Construction has begun on an eight-block project in central Ontario that city officials and developers say will be a cornerstone of downtown revitalization.

Site work started in September for two developments that are planned to have a combined 547 housing units, 80,000 square feet of retail space and a 2 1/2-acre public plaza. The project lies within the Ontario Town Square, a 12-block planning area that already contains City Hall, a new main library building, a four-year-old senior center, and a new branch of the La Verne College of Law.

“We’ve had 14 years of virtually unprecedented growth here,” said Ontario Development Director Otto Kroutil. However, nearly all of that growth has been in greenfield areas near Ontario International Airport and in the “New Model Colony” area that is replacing a giant dairy preserve. “Downtown is the center of the doughnut, and we need to fill the hole,” Kroutil said.

The two projects getting under way are J.H. Snyder Company’s development of 171 for-sale lofts, 140 for-sale town houses and 160 rental apartments, along with 80,000 square feet of ground floor retail space. The other project is The Related Companies’ development of 76 apartments for low-income senior citizens. The projects are receiving “a very, very substantial public investment,” said Kroutil. Negotiations are not final, but it is likely Ontario’s redevelopment agency will put $13 million into development of the affordable housing units and split the cost of public improvements 50-50 with the developers, according to Kroutil. In addition, the redevelopment agency acquired the land from willing sellers and via eminent domain, assembled the parcels, cleared off some structures, and then sold the real estate to the developers at a discount.

“We aren’t creating a downtown from scratch like so many young communities do,” said Ontario Mayor Paul Leon. “Instead, we’re reaching back to embrace the fabric of a century-old city, and focusing more on the creation of ‘sense of place’ rather than simply a retail destination.”

Ontario’s rapid expansion qualifies the city as a “boomburb” — a city of at least 100,000 people that is not the largest in its metropolitan area and that has maintained double-digit growth in recent decades, according to Virginia Tech professor Robert Lang. Yet, Ontario was founded during the 1880s as the “Model Colony” and has a large, fairly well-defined downtown about a mile south of Interstate 10. Running through downtown is one of Southern California’s signature streets — Euclid Avenue, a 200-foot-wide right-of-way with a heavily landscaped median that, just north of downtown, is lined with grand old houses.

However, with a few exceptions here and there, downtown has received no substantial private investment in decades. Some historic buildings have been lost or have fallen into disrepair. And while other cities in the area have successfully revitalized their downtowns, notably Claremont, Monrovia and, of course, Pasadena, Ontario has been slow to turn its attention downtown.

The downtown in this San Bernardino County city of 170,000 people did not die entirely, but neither has the district been healthy for a long time. Now, city officials insist they are serious about pumping new life into the city’s historic core. The Snyder and Related projects are the largest projects in downtown Ontario probably since World War II.

Covering about one-sixth of the large downtown, the new projects fill eight blocks along and east of Euclid Avenue. The project includes the conversion of one square block on Euclid into a new public park. Much of the Snyder component is in mixed-use form, with up to three floors of lofts or apartments above ground-floor retail space that abuts wide sidewalks. Parking will be in structures and underground.
The large size of the Snyder and Related projects is key, according to project supporters.

“You need to have enough of a critical mass to make a difference,” said Kroutil, “so that the new urban form truly has an impact.”

Jerry Snyder, senior partner at J.H. Snyder, agreed. “I think it’s important that we redevelop the whole eight blocks all at once so we aren’t building town homes in the middle of nothing,” Snyder said. The new housing will help create a neighborhood where none really exists now, he said.

City officials hope the Snyder and Related projects, scheduled for completion in 2009, will serve as a catalyst for additional investment downtown. The idea is that residents who fill the new housing units will create a market for the new retail shops and restaurants, which will generate more development interest.

Snyder’s company has done redevelopment projects for decades, including such high-profile Los Angeles projects as Museum Square on the Miracle Mile, near Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He sees Ontario as ripe for redevelopment and said his planned mix of housing units and retail space will fill a market need.

“I’ve got more people wanting to lease the retail than I’ve got retail. I’ve got drugstores, I’ve got restaurants. The retail people are very confident,” said Snyder, who is eager to begin development this fall.

While a number of cities have copied at least part of Old Pasadena’s model for downtown revitalization, there is no guarantee of downtown success in Ontario, said Richard Willson, chair of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Cal Poly Pomona.

“Cities that are late to the party are going to have to differentiate themselves,” Willson said. Ideally, he said, downtown Ontario will have a theme, whether it be architectural, cultural or something else, that sets the district apart from other cities and from places like Victoria Gardens, an “instant downtown” in nearby Rancho Cucamonga.

Willson endorsed Ontario’s move to bring large numbers of new residents to downtown, because those residents can help a district weather retail trends that may cause an area to lose favor with visitors.

Kroutil said the city wants to build on its historic assets, while also completing a downtown that, although old, was never really finished. The Snyder and Related projects will bring structures as tall as 60 feet right to the sidewalk, while also providing wide sidewalks and new public spaces.

“Although the infrastructure, and the city blocks and the mature trees are in place, downtown Ontario never achieved a level of urbanity. There is still a lot of room,” Kroutil said.

Otto Kroutil, City of Ontario, (909) 395-2024.
Jerry Snyder, J.H. Snyder Company, (323) 857-5546.
Richard Willson, Cal Poly Pomona Department of Urban and Regional Planning, (909) 869-2701.