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Porterville Revitalizes Orange Avenue Neighborhood

In the mid-1990s, the City of Porterville was searching for solutions to the problems in its Orange Avenue area. The avenue, a gateway to the city’s downtown area, had become known for drugs, crime and vagrants. Its infrastructure was substandard, with crumbling sidewalks and no traffic signals to help pedestrians cross the street. Decaying buildings dotted the area. Orange Avenue was desperately in need of repair. 

Looking for a creative way to breathe social and economic life into the area, Porterville pooled funding from at least 13 different local, state, federal and private sources.
Upgrading the Neighborhood
Converting Orange Avenue to a four-lane arterial street was one of the first steps in dealing with vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Construction began in 2004 and was completed in 2005. The upgrades included new curbs, gutters and sidewalks, with an attractive median island. Nostalgic-style street lighting and traffic signals were designed and installed, along with a traffic signal at the entrance to the city’s planned new community center.
Work on the community center began in 1994 when the city started setting aside Community Development Block Grant funds for the project. Public meetings were held in 1995 and 1996 to determine sites and program requirements for the community center, which would meet the needs of the area and provide activities for at-risk youth. The Orange Avenue site was selected in 1997 because it was located on an existing transportation route, had good traffic circulation and high community visibility. However, this location was also being sought by the Porterville Unified School District (PUSD) for its new Santa Fe Elementary School. Discussions with PUSD resulted in a partnership to develop the site jointly and share facilities, which would provide each partner with enhanced services. Porterville was awarded a $3.8 million Section 108 loan from the Department of Housing and Urban Development for the project, which was named the Heritage Community Center.
Meanwhile, elderberry shrubs on the site were providing habitat for the endangered Valley Elderberry Longhorn Beetle. Obtaining approvals from U.S. Fish andWildlife Services to move the shrubs to a mitigation site took more than two years and cost $300,000. Clearances from the Army Corps of Engineers were also needed to cover a slough that traverses the property, which required one year and $50,000. Despite these challenges and setbacks, construction of the center was completed in 2006.
Transforming a Bleak Subdivision
Just a few blocks from Orange Avenue stood Casas Del Rio, a failed 118-unit subdivision that once held the promise of affordable housing. After 20 years of unsuccessful efforts, the owner-developer had defaulted on the loan and was in bankruptcy. The 26 owner-occupants were burdened with a master water meter for the entire subdivision, which required one person to go door to door every month to collect for the water bill. Referred to as the “Iron Wall Subdivision” because of an unsightly iron fence that surrounded the development, Casas Del Rio had become a blighted area.  
In 2002, the Porterville Redevelopment Agency was awarded a $1.5 million loan from the California Housing Finance Agency’s HELP program to acquire and develop the subdivision. A development and disposition agreement was initiated with a developer, and in 2004, construction was under way.
The first activity was to retrofit the homes with water meters. The subdivision’s name was changed by the residents to Casas Buena Vista to facilitate marketing without the negative connotation of the original name. The next action was undertaken by a group of volunteers consisting of city council members, city employees, church youth, existing homeowners and representatives of the developer, lender and title companies. The volunteers provided about 250 hours of labor to paint the metal fence and clean up debris. To compensate for the reduced lot sizes, a common area was constructed to provide open space and a recreation area for the residents.
Improvements for Youth and the Entire Community
These revitalization projects have generated significant results. The Orange Avenue reconstruction has facilitated a better connection between residents and neighborhood amenities. The improvements also created an attractive and welcoming street for those entering the city’s downtown area. School children can safely walk to school, and area youth and families visit the Heritage Community Center.
Since moving from a much smaller building with no yard space in its original, less desirable location, the community center has seen an increase in the number of youth who utilize the facility. Daily attendance at the youth center has increased more than 50 percent, with a marked rise in girls’ participation. Activities provided at the center encourage youth involvement in community service projects. Gang colors are not allowed, and the variety of activities keeps kids active and gives them a healthy alternative to gang involvement. Field trips provide education to expand youths’ cultural knowledge.
Casas Buena Vista has been successful with homes occupied by low-income homeowners, many of them farmworker families who are excited about owning a home (made possible with assistance from the city and redevelopment agency). All the homes have affordability covenants for low-income families for years to come. Property values in the area have risen; the price of homes in the subdivisionrose from $89,900 in the first phase to $159,000 in the final phase. The completed and anticipated projects in this neighborhood represent an investment of more than $30 million in public and private funds.
Replacing the barren land that was once filled with garbage and weeds are the new Santa Fe Elementary School and Heritage Community Center. The Casas Buena Vista common area provides a safe haven for children to play, and the subdivision is now teeming with activity each weekday morning as homeowners leave for work and parents ready their children for school. Summing up the efforts made to date, Maria Gonzalez, the resident who used to collect the money for the water bill, said, “It’s like a miracle for us.   I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Contact: Linda Wammack, development associate, Community Development Department; phone: (559) 782-7460; e-mail: lwammack@ci.porterville.ca.us.