To Protect And Preserve

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 residents felt it was important to preserve their home’s quaint history. Photo Courtesy Of BGB, INC.

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.

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