Temecula officials have taken the first step to buy a small block of land in Old Town that would connect a pair of popular city venues.
The deal, if it is consummated through the escrow process, will cost the city more than $1.4 million. The ultimate use of the two adjoining lots, which together total about quarter acre, has not been formally contemplated.
“This is truly a strategic property acquisition,” Kevin Hawkins, city community services director, said in a telephone interview. “It was an opportunity, and we’re moving on it.”
The two lots flank the north side of Main Street between the city’s community theater and its children’s museum. The lots have been on and off the real estate market for years, and they are being sold to the city by a La Jolla-based trust.
The rectangular-shaped parcel has been leased by businesses for more than a decade that sell outdoor sculptures and related products. The parcel contains an aging sales shed.
City Council members voted unanimously March 14 to spend $1.45 million to buy the land and enter an escrow process that could take up to six months to complete.
The council approved the deal without any discussion as part of its consent agenda. There was no public comment in advance of the council decision. The deal had previously been discussed by the council in closed session, which is allowed under California’s open meetings law.
The city will use surplus funds that it accumulated over the years to buy the land. It will be the city’s first purchase of land in Old Town in many years.
Closing the deal would bring another change in the historic business district, an area that has constantly reinvented itself since Temecula’s pioneer days.
Old Town anchored a vast agricultural area in the 1880s. It was a stagecoach and railroad hub for cattle ranches, farms and granite quarries that blanketed the region. But Old Town’s fortunes dipped after the 84,500-acre Vail Ranch was sold for development and Interstate 15 split the fast-growing community.
Residential and commercial growth shifted away from Old Town, and the aging buildings became the home of about 120 antique and collectible shops and other small businesses. It functioned as a sleepy retail enclave when Temecula coalesced as a city in December 1989.
Old Town languished until the city targeted it for a 1998 facelift that came after a developer’s plan to build a Western-theme entertainment venue fizzled there.
The 1998 facelift cost $5.5 million, and the city was intimately involved with its contractor during the improvements that included wooden sidewalks, new street lights and decorative arches.
That facelift was funded by redevelopment revenues, an income source that was tapped to help build an array of city Old Town projects that included an $11 million community theater and a $3.2 million children’s museum.
City officials have long contended that the community theater, the museums, wooden sidewalks and other public projects have served as magnets to private development.
Old Town’s most visible structure is a $93-million civic center complex which opened in December 2010 at an intersection flanking I-15. That price tag included purchasing land and constructing a Spanish-style City Hall, a conference room, police satellite office, parking garage, visitors’ center and an outdoor amphitheater.
The 95,500-square-foot municipal complex and its connected parking structure anchor about five acres that the city cobbled together at a cost of more than $4 million.
Temecula officials have repeatedly praised Old Town’s turnaround, saying public spending on buildings and other amenities helped spur more than $1.6 billion in private investment over the past 25 years.
That private investment has sprouted specialty restaurants, bars, clothing and food shops and other business that dot various storefront locations.
The growth spurts triggered the need for a $13 million sewer line improvement project in Old Town that stretched over much of 2015 and 2016. The city also spent more than $5 million to replace the aging Main Street span across Murrieta Creek.
Dozens of special events are held annually at the civic center and various Old Town locations. In some years, especially during sunny weekends, the Rod Run vintage car show attracts more than 70,000 visitors to Old Town streets. Hawkins said the recent Rod Run has been described as the most successful ever.
The Rod Run and many Old Town gatherings unfold directly in front of the 7,400-square-foot parcel the city hopes to purchase.
In comparison, the city’s children museum blankets 7,500 square feet. It is adjacent to Murrieta Creek and the Main Street Bridge. The children’s museum attracts about 40,000 visitors a year, Hawkins said.
To the east of the targeted parcel, the city’s community theater complex is comprised of three buildings. It attracts about 65,000 users a year, he said.
The 8,600-square-foot Mercantile Building is a historic structure that flanks Main Street and contains a ticket booth, an art gallery and an intimate stage. The 47,000-square-foot theater seats about 330 patrons. A courtyard contains restrooms and a concessions stand.
“There’s a lot of activity in that neighborhood,” Hawkins noted.
Hawkins said the city has not begun to the process to determine any future uses of the targeted parcel. He said short-term uses could be considered as a permanent plan unfolds. The focus now is simply sealing the deal and acquiring the piece, he said.
He said Temecula citizens and commission and council members will all have a role in charting the property’s future.
“I’m just excited about the possibilities,” he said.