Discovering the real San Dimas

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San Dimas Mansion, restored after $12 million, the crown jewel of the city.

IT was a dumb flick, and the only reason I was sitting in a screening room watching “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” in 1989 with then-Mayor Terry Dipple was because the movie was set in San Dimas and I needed a column.

Today, many still remember that column. More recall the movie, which became a cult classic. Twenty-one years later, art has a way of imitating life. The theme of the foothill city’s 50th anniversary celebration last weekend was “San Dimas: An Excellent Adventure.”

While the film featured Keanu Reeves as a dim-witted time-traveler trying to save the city from destruction, any connection to real life was bogus. The name was chosen by the filmmaker at random. Not a single scene was shot in the city.

I thought I’d catch you up on the real city’s history, so I did some windshield traveling with Denis Bertone Wednesday afternoon.

From the 210 Freeway, I exited at San Dimas Road. The yellow foothills knelt close to the freeway; the distant oaks scattered like green polka dots. Driving south, time slowed down. I passed an equestrian stable, Craftsman homes a Baptist church built in 1896 and the city’s crown jewel, the Walker House.

The mini-valley that is San Dimas was discovered by white folk in 1826, when Jedediah Smith rolled his wagon into what was then called Mud Springs. There’s a statue of him next to City Hall called “A Welcome Sight.” The Chamber of Commerce is 98 years old. Bonita Avenue looks like a Western set with wooden walkways. Incorporation happened in 1960.

“San Dimas is like a lot of cities around here,” Bertone said. “We are a small town, yet we are surrounded by 10 million people. You’re part of that 10 million but you are in the country … it is kind of an illusion.

The city leaders created that illusion through hard work and excellent management – from the City Council to the staff, including Bob Poff, the former city manager, and Blaine Michaelis, the current city manager. The council always voted for preservation of historic buildings and natural hillsides. The most courageous vote was 3-2 to buy the Walker House more than a decade ago. Last year, the $12 million restoration was opened to the public, complete with a new white-tablecloth restaurant, Saffron. Upstairs is home to the Festival of Arts (catch its next show Oct. 15) and the historical society. “We want this place to be used,” emphasized Bertone, who’s been on the City Council for 22 years – nearly half the existence of the city.

My main question was: What is the recipe for success for San Dimas?

Bertone said it’s convincing businesses, new and old, they can make it. Less than two years ago, the city brought in a Costco after the redevelopment agency worked for years buying up property, homes and other businesses to prepare the site.

“The city of San Dimas has no car dealerships. When they went south, cities like Glendora and El Monte suffered the most. Our sales-tax revenues went down but not by so much … we weren’t relying on that. It was a saving grace,” he explained.

The city is still trying to convince restaurants to move in. But its budget is in the black, something not too many cities can say today. “The thing to do for a healthy city is to diversify. Don’t rely on one type of business for sales tax,” he said.

The other part of this city’s success is preservation. With the help of the Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, it’s getting ready to open 60 acres of significant ecological lands adjacent to Walnut Creek Wilderness Park.

Bertone knows a lot about keeping parks green. He formed the Coalition to Preserve Bonelli Park back in the 1980s, which successfully fought back a Pete Schabarum plan to build hotels and “chalets” in the county regional park located within the city. Later, the group stopped expansion of Raging Waters.

As we drove west on Bonita he saw a Chevron station and said: “The city would like to buy that gas station next to the Walker House for a park … how fantastic would that be?”

The “excellent adventure” continues.

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The new Costco in San Dimas, creation of the city redevelopment agency.

Monrovia Old Town moves ahead of Old Pas in downtown race

PAPER or plastic?
Szechuan or Cantonese?
Old Pasadena or Old Town Monrovia?

When choosing where to go for a night out in the San Gabriel Valley, Old Pas and Old Town Monrovia are on a level playing field. And for the hometown crowd, Monrovia may now have the edge.

Shocked? Don’t be.

For locals — and I mean those who live in our Valley or even in the Whittier area — and drive to either downtown, yes, what New York City residents call “the bridge and tunnel crowd,” few trek to Old Pasadena anymore for a night on the town.
Even after a metamorphosis that included the restoration of old buildings and infiltration of fancy new stores and restaurants, it became so successful that it’s the No. 1 hot spot for Los Angeles and South Bay teenagers and twentysomethings out on a date or after a rave.

Hometowners, especially Pasadenans, dismiss Old Pasadena as a place choked with chain stores such as the Gap and J. Crew and chain restaurants with mediocre food but nonetheless jammed with hungry tourists (Cheesecake Factory, Melting Pot, Buca di Beppo, the list goes on and on.) Part of that is their lament from losing what they remember as old, Old Pasadena — locally owned restaurants and service shops. I used to go there in the mid-80s with my Orange County friends who were aghast at stepping around the occasional napping homeless resident. My wife and I loved to eat tacos at Ernie’s, catch a movie at the AMC-Old Pasadena 8 at Colorado and DeLacey and pick up a chocolate bagel at Goldstein’s (all three long gone).

But lately, like thousands of other Valleyites, nine times out of 10 we choose Old Town Monrovia. Granted, it doesn’t have the panache of Old Pasadena (no Norton Simon Museum) but for the sheer experience, it has arrived. True disclosure: We lived in Monrovia for 14 years and cheered its own transformation from down-and-out burb to thriving, renaissance town. But without getting into all those vulgar things called facts, let’s just say Monrovia’s revamped downtown is a fetching lure, no longer a stepsister to the Rose City.

We prefer Monrovia’s family atmosphere, free parking and Family Festival on Friday nights to Old Pasadena’s urban pedestrian mall, trendy bars and expensive garage parking.

While some have come and gone, my wife and I can still patronize long-time independent restaurants such as Mondial, Cafe Opera, Rudy’s and even the oldie-but-goodie The Monrovian. New places such as T. Phillips and the London Pub have upped the ante. Nikki C’s from Rosemead Boulevard is set to open a restaurant on Myrtle. And Chang Thai Bistro — located where Sweet Garlic Thai once was before it moved to eastern Pasadena where it became Daisy Mint — is our new haunt.

That’s not to say we don’t get curious about the Old Pasadena landscape. On Saturday night, we walked down memory lane. We married with the date crowd and ate pasta carbonara at Mi Piace, then checked out the new Intelligentsia Coffee with the funky glass coffee pots. As Ann Erdman, Pasadena’s information officer would say, “So much stays the same and yet so much turns over that it can be new each time you go.”
In truth, having both downtowns so close is one of the best things about living in the San Gabriel Valley (or as my wife who grew up in Huntington Beach puts it, “so far from the ocean.”)

But before every older city tries to become the next Old Pasadena, goals I’ve heard over and over at election time, cities must examine what I didn’t have time to do in this column: the facts. Like, both city’s commitment to historic preservation, to a vision, and to using redevelopment tools and federal grants to spur private investment. Each city helped build dense housing in or near downtown to create a steady flow of customers. And both made sure parking was adequate, if not plentiful.
Monrovia is a blueprint for how to revive your small downtown. Which city is the next to try it?

Can referendum reverse Azusa mining?

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Jim Gore, Vulcan Matericals Co’s manager of permitting and governmental affairs, points out how new “microbenching” techniques will lessen the damage to the mined slopes during a tour on Sept. 29.

As people from Save Our Canyon gather signatures for a referendum outside the Azusa Post Office (see article from Pasadena Star-News), the question remains: Will it reverse all the actions of the City Council?

Some say if a measure is put on the ballot (a big if) and if it passes, it will only negate the monetary aspect of the deal the city made with Vulcan and will not invalidate the mining permit. The City Council voted 4-1 to give Vulcan permission to mine the western portion of the canyon for aggregate. This lies closer to Duarte and further from most Azusa residents.

Most likely, this kind of referendum, whereby voters make a law or in this case, reverse a city council action, will have to be interpreted by the courts. In other words, if the anti-mining plan folks gather enough valid signatures, and if it appears on a future Azusa ballot, and it if passes, it could be overturned by a judge or a court.

Sound familiar?

This sounds very much like the approval of Proposition 8, a ban on same-sex marriages, by California voters, which has since been overturned by a federal court judge.

Don’t miss the overarching issue: Direct democracy — in which people go to the polls and make a law or change the constitution — is subject to the court’s interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. Why? Because the Constitution doesn’t contain provisions in which people directly vote and make a law. That power is reserved for the legislature, which in the case of the United States, falls to the Congress. The voters vote for members of Congress and they make the laws.

Thus, when people say “my vote doesn’t count” or “a judge can’t overturn a vote of the people” they are mixing apples and oranges. Direct democracy is a vestage of California law, not U.S. law. It was brought about by Gov. Hiram Johnson to give people more power — the power to make laws. Or in the case of Azusa, to throw out a law using a referendum. It is a weighty power that is not present in the Constitution and missing from most states.

By the way, didn’t Azusa voters directly vote out a housing tract, the one that was installed by the Council as Rosedale I? And I can recall Glendora voters using referenda power to reverse actions of the city council. It will be interesting to see if Azusa residents can do this to Vulcan. Stay tuned.