Pondering Park Avenue
Businesses and neighbors will help decide future of gateway arterial
The tasty croissant sandwiches and creamy-thick smoothies at Valerie’s Bakery & Deli comprise vastly different fare than the working man’s, bacon-and-eggs breakfasts at the Busy Bee diner, which had occupied 1144 Park Ave. for decades.
When the Bee closed, neighbors worried that they were losing their favorite place to chat and take a break from the day. Not so. The joint’s still hopping, just different.
Their welcome was warm, Park Avenue-style, says Valerie Irlmeier, who last June opened the restaurant with her mother, Patricia Cloud. The pair came from Corning and looked all around Chico before settling on their new home next door to Gates Resale. Recently, Irlmeier herself moved into a rental home two blocks away.
Park Avenue, insist those who love it, is a neighborhood with a character all its own. Auto repair shops are at home alongside home-design showrooms; a taco shop sits next to a coin shop. From antique stores to the dinner favorite Kramore Inn to a residential motel, on Park Avenue, Chicoans know, it’s all good.
Park Avenue is a street that led horse-drawn carriages into Chico a century ago and later carried shoppers and schoolchildren from downtown to then-remote Park Avenue via trolley.
Today (Thursday, March 29), businesspeople and residents are invited to attend a meeting to participate in what’s being called the Park Avenue Visioning Study. It will define the future of the historic street and the neighborhood as a whole.
Tom Hayes, the senior city planner who is coordinating the meeting, predicts that Park Avenue will continue to change and evolve, especially as land values go up and properties convert to other uses.
The city and county, via Redevelopment Agency funds, already kicked down $2.4 million in 1997 to create medians, plant trees, add sidewalks and place benches along Park Avenue, plus another $1.5 million for East Park Avenue and part of the Midway. An art project—an abstract, sculptured rendition of a man with a plow—has already been selected and will be placed on Park Avenue.
The revitalization of “inner-ring transit corridors” such as Park Avenue, Hayes said, is a goal outlined in the city’s General Plan. The city wants the community to help “develop a greater sense of mixed use in there” and at the same time aims to improve the public transit system. Commercial and residential could co-mingle in an even-friendlier way, Hayes says.
The consulting firm—Design, Community and Environment of Berkeley—has even made up a map of the neighborhood with little boxes where new businesses and other projects could go. The vacant properties are called “opportunity sites.” The art enclave that exists by Orient & Flume could be expanded, and other improvements could be made, perhaps through partnerships between the city and property owners and developers.
Nothing’s set in stone, Hayes was quick to point out. Thursday night’s meeting will be about neighbors getting together in small groups, scribbling all over those maps, and brainstorming to “try to come up with a long-term idea of what strengths it has now,” plus what else they’d like to see. Hayes said the neighborhood doesn’t want to lose the “kind of a gritty, blue-collar feel,” but rather play off that character and add new things.
Larry Juanarena, who owns Pat ‘n’ Larry’s Steakhouse on Park Avenue at 20th Street, already has a jump start.
He and his buddy, retiree Ed Regan, have launched a fund-raising effort to add to the 10 flags they’ve already put up on the light poles along part of the street’s median. If donors come through—the all-weather flags, complete with holders and lights, are $100 a pop—Chico will become the “City of Flags,” Juanarena beams, with flags perching on posts all along Park Avenue (125 on that street alone), Bruce Road, Cohasset, The Esplanade, downtown Chico—all the main thoroughfares that introduce visitors to Chico.
Juanarena has been in business on Park Avenue for 17 years and said that part of town is “90 percent” better now. There are still a few old buildings in disrepair, he acknowledged, but they’re few and far between. There’s more pride than prejudice here.
“We’re doing our part to try to benefit [Park Avenue],” he said. “It’s going to be beautiful.”
Barbi Boeger, owner of the Wild Hare Saloon, defeated City Council candidate and de facto Park Avenue booster, agrees that the neighborhood is great and getting better all the time.
Boeger believes the city and Chamber of Commerce neglected Park Avenue for years, but she sees that changing.
“Our vacancy factor is nil and none,” she maintained. “They’re starting to address the real eyesores, because the [few that are left] are really standing out; people are improving their properties. … I think the look is a lot better.”
The Jesus Center, the homeless services center that had met with much neighborhood opposition before it was opened in the old Ice House building, and even more so in its previous Park Avenue location, monitors its clients’ activities in the area. Boeger said the homeless people are rarely bothersome, and most neighbors now recognize that there is a need for the center.
“Everything’s good out here. Park Avenue’s really shaping up,” she said. “I think we’re flourishing. The RDA money was well spent. I’m thrilled. … They’re paying attention to us out here.”
Doyle and Nina Gregory, who run Park Village True Value Hardware, were enjoying their lunch break at Valerie’s. The 49-year-old store has been in that location since 1988, and it’s seen its troubles, with homeless people panhandling in the parking lot and so on.
Doyle Gregory said the homeless factor, like everything else about Park Avenue, is getting better but has room for improvement. “A lot of it has been alleviated,” he said.
“The redevelopment funds have been put to use to some degree, but I think they could do better,” he said. Vacant buildings could be renovated, and while it was great that the city put in vegetation, it’s not being maintained that well, Gregory said.
He’s like to see a neighborhood market return to Park Avenue, but in sum, "any improvement, [from] development to modernization of the area, would be great."