“We still have these lots empty from the buildings that were torn down and weren’t replaced,” said Langan, who remains a co-owner of the building that housed his former store. He and others point to the empty lots, such as the one on Greenleaf next to the Havana House, the grassy area in front of the parking structure or the parking lot on Philadelphia Street and Bright Avenue. There remains hope for the Uptown area, some say. Rents are increasing and a new plan to renovate the area is now being reviewed by the Planning Commission. “In the last year and a half, with the specific plan and improved events, we’re turning it around,” said Larry Trujillo, executive director of the Whittier Uptown Association. “We still need to clean it up and work on infrastructure so better businesses can come in,” he said. The last 20 years haven’t been easy for the Uptown area, which until the earthquake seemed to be progressing well after the losses of car dealers on Greenleaf Avenue as well as JC Penney and other major stores during the 1960s and 1970s. “It was definitely pretty vibrant,” Councilman Bob Henderson recalled. “There were a lot of little local businesses unique to Whittier and they were flourishing.” Then at 7:42 p.m. Oct. 1, 1987, the Whittier Narrows Earthquake hit, leaving bricks, broken glass and other debris at the core of the Uptown area on Greenleaf Avenue and Philadelphia Street. Eighteen buildings eventually would be demolished. Damage was estimated at $80 million. Initially, many of the small business owners would operate out of 25 trailers set up on the now-empty lots. Langan’s building survived, but he lost $50,000 in inventory. But many of the business owners wouldn’t come back. “People had the stigma of it and for years didn’t want to come back,” Langan said. “It reminded them of that horrible day.” Others were struggling before the earthquake and with this disaster didn’t have the resources to continue, he said. After the quake, the city came in with a plan for the rebuilding of the Uptown area. There were some successes – a new theater replaced the adult theater, and some new restaurants like Crepes and Grapes Cafe, Phlight and Starbucks opened. But unlike the rest of the city, retail struggled. Part of the difference was that a resident or even a developer outside of Uptown could come in a with a plan to demolish the existing building and expand. But that wasn’t true in Uptown, said Helvey, the city manger. “You can’t tear an old building and construct a new one like you can on a home remodel,” Helvey said. You also can’t convert a second floor to condos because there’s no parking, he said. There were other problems, said Kim Wicker, co-owner of Monte’s Camera Shop that has been in existence since 1948. Wicker has been involved with it since the late 1970s. “We needed hard-core specialty stores and a couple of anchors,” Wicker said. Part of the problem were the new big-box retail stores that began to emerge during the 1990s, Wicker said. And they weren’t interested in coming to the Uptown area. “I hear people say that Uptown Whittier isn’t close to the freeway,” he said. The former Bank of America building also has been a problem, with three nightclubs either failing or the last one – Ibiza – being kicked out by the city. “I would be very reluctant to see a nightclub there,” Henderson said. “We never wanted any nightclubs but were told it would be a dining establishment. That hasn’t worked out.” It was a difficult situation for the city, Trujillo said. “The choices weren’t easy,” he said. “Do you tear down and start a whole new Uptown area or do you work with what’s left? We’re finally starting to head in that direction.” Two decades later there is reason for optimism. “Uptown is definitely improving,” Langan said. “The rents and leases have really gone up in the last few years and encouraged builders to look at new buildings.” The specific plan also gives reason for hope, some say. It has a new code that is expected to make it easier to attract developers. The concept also focuses on new housing. “This whole concept of bringing homeowners into the Uptown area really makes a lot of sense,” Henderson said. And more residents will mean a larger market for the retail owners, officials say. Still, as bad as the earthquake was, there were some positives from it, Councilman Greg Nordbak said. “It really helped us progress in the quality of design standards,” Nordbak said. “We don’t throw in strip malls any more,” Nordbak said. “We’re not taking in houses that were destroyed and putting in apartments. In a sense we were hurt in the short run and helped in the long run.” [email protected] (562) 698-0955, Ext. 3022 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! You’ve got the Uptown area, which still is struggling, as shown by the empty lots never rebuilt on after the magnitude-5.9 earthquake hit on Oct. 1, 1987. Some buildings that crumbled that day were cleared away, but nothing has replaced them. Then, you’ve got residential areas where many are rebuilding or remodeling to make their homes larger and nicer. There is no sign of the 100 chimneys that tumbled or the 17 homes that were destroyed. And Whittier Boulevard has two remodeled shopping centers and a new one. “(Whittier) has actually continued to improve since the earthquake,” City Manager Steve Helvey said. “We’ve seen a landslide of significant home remodels and reinvestment in our residential areas,” Helvey said. “It’s hard not to drive down a street and not see a home being torn down and being rebuilt.” Commercial development has been slower – in part because of lack of available land. Still, two shopping centers – the Quad and Whittier Town Center, formerly Whittwood Mall – have been completely remodeled. A third – the Whittier Marketplace – opened after the earthquake. You can’t say that about the Uptown area, according to city and business leaders. “(The earthquake) just about destroyed Uptown,” said Jeff Langan, longtime owner of the former Whittier Paint, Wallpaper and Art Co. “There was so much damage that it virtually destroyed the character of the town.
Perry Groves and Bob Mills were alongside Colin Murray in the studio on today’s show. They were joined by former Aston Villa and Leicester man Graham Fenton.