Bringing Downtown Back: The Placentia Renaissance Project - Placentia, CA

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Project at a Glance

  • Issue Area Economic development, Neighborhood improvement
  • Engagement Approaches Community conversations/dialogues, Community meetings (townhalls, forums, etc), Engaging traditionally marginalized groups, Visioning/ strategic planning
Project Description

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Bringing Downtown Back: The Placentia Renaissance Project


Originally home to the city’s central business district, bustling train depot and thriving citrus packing houses, Downtown Placentia, and specifically the La Jolla district, have fallen on hard times. La Jolla is a small, primarily Spanish-speaking city, where more than 40% of residents live below the federal poverty line.  The neighborhood has been ground zero for criminal gang activity in Orange County for more than 50 years with higher than average rates of violent crimes such as murder, aggravated assault, and robbery.     

The challenges facing the area go beyond violence.  A recent study by St. Jude Medical Center ranked heath disparities for La Jolla residents the worst in Orange County based on an index of several socioeconomic indicators.  La Jolla is classified as a “food desert,” defined by the USDA as an area that does not have a grocery store within 0.5 miles.  As a result, residents’ food options are limited and health and well-being suffers.     

Transportation is also a key challenge. With zero bus stops or routes through La Jolla, and the closest stops located in the cities of Anaheim (2.1 miles or 50-minute walk) or Fullerton (3.7 miles or 1 hour and 40-minute walk), public transportation to parks, soccer fields, shopping, or other activities are difficult and present a significant barrier for residents.       

La Jolla families lack options for affordable housing and find themselves in overcrowded .   

living situations with as many as three to five families living together in single-family homes and  apartments.  Neighborhood Services workers report visiting homes where beds fill the  living room and as many as 14 people reside in a place designed for a family of four. Overcrowding of this nature can have a direct, negative impact on children’s overall development, educational progress, physical and mental health, and future well-being.      

Project Summary : 

In light of the challenges facing its downtown, the City of Placentia embarked upon a comprehensive plan for the revitalization, activation, and economic growth of the city’s Old Town area.      

The City plans to restore key features of this area’s past while positioning itself for the next twenty years. These efforts are intended to create a new destination by reviving and improving Old Town’s unique identity and character to benefit residents, visitors, and the business community. To help with this transformation, the City has adopted an amendment to the zoning code with specific standards to allow a mixed use, pedestrian-oriented retail and residential district, creating new development opportunities for a one-of-a-kind destination within walking distance of the La Jolla neighborhood.       

Several key contentious issues arose in the community conversations regarding the development of these plans. Most prominent was the fact that new development would have created new zoning laws that would make existing businesses out of compliance, and long-time small business owners would lose their family-owned businesses. Other cities may have used their power of eminent domain and implemented their plan as presented.  As a result of the concerns raised by the current home and business owners in the Plans’ areas, a decision was made by the City to come to a collaborative and acceptable compromise.     

Engagement Strategies : 

Public outreach was a key factor in the success of Placentia’s Transit-Oriented Development Plan and Old Town Revitalization Plan.     

The City has recognized through previous engagement efforts that the most vulnerable or low-income neighborhoods have a difficult time participating in community meetings because of lack of transportation, child care, or because of fear of crossing gang areas to get to the community centers and meeting locations.  To resolve this, Placentia has used their own transportation to shuttle participants from these areas and transport them to and from the meetings. When holding meetings in these particular neighborhoods, they also provide dinner for the families and have crafts and child care available.  Finally, translation services are used, as these neighborhoods are mostly mono-linguistic in Spanish.    

The Transit and Revitalization plans were discussed at more than 35 venues each, including community meetings, downtown merchant’s meetings, Chamber of Commerce, Ad-Hoc Development meetings, Planning Commission and City Council meetings. Community feedback was integral to the success of the approval process.      


Through productive discussion with the community, a contentious issue found a solution.   

To address concerns raised by the current home and business owners in the plan’s areas, a decision was made by the City to come to a collaborative and acceptable compromise.  The City proposed an amortization clause which preserves private property rights in existence at the time of the zone change.    

Once the General Plan is adopted, all legal uses, buildings or structures will continue to operate as a legal non-conforming use, building or structure. This allows the current business owners to continue to operate without having to upgrade their buildings or businesses. In addition, for the five-year period after the zone change is adopted, these same legal non-conforming uses may be transferred or assigned. After this five-year period has elapsed, legal non-conforming uses can continue if the business is transferred to a child or parent of the owner or to the owner’s employees.      

Additional Resources:
Old Town Revitalization Plan
Transit Oriented Development Plan
Placentia, CA– 2018 AAC Finalist: Presentation

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