Old Town business owners criticize Front Street closure plan

The Temecula City Council is set to re-examine the plan at Tuesday's meeting

Old Town Front Street, Temecula. Valley News/Jeff Pack photo

Business owners in Old Town Temecula are speaking out about the city of Temecula’s plan to turn Old Town Front Street into a pedestrian paseo and allow eateries to move seating into the public right-of-way amid pandemic-related restrictions on indoor dining.

The Temecula City Council first approved the plan on June 9. Originally, the plan called for Front Street to be closed between Second and Sixth streets beginning Wednesday, June 17. Fourth and Fifth streets were also intended to be closed between Mercedes Street and the Murrieta Creek.

However, facing negative feedback from some business owners in the northern area of Old Town, city staff did not move forward with the closure on the original date, and revised the street closure plan to a smaller area.

Temecula Community Services Director Luke Watson told the city council at its next meeting two weeks later on June 23 that businesses found they did not enough time to prepare, and that many businesses north of Fourth Street, as well as some from other areas, expressed that they did not seek to participate.

“They expressed a number of different concerns, including parking, they expressed the idea that the closure will deter visitors from coming into Old Town, there will be no ability to pick up and drop off purchases, cars going by is essential to their free marketing,” Watson said.

Starting June 24, Front Street was closed between Second and Fourth streets, with two dirt lots near Temecula City Hall being used as extra parking to make up for street parking lost on Front Street.

But even the revised plan went too far for some business owners, who claim they have seen declines in revenue since the street closure has gone into effect, coming just after the lifting of some public health orders allowed them to reopen their businesses.

Many of the negatively impacted businesses are antique shops and other types of stores that won’t benefit from the plan in the way restaurants will, as the closure plan was intended to help restaurants increase capacity while adhering to health restrictions. But even some restaurant owners were critical.

“It’s basically just put a chokehold on us, closing the street at the worst possible time,” said Randy Routon, owner of the Swing Inn Café at the corner of Front and Third streets — one of the oldest eateries in Old Town. “When we were allowed to open back up on June 1 we were doing really well. We were coming back strong. Since Wednesday (June 24) when they closed the street, our business is down 40%.”

Routon criticized the city’s communication with business owners in Old Town, saying he found out about the closure plan from a city worker who was putting up a sign regarding the closure.

He said he did attend an impromptu meeting with the city at Mad Madeline’s Grill after he became aware of the closure.

“We were scrambling to get them to realize this is not a time for an experiment on someone’s livelihood,” Routon said.

He said his business has set up tables in their parking lot, and he prefers that solution over closing Front Street to vehicle traffic.

Dolores Sargeant, who owns Temecula Souvenirs with her husband, said their business was just picking up when the street closure went into effect. Since then, she said they have lost “30 to 40%” of their revenue.

“We had been open for three weeks and we were doing fine, we were happy with it, my employees were working, i could pay them,” Sargeant said. “But then with the street closure, this is unbelievable. This is closing down our businesses so that you can have the bars open.”

At least one bar owner was even opposed to the closure plan, though. Kelly Cusack, owner of rooftop bar Luke’s on Front, said her business has dropped by half since the start of the closure.

“Not only am I down 50%, customers say they’re not gonna come into Old Town,” Cusack said. “They’d rather go to the mall and wait an hour than deal with our (closure).”

Michael Kavanagh, owner of Front Street Salon, said she had a customer directly tell her he would not come back while the Front Street closure was in effect.

“He said ‘I wont be returning to your salon because I don’t want to deal with road closures,” Kavanagh told Valley News.

She said she was unhappy with the city’s efforts at outreach as well.

When the closure plan was first announced by the city council, Watson, the community services director, said he had met with business owners at community meetings. But Kavanagh said she never knew anything.

“I found out nothing, the only way I found out about it was one of my stylists sent me a screenshot saying they were closing these roads,” Kavanagh said.

“I totally understand why it needs to happen and I want the restaurants to survive. But most of these businesses, and the souvenir shops, we make our money during the day and most of these restaurants are in the evenings.”

While the opposition to the plan was widespread, it was not completely universal.

Ricky Leigh, owner of 1909 Fluids and Fare, said he hasn’t heard any negativity from customers, though, and in fact now that indoor dining has again been restricted due to an increase in coronavirus cases in Riverside County, he’s depending on the current street closure plan or a revised one to allow his business to remain open.

“(Business) is roughly the same, and it’s still down a little bit, but if they completely remove the street seating, it will basically cut our business in half,” Leigh said. “I mean, we have 120 employes at 1909, and if it’s half the business, it’s gonna be half the staff.”

He said if there is no street closure plan, he will have to lay off some of his workers.

“I think really, to me, that’s the biggest thing, is there is no mathematical way to support that many people” without being allowed to expand into the street, Leigh said.

The Temecula City Council is set to re-examine the street closure plan at its next meeting on Tuesday, July 14, and provide general direction to city staff on whether the plan should be amended after hearing feedback from business owners.

“Staff will be presenting options to the City Council tomorrow night that include both the a continuation of the current street closure configuration and an option to reopen Old Town Front Street but continue to allow for outdoor dining and retail,” Watson, the Temecula community services director, said in an email to Valley News. “Because the Council has not yet seen the entirety of the proposed options it would be more appropriate for Staff to wait until the City Council meeting to provide further details.”

Will Fritz can be reached by email at wfritz@reedermedia.com.