Freeway project nets Temecula a temporary recreation center

In less than a year, Temecula quietly converted a shuttered warehouse into a bustling community center where science, singing, dancing, drawing and drama are taught and practiced.

An initial smattering of classes and other offerings quickly mushroomed to 15 for the current session at the Jefferson Recreation Center. But, at the same time, city officials are cautioning residents against falling in love with the 17,342-square-foot industrial building that hugs the city’s northern boundary at 41375 McCabe Court.

That’s because the building will, possibly in as soon as three to five years, be reduced to rubble.

“It really has opened up an opportunity for us that we didn’t have before,” said Julie Pelletier, the city’s recreation supervisor. “We definitely know there’s a need for it as long as it’s available.”

That window of availability, according to Pelletier and other city officials, will depend on when the property is needed to finish a $200 million freeway interchange. The first phase of the work, a $28 million exit ramp on Interstate 15, recently opened to southbound drivers.

The new recreation center, the third to open in the fast-growing city, sits alongside the sloping, curved exit ramp. Dirt, concrete and steel are expected to eventually blanket the 1.1-acre property purchased by city. That will happen when the entire web of 11 bridges, ramps and roads finally blankets the area.

“When the (future) project comes along, the building will have to go,” said Amer Attar, the city’s principal engineer. “It’s really hard for us to determine how long (the building) will stay like that. It took us 14 years to do the first phase of the interchange project.”

Like its two other counterparts, the Jefferson Recreation Center came about in an unusual way. A fourth center, which will also fill an existing building, shall boast an equally unique genesis.

When Temecula was a sleepy outpost in the late 1970s and early 1980s, volunteers donated time, labor and materials to cobble together the area’s first sports park. Much of the push came from workers or associates of the development company that had crafted a master plan for the sprawling community that recently had been split by a freeway.

The company planned to call the new community “Rancho California.” The facility flanking Rancho Vista and Margarita roads was named Rancho California Sports Park.

In a 1983 speech before the U.S. Olympic Committee in Los Angeles, President Ronald Reagan cited the folks in the small town of Temecula as an example of America’s “can do” spirit. Reagan told how residents there had gathered together to build themselves a sports park without government funding. They did so, he noted, by holding fundraising barbecues and dinners and by donating their time, materials, equipment and labor.

But despite that grassroots involvement, the fast-growing community grappled with vexing traffic jams and what recreation enthusiasts characterized as a severe shortage of parks, pools, gyms and other public amenities.

Temecula had few public assets when it became a city in December 1989. The new city, which had about 28,000 residents upon incorporation, leased office space for its employees. The sports park became a magnet for programs and, over time, a gymnasium and community center, an outdoor pool and performance stage and a skate park and an in-line hockey rink sprouted there

City council meetings were initially held in a facility owned by the Temecula Town Association, a nonprofit coalition of business and community leaders who sponsored community events and weighed in on key local issues. A key achievement of that group was to persuade voters to pick Temecula, its aboriginal Indian name, for the new city rather than Rancho California.

The fledgling city’s initial forays into the real estate market came during an economic slump that rippled through the state in the mid-1990s.

Temecula’s initial purchase, in July 1995, was a 29,500-square-foot office building west of Murrieta Creek that soon became the first permanent City Hall. The next real estate purchase came in February 1996, which was when the city bought the property owned by the beleaguered Town Association.

The group had suffered a series of financial setbacks, and it struggled to remain viable as members were siphoned away by newly-formed business, nonprofit and community groups. The city spent $421,643 to buy the group’s four-year-old center and its parking lot, restored train caboose and about two acres that flank Pujol Street.

That facility – which lacks a gym – was named the Temecula Community Center. The city later built a social services building on land south of the building and moved a historic house and barn onto the site for a related use as a food pantry.

The 37-year-old Temecula Town Association formally disbanded in February 2007.

About that time, on the 22nd anniversary of the date of Reagan’s speech, Temecula renamed the 128-acre facility along Rancho Vista Road as the Ronald Reagan Sports Park.

Reagan, a former actor, served as California’s 33rd governor from 1967 until 1975 and as America’s 40th president from 1981 until 1989. He died in June 2004 at age 93.

Last year, the city acquired a recreation-oriented building from a cash-strapped nonprofit organization.

The move came about four years after a Riverside-based YMCA chapter spent $4.8 million in 2009 to build and open a recreation center on land it leased from the city in the 2.2-acre Margarita Community Park.

That building lacked a gym and it was plagued with construction flaws from the start. Functional problems centering on the pool and other parts of the building surfaced as the center’s membership and financial support waned amid a gaping recession.

Temecula council members voted in November 2012, about the time the center closed, to declare that the YMCA had defaulted on its lease. Conditions of the city lease had called for the building to function solely as a recreational center.

The regional YMCA organization filed for bankruptcy protection a month later, which prompted Temecula to seek federal court approval to assume ownership of the mothballed recreation center. Confident of a favorable outcome, Temecula council members in June 2013 earmarked about $1.4 million to rehabilitate a building that the city didn’t yet own.

Temecula officials later said the building had been turned over to the city as part of a bankruptcy judgment. The acquisition was the first time in the city’s nearly 25-year history that it obtained a future public building at no cost.

At that time, they estimated that it would take about 1½ years to open the rehabilitated building and pool. Plans to repair and improve that facility are still being processed by the city.

The building’s specific future uses have not been identified, but steps have been taken to build an “inclusive” play area nearby for autistic and other physically or mentally disabled youth.

The Jefferson Recreation Center came about after Temecula staff realized that a warehouse it had purchased at a cost of $2.33 million would not be needed for the first phase of the French Valley interchange. They recommended shifting programs there that would be displaced when the aging Temecula Community Center was closed for repairs and renovations.

The city had closed escrow on the interchange property in August 2010. Temecula purchased the property from Mike Krupka, and it was the home of Basics Etc., a distributor of automotive accessory and supplies. Basics rented the property from the city until January 2013, records show. Basics moved less than a half mile away, and the company paid the city a total of $165,183 to rent the property for the interim following the sale.

The renovations at Temecula Community Center – which include adding an enclosed patio and additional windows – are expected to be completed by late July. Pelletier said the center will be welcomed back into the mix of operating facilities when that happens. But that center’s return to service doesn’t mean the city will mothball its McCabe Court counterpart.

She said the decision to continue using the Jefferson center was prompted, in part, by the enthusiastic response among residents and recreation instructors.

“We were very pleased,” Pelletier said.

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