design, and is a model that is applicable to other cities that also strive to preserve their identity.
Robert Borthwick, ASLA, is a Senior Principal at Borthwick Guy Bettenhausen, Inc., a landscape-architecture, planning, and urban-design firm in Irvine, Calif. For more information, visit www.bgb-inc.com.