Smart Growth Illustrated
Downtown Brea, Brea, California
In the 1980s, the city of Brea, in Orange County southeast of Los Angeles, was faced with a serious decline and abandonment of its downtown. It responded by working with its citizens and developers to envision and build a dynamic mixed-use town center that has redefined the city and made it one of Southern California's great walkable shopping and entertainment destinations with a variety of housing choices. As much of the existing downtown contained poor quality buildings, Brea could not use historic preservation to rebuild the area. Instead the city acquired 60 acres of the city center and removed blighted buildings, relocated business to appropriate locations, and remade downtown as the heart and soul of Brea.
To create a sense of place in downtown, Brea used walkable design, mixed land uses, provided housing choices, and took advantage of historic design elements. The former downtown area was centered on Brea Boulevard, a wide, auto-oriented street that discouraged walking. The new downtown is centered on the narrow, two-lane, pedestrian-friendly Birch Street, which is perpendicular to Brea Boulevard. On-street parallel parking, curb bulb-outs that shorten crosswalks, and mid-street crosswalks calm the traffic on Birch Street. Wide sidewalks accommodate streetside dining, and buildings are built to the lot line and oriented toward the street. The city built two structured parking garages, which can handle around 2,000 cars, behind the street-oriented buildings. This allows people to drive downtown, then get out of their cars and stroll.
The downtown consists of approximately 350,000 square feet of commercial space, 19,000 square feet of office space, a 22-screen theater, 20 restaurants, a comedy club, live music clubs, 62 loft apartments, 40 town homes, and 96 garden-style single-family homes. The theater was separated into two buildings to reduce the size of the buildings, and smaller stores surround the large buildings to create a varied and interesting streetscape. The city and principal developer CIM Group agreed to use four different architects to design the buildings on Birch Street. As a result, the street looks like it was developed over a long period of time, giving it more of an urban feel.
One of the more creative concepts included in the downtown was the Ash Street Cottages, 96 single-family homes built at 10 units per acre with a 1/2-acre community park. This small-lot development has influenced many similar compact projects throughout the region by incorporating porches and walkways that create a neighborhood feel. The loft apartments and three-story town homes have influenced local development trends toward community-oriented design. Brea's Redevelopment Agency has helped spread the downtown plan to adjacent developments, creating a total of 250 new homes within one mile of the downtown core. Seventy-five of those new units are reserved for low- and moderate-income households under the city's affordable housing program.
The city has also restored two historical icons. The "Welcome to Brea" sign that used hang over Brea Boulevard before it was widened is now over Birch Street, and "Charlie's Clock," which used to be in front of an old watch and clock repair shop, once again welcomes shoppers to downtown. Further redevelopment of the downtown area will include the renovation of the old City Hall and the American Legion Building. The recently adopted general plan encourages additional compact, mixed-use development to support downtown development.
The success of Brea's downtown can be measured by its active, 24-hour pedestrian scene and festive atmosphere. In 2001, the project won the California Redevelopment Association's Award of Excellence in Community Revitalization. The California Downtown Association also honored Brea with its Crystal Eagle Award for Physical Improvement, and the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials recognized the project in 2001 with its Agency Award for excellence in Program Innovation-Community Revitalization.
The success of Brea's downtown depended on effective, innovative city government; gaining and using citizen input through the "Brea by Design" workshops; and working with experienced urban developers.