To Protect And Preserve

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.

Overcoming Obstacles

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.

Infectious Enthusiasm

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

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